On June 1, 2006, a sixteen-year old working at McDonald’s asked his supervisor three times if he could take his prescription anti-seizure medication. Each time, the request was rejected and, in the course of denying the last request, the supervisor called the plaintiff a “f…ing retard.” Fearing he would suffer a seizure, the young plaintiff left work crying and did not return. As a consequence of his treatment by his supervisor at McDonald’s, the plaintiff testified he became “withdrawn” and “a recluse.” He explained “[h]e felt he couldn’t do anything [and] was afraid he would suffer the same experience at another job.” Apparently his mother also testified: the plaintiff “wouldn’t go outside, slept all day and had to be home schooled.” She further testified the plaintiff “became depressed and introverted” and “was no longer active [and] lost interest in everything.” Plaintiff believed a school friend who worked at McDonald’s told other school friends about the incident and they began calling plaintiff a ‘f…ing retard” and teased him by saying, “I hear you can’t even keep a job at McDonald’s because you’re a f…ing retard.”
Initially the plaintiff sued in federal court, seeking to recover under the American’s with Disabilities Act because of the supervisor’s refusal to allow him to take his prescription anti-seizure medication. In denying the plaintiff recovery on the ADA claims, the federal court also determined that the manager’s conduct was “not severe.” The federal court did not adjudicate the state law claims, including the one for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Instead, the federal court dismissed those claims without prejudice and the plaintiff soon refiled the state law claims in state court.
Initially, McDonald’s saw great success by arguing the federal judge’s finding that the supervisor’s conduct was “not severe” precluded the plaintiff’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim: the trial court granted summary judgment in McDonald’s favor and the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals affirmed.
Plaintiff persevered and pursued his claim to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. That Court reversed the lower court’s decisions, holding the plaintiff was entitled to a jury trial:
Viewing the evidentiary materials in a light most favorable to [the] plaintiff . . ., we hold that the “highly unpleasant mental reactions” that plaintiff . . . and his mother described are reasonable and justified under the circumstances. We also hold they go beyond mere hurt feelings, insult, indignity, and annoyance and could be reasonably regarded to constitute emotional distress so severe that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it. In such cases, “[i]t is for the jury to determine whether, on the evidence, severe emotional distress in fact existed.”
Durham v. McDonald’s Restaurants of Oklahoma, Inc., 2011 OK 45, ¶ 16 (citations omitted).
As “words may [legally] hurt” an employee, supervisors are cautioned to be careful in all communications with subordinates and to avoid profanity and pejorative words.