University’s Hurtful Comments Towards Contractor Results In Intentional Infliction Of Emotional Distress Claim

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Nov 30, 2023

N.E.S.A.I.M. is a minority owned company that provides snow and ice removal services.  Todd Howell is a Black, African-American small business owner and owns N.E.S.A.I.M.  Joseph Signore is the Supervisor of Landscaping and Maintenance Services at Yale.

In November 2019, N.E.S.A.I.M. and Howell entered into a contract with Yale to provide the University with snow and ice removal services.  On November 29, 2019, Mr. Signore met with Mr. Howell and other N.E.S.A.I.M. personnel.  During this meeting, Mr. Signore allegedly expressed distaste for Mr. Howell as a minority contractor.  Mr. Signore also allegedly said, “[L]ike all other [B]lack minority contractors, N.E.S.A.I.M. would not have adequate or proper tools to do the contracted job, would not have sufficient employees, would use improperly or undocumented employees, and would add employee numbers to the balance sheets;” “[B]lack minority contractors, including the plaintiff N.E.S.A.I.M., performed horribly;” and that “he hates dealing with minority owned businesses.”

Following these remarks, Mr. Signore refused to honor the contract, despite N.E.S.A.I.M.’s extensive experience and completion of $60,000,000.00 in snow removal. N.E.S.A.I.M. and Mr. Howell filed suit against Yale, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other claims.

In order to state a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must allege that (1) the defendant intended to inflict emotional distress or knew or should have known that distress was likely to result; (2) the conduct was extreme and outrageous; (3) the conduct caused the plaintiff’s distress; and (4) the plaintiff’s emotional distress was severe.

Yale argued that N.E.S.A.I.M. could not state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, because as a corporate entity, it cannot experience distress.  The Court agreed and concluded that a corporation cannot experience emotional distress, and therefore dismissed this claim.

Yale argued that Mr. Howell failed to show that (1) Yale intended to cause him emotional distress or knew or should have known that emotional distress was likely to result; and (2) that Yale’s actions constituted extreme or outrageous conduct.

The Court rejected Yale’s argument and concluded that the affirmative and direct nature of Mr. Signore’s actions showed intent to cause Mr. Howell distress.  If Mr. Howell had separately discovered Mr. Signore’s decision to terminate the contract was motivated by racial animus, then the Court’s conclusion may be different.  However, here, Mr. Signore directed racially derogatory statements to a Black individual, and it would be rational to infer that such action would cause Mr. Howell distress.

The Court also concluded that Mr. Howell alleged conduct that was sufficiently extreme and outrageous.  The Court distinguished between situations where employment decisions were motivated by discriminatory intent and situations where employers directed discriminatory comments to individuals or articulated their racial motives.  Here, Mr. Signore expressed negative racial stereotypes directly to Mr. Howell and Mr. Signore indicated directly to Mr. Howell that the contract repudiation was motivated by racial discrimination.

The Court therefore denied Yale’s motion to dismiss Mr. Howell’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.

Howell v. Yale Univ. (D.Conn. Sep. 26, 2023) 2023 U.S.Dist.LEXIS 171330.

Note: This case serves as an important reminder that employees can create liability for schools based on the way they speak to non-employees, including contractors.

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