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Anderson v. Save-A-Lot, Ltd

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Bernice Anderson made allegations of sexual harassment by Kenneth Bush, her immediate supervisor, while in the course of her employment for Save-A-Lot Foods. Anderson alleged suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression as a result of Bush’s sexual harassment and incurred medical expenses and lost wages due to her inability to work after the alleged incidents.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    If defendants prove no genuine issues of material fact and that they are entitled as a matter of law to a judgment, summary judgment is appropriate. The Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Law contains a two prong test for a plaintiff’s burden of proof, which must be met by the standard of preponderance of the evidence: “(1) the injury arose out of her employment; and (2) the injury occurred during the course of her employment.†Prong one is generally met if there is a “rational causal connection†to the work at issue and if it occurs when the employee is acting in the scope of employment. When reasonable doubt exists, the matter should be decided in favor of employee. For an employee to recover workers’ compensation for emotional injuries, it is required that the mental disorder be linked to an “identifiable, stressful, work-related event producing a sudden mental stimulus.â€

    Facts.

    Plaintiff is Bernice Anderson, employee of Defendants Save-A-Lot Foods. Plaintiff was co-assistant manager of one of the grocery stores in Memphis. Plaintiff and Kenneth Bush worked at the same Jackson Ave. store for two to three months while assistant manager Bush was training to be a manager. Plaintiff stated Bush told her “he did not like her and that he did not like the fact that he had to ask her to show him how to perform certain tasks.†Bush became manager, was moved to the Frayser Blvd. store, and requested Plaintiff be transferred to his store. Plaintiff worked at the Frayser Blvd. store for around one year. Plaintiff’s deposition testimony alleged Bush, her immediate supervisor, sexually harassed her daily during the course of her employment. Plaintiff made various complaints of the sexual harassment, such as Bush making lewd comments and gestures, making requests to engage in sexual relations, making accusations of Plaintiff having sexual relations with other employees. Plaintiff did not report the behavior for some time due to fear of losing her job and because Bush allegedly threatened “he knew where she lived and that he would kill her if she told anyone about the harassment.†Plaintiff finally reported the behavior to management, an investigation ensued, and Plaintiff was transferred to a different store location. Plaintiff claimed her harm of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, medical expenses, and an inability to work as a result of Bush’s sexual harassment. Plaintiff filed workers’ compensation complaint to be reimbursed for medical expenses and lost wages. Plaintiff also filed a complaint in federal court claiming violations of both the Tennessee Human Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII. Shelby County Chancery Court granted summary judgment to Defendants. Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel reversed and remanded.

    Issue.

    Whether an employee who has been sexually harassed within the course of employment by a supervisor is permitted to recover workers’ compensation benefits for emotional injuries from the employer. Specifically, whether Plaintiff’s alleged injury arose out of her employment.

    Held.

    Plaintiff failed to demonstrate the alleged injury arose out of her employment and is therefore she cannot recover under the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Law, but rather the Human Rights Act would be the proper source of seeking relief. Shelby County Chancery Court’s decision granting summary judgment to Defendants affirmed. Costs of appeal taxed to Plaintiff.

    Concurrence.

    Anderson, C.J., Birch, Barker, JJ., and Hayes, Senior Justice, concur.

    Discussion.

    Determining whether an incident arises “out of and in the course of employment†must be made on a case-by-case basis considering the specific circumstances surrounding the incident. Defendants argued the sexual harassment was personal to Bush and did not arise out of the course of Plaintiff’s employment. Prior case history suggests factors to assess whether emotional injuries arise out of the course of employment, for example, whether the aggressor’s motive was related to employment or personal. Those cases suggest as a general rule that injuries that result from an assault that is “purely personal in nature†are not covered by the workers’ compensation acts. Courts are, however, split as to the issue of sexual harassment arising out of the course of employment. This Court finds Bush’s motives were personal and “not related to furthering the business of the employer.†Defendants further argue that the injury suffered was not a result of “a risk inherent to her employment or a risk that was a normal component of the employment relationship.†This Court finds nothing in the record to suggest sexual harassment “was a reasonably considered hazar[d]†of Defendants’ business, but rather it was not related to the course of employment and was instead an “unanticipated risk.†Prior case history suggests sexual harassment is not an inherent risk in an employment relationship, reasoning Workers’ Compensation Law is structured to remedy employees for harm suffered by physical injuries incurred while in the course of employment versus civil rights laws “seek to redress injuries to an employee’s dignity and self-respect.†This Court weighed public policy considerations and the Workers’ Compensation Law’s drafters’ intent and do not believe sexual harassment was intended to be covered.


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