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Friday, November 8, 2013

7 Claims Jonathan Martin May Have Regarding Dolphins Bullying Under Florida Law

Now that America finally woke up and realized that workplace bullying is a serious issue, thanks to the Miami Dolphins situation with Jonathan Martin, who quit after the team refused to do anything after he complained about workplace bullying, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the situation from the perspective of a Florida employee-side lawyer.

As I've written before, there is no state in the nation that has passed any law against workplace bullying. We have zero tolerance for bullying in schools, but nothing to protect employees? What a giant waste of corporate resources and time, to deal with the fallout, morale problems, and loss of good people that bullies cause. It's time to pass a law.

In the meantime, I have some theories about what claims Mr. Martin might have under Florida law if/when he decides to sue over this matter. I recently wrote a piece for AOL Jobs called 5 Ways Your Workplace Bully May Be Breaking The Law (call me prescient - the piece came out less than 2 weeks before the incident) where I talked in general about potential claims employees might have relating to workplace bullying.

While I obviously don't know what really happened, there has been lots of press speculation and reporting on what really happened with Martin. I can only speculate on what claims he might have.

Here are four claims I think Martin might have against the Dolphins:
  1. Breach of contract: Surely he has a contract. It must say something about his working conditions. These athletic contracts are huge. If the contract says the Dolphins must provide a safe working environment, it's a straight breach of contract case.
  2. Race or age-based harassment: Bullies tend to target the weak and the different. If Mr. Martin was targeted due to his race or because he was "too young" as the reporting tends to speculate, then he might have a discrimination claim. While the Age Discrimination in Employment Act doesn't cover discrimination based on being too young, the Florida Civil Rights Act covers all kinds of age discrimination. Harassment cases require that you report the harassment and give management a chance to correct the situation, which it seems he did, and was told to punch the harasser, which he thankfully didn't do. The questions will be 1. whether it was so severe or so pervasive that it altered the terms and conditions of his employment and 2. whether it was so intolerable that no reasonable person would have stayed. Having quit, he'll have to show that he was constructively discharged, which is tough, but not impossible. It looks like the coaches might have actually encouraged the harassment. If so, the Dolphins may well be on the hook.
  3. Assault/battery: If anything got physical and management knew about it, then the Dolphins might be on the hook.
  4. Intentional infliction of emotional distress: This is the one I see in all the newspaper articles about what kind of claim he might have but, truthfully, these cases are very tough to win in Florida. He went to the hospital for emotional distress, so he might have some pretty significant damages if he can prove this claim.
I usually recommend against bringing claims against individuals because they're almost always uncollectable even if you win. That's probably not the case against a wealthy football player, so Mr. Martin may have claims against the individual or individuals involved.

Here are 3 claims he might have against his harasser(s):

  1. Tortious interference: I wrote awhile back about using tortious interference claims against harassers. Maybe this would be a good situation for that. The question will be whether the harassers stepped outside the scope of their employment. If management really instructed them to do this, then the harassers might argue they were acting within the scope of their jobs.
  2. Assault/battery: If it got physical, he can sue for whatever damages he suffered.
  3. Intentional infliction of emotional distress: Again, tough in Florida but maybe if things got physical or extreme he could sue his harassers for this.
I'm interested to hear any new facts that come out on this. While I'm sad this happened to Mr. Martin, some good could come out of all this of we get some anti-bullying laws passed as a result. If even a big, tough football player can be devastated by bullying, imagine what ordinary mortals who experience bullying must go through.

So, what do you think? Any other legal theories? Should workplace bullying be made illegal?

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I appreciate your comments and general questions but this isn't the place to ask confidential legal questions. If you need an employee-side employment lawyer, try http://exchange.nela.org/findalawyer to locate one in your state.