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Morrison v. Sandell





Appeal from the Circuit Court of McLean County; the Hon. Luther H. Dearborn, Judge, presiding.


Plaintiff, Ronald L. Morrison, filed a complaint against defendants, Marion Sandell and John Capasso, in the circuit court of McLean County which alleged the intentional infliction of mental distress. On August 24, 1982, the court granted defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's amended complaint for failure to state a cause of action. On appeal, plaintiff maintains the conduct alleged in the complaint constituted behavior so outrageous as to be a basis for a cause of action.

Plaintiff alleged in count I of his amended complaint, that defendant, Marion Sandell, was his co-worker at Illinois State University from October 1980 until July 1981, when plaintiff resigned. Plaintiff stated that during that time, Sandell "individually and in concert with unknown others, engaged in a continuous campaign of harassment" with "intent to cause him severe anxiety and mental anguish and distress and to cause his resignation or dismissal from his job." Plaintiff alleged the conduct involved was performed either in person or at the instigation of Sandell. The acts alleged include the following:

"a. Undermining his ability to learn his job and perform it properly by removing and mixing working papers on his desk, placing file cards out of order after he had completed work on them and by many similar such acts on an almost daily basis until his employment was terminated;

b. Deliberately giving him insufficient instruction and training and assigning him work he was unprepared to do and work which was unusually difficult, thus causing confusion and anxiety and poor work performance;

c. Removing personal items from his coat pockets and placing same on his desk, thus causing fear and anxiety over the loss of privacy and security of his personal belongings;

d. Embarrassing and belittling him by inducing other workers to make hostile stares and comments whenever he was within earshot or eye contact with them and subjecting him to the `silent treatment';

e. On one occasion placing toilet tissue and human waste matter in a file drawer which he was about to use."

Count II alleged that defendant Sandell's actions were wilful and malicious, and plaintiff asked for punitive damages. Count III alleged that defendant Capasso was plaintiff's and Sandell's supervisor, had been advised of the acts complained of, had a duty to see that those acts were stopped, and did nothing to prevent further harassment.

• 1 The supreme court has recognized that intentional infliction of severe emotional distress can be a separate tort for which damages could be recovered. (Knierim v. Izzo (1961), 22 Ill.2d 73, 174 N.E.2d 157.) There, a widow brought an action for damages after the defendant had communicated to her his intention to kill her husband and, later, carried out his threat. The court found the complaint stated a cause of action and cited Slocum v. Food Fair Stores of Florida, Inc. (Fla. 1958), 100 So.2d 396, as a fair statement of the standard of conduct to be applied in such an action.

"[I]t is uniformly agreed that the determination of whether words or conduct are actionable in character is to be made on an objective rather than subjective standard, from common acceptation. The unwarranted intrusion must be calculated to cause `severe emotional distress' to a person of ordinary sensibilities, in the absence of special knowledge or notice. There is no inclination to include all instances of mere vulgarities, obviously intended as meaningless abusive expressions." (100 So.2d 396, 398.)

However, the court noted:

"It has not been suggested that every emotional upset should constitute the basis of an action. Indiscriminate allowance of actions for mental anguish would encourage neurotic overreactions to trivial hurts, and the law should aim to toughen the psyche of the citizen rather than pamper it. But a line can be drawn between the slight hurts which are the price of a complex society and the severe mental disturbances inflicted by intentional actions wholly lacking in social utility." Knierim v. Izzo (1961), 22 Ill.2d 73, 85, 174 N.E.2d 157, 164.

The supreme court reviewed the elements of this tort in Public Finance Corp. v. Davis (1976), 66 Ill.2d 85, 360 N.E.2d 765. There, the court found defendant's countercomplaint failed to state a cause of action against the tactics of the finance company seeking to collect its debt. The court tested the two counts of the counterclaim ...

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