What to do if my co-worker is threatening to sue me for creating a hostile work environment?

UPDATED: Nov 11, 2011

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What to do if my co-worker is threatening to sue me for creating a hostile work environment?

She claims that I have been talking about her abusing her FMLA. The truth is everyone at work is tired of her calling in and everyone has been talking about it. She even accused me of this at work in front of other co-workers, belittling me and putting me on the spot. She has threatened to sue our workplace several times before – her daughter is a lawyer. The fact that she is targeting me and no one else is creating a hostile work environment for me. Can I sue her for intimidation? Should I be worried?

Asked on November 11, 2011 under Employment Labor Law, Missouri


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 11 years ago | Contributor

You probably do not have a cause of action here, unfortunately. First, a "hostile work environment" is a misnomer as a cause of action--it's really a discrimination claim against the employer. There is no law saying that a work environment cannot be "hostile"--just that it can't be hostile based on specific defined types of discrimination (against race, sex, religion, age over 40, disability, etc.).

Second, there is no law generally making it illegal for one person, in or out of work, to be hostile to another, to belittle a person, to put her on the spot, or even to threaten to sue her--particularly if the person doing it *could* arguably or possibly have a legal claim.

Third, despite the above, you *might* have a claim for defamation against this woman--but she might also have one against you. Defamation is the public making (so even to other coworkers, around the water cooler) of untrue factual statements which damage a person's reputation. True facts are not defamation, and nor are opinons--only untrue facts.

So, if  she is saying that you have been making claims that she abused FMLA, that *might* give rise to a defamation claim on your part, but *only* if you did not say that she has been abusing FMLA. If you did say that she was, which is what you seem to indicate, there is no defamation. Similarly, if you said something  like "she took FMLA leave when she was not sick," that could give her a defamation claim against you, since that you are making a factual assertion that could damage her reputation; if she can show that your assertion is false (e.g. she was sick), then that may be defamation, and so she could have a lawsuit, potentially.

Best is to *not* talk about what somone is or is not doing vis-a-vis her benefits, her illness, FMLA, etc.--once you do, you potentially open yourself up to a legal action.


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