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Tennessee Employers Get Bullying Lawsuit Safe Harbor


Tennessee employers who want to avoid workplace-bullying lawsuits need only adopt the state’s model anti-bullying policy and they will enjoy immunity from such claims, thanks to a new law just signed into effect yesterday. Thanks to H.B. 856, an expansion of the Healthy Workplace Act, private employers can now take advantage of the law to shield themselves from troublesome legal claims spurred by allegations of workplace bullying. What should Tennessee employers do in order to capitalize on this new law?

The New Law, In A Nutshell

The bill – passed unanimously by both the state House and Senate and signed into effect by Governor Bill Lee – is only a few lines long, but its impact is profound. The new law simply extends the same immunity that had existed for public employers since 2014 to the private sector.

Tennessee employers are currently exposed to state court lawsuits alleging “infliction of mental anguish based on its employees’ abusive conduct” if a worker believes they have been the victim of bullying. However, under the new law, an employer can receive legal immunity if they adopt the model policy created by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

The Model Policy

The model policy has eight main components:

The policy should also include a description of conduct that does not amount to “abusive conduct,” including disciplinary procedures in accordance with your adopted policies, routine coaching and counseling (including feedback about and correction of work performance), reasonable work assignments, individual differences in styles of personal expression, “passionate or loud expression” with no intent to harm others, differences of opinion on work-related concerns, and the non-abusive exercise of managerial prerogative.

What Should Tennessee Employers Do Now?

The new law is effective immediately, so you should make it a priority to take action right away. We recommend that you work with your labor and employment counsel as soon as possible to update your handbook policies and adopt a compliant model policy that will provide you with the immunity that the law now offers you. This is true even if your current handbook contains an anti-bullying policy; it should be modified to comply with the new law. This policy, of course, should be complementary with your existing written anti-harassment policy, which should address all forms of unlawful harassment as defined under federal and Tennessee law and provide an effective complaint procedure. This might also be a good time for a general refresh of your entire handbook, so you may consider having all of your policies reviewed.

 Note that the statutory immunity only applies to general abusive conduct litigation filed in Tennessee state court. Nothing about this law prevents you from being hit with a lawsuit alleging mistreatment based on race, gender, or any other federally protected class. For this reason, you need to educate your supervisors that this new law provides a nice shield from certain kinds of cases, but doesn’t immunize your organization – or them – from many other kinds of cases that can spring from ineffective leadership or poor human resources practices.

If you have questions, please contact your Fisher Phillips attorney or any attorney in our Memphis office.

This Legal Alert provides information about a specific state law. It is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal advice for any particular fact situation.

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