When Does Bad Conduct Rise to the Level of Outrageous Conduct?

A recent Tennessee Court of Appeals case serves as a reminder that the bar for proving outrageous conduct is high for plaintiffs attempting to make a case for intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”). In Kindred v. Nat’l College of Bus. and Tech., Inc., No. W2014-00413-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 19, 2015), plaintiff sued her former college for, among other things, IIED related to the cancellation of her classes for one term. Plaintiff had her GED, and at the time of her initial enrollment the school did not require students to have an official copy of their equivalency certificate in their file. That policy later changed. Two weeks prior to the start of term 107, plaintiff went to the college to get a copy of that term’s schedule and was informed that her file did not have an official copy of her GED and that she was thus not in compliance with the school’s requirements. Plaintiff alleged that she presented the school with her GED equivalency card, but she did not dispute that she took no steps to get an official copy of her GED into her file.

Plaintiff started attending classes at the beginning of term 107, but after one week the director of the campus cancelled plaintiff’s schedule because her file did not comply with the official copy requirement. The director told plaintiff that she would not be charged tuition for that term and that she could return to classes the next term as long as she had provided an official copy of her GED. Plaintiff provided the school with her GED on the same day she was informed about her schedule cancellation, but the director refused to reinstate her for that term. Two months later, plaintiff enrolled in another term (term 111) at the same college. She was not allowed to enroll until she paid an outstanding balance for textbooks from term 107 (the cancelled term), which she paid after protest. Plaintiff attended two additional terms at the school, but at the end of term 113 she received a failing grade, which she unsuccessfully challenged. After that, plaintiff alleged that “she could no longer suppress her pain and distress that began with [defendant’s] degrading termination of her enrollment eight months earlier. Plaintiff further allege[d] that this forced her to cease her attendance at [the school] and abandon her educational/professional goals.”

Defendant filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff’s IIED claim, which the trial court granted and the appellate court affirmed. One of the elements of an IIED claim is that “the conduct must be so outrageous that it is not tolerated by a civilized society[.]” Here, the Court of Appeals found that the conduct alleged did not rise to this level. The Court noted that the Tennessee Supreme Court has adopted the Restatement (Second) of Torts standard for IIED with states that “[l]iability has been found only where the conduct has been so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree as to go beyond all bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” Citing Bain v. Wells, 936 S.W.2d 618 (Tenn. 1997). While many situations may cause some distress, “outrageous conduct does not include ‘mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, petty oppression or other trivialities.’” Citing Levy v. Franks, 159 S.W.3d 66 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004) (additional citations omitted).

The Court conceded that plaintiff in the instant case was “understandably unhappy that her enrollment in term 107 was cancelled, and, thus, briefly delayed her goal of completing her degree at National College. However, [the director’s cancellation of her schedule] does not rise to the sufficiently outrageous standard required for recovery under IIED[.]”

As this case illustrates, most common annoyances, no matter how upsetting, will not support a claim for IIED. The outrageous conduct standard required to support this tort is exacting, and a plaintiff filing a complaint should be mindful of the case law regarding IIED as he or she is drafting a complaint.