As NFIB members know all too well,
the attempts to make it more difficult to conduct a business in Rhode Island
never end in the General Assembly. This
week, NFIB provided testimony in opposition to House Bill No. 7276, the
so-called Abusive Work Environment Protection Act.
The bill’s vague definition of abusive conduct could further entangle Rhode Island employers in costly litigation and needless lawsuits. The broad, vague language of this bill could include normal supervisory language or speech, such as reprimands for shoddy work or bad work habits or even a supervisor’s verbal attempt to improve an employee’s work performance. The bill could lead to baseless accusations and cost business owners time and money dealing with unnecessary lawsuits and be devastatingly expensive. In addition, small business owners object to the expansive definition of employees, including independent contractors and contract employees.
Proponents of the bill claim that existing discrimination laws do not cover abusive conduct in the workplace and this bill is necessary to remedy this oversight. But this bill is an extreme resolution to a problem that is truly rare in the workplace. It creates a new private cause of action when similar torts, such as intentional infliction of emotional distress and interference with contractual relationships, are readily available. In addition, state laws and regulations concerning employment discrimination and harassment are in place. Since the costs of defending a lawsuit, whether meritorious or frivolous, make the small business owner an immediate loser, the creation of a new private cause of action should therefore be a last resort in an already litigious society.
Aside from allowing the allegedly abused individual to sue the so-called aggressor, the bill would make the business owner accountable as well, whether or not the owner had knowledge of the situation. The party filing the claim can also seek damages, including punitive damages, for lost wages, emotional distress, and other claims of injury, initially from the Director of the Department of Labor and Training while affording the employer only limited judicial review of that decision.
House 7276 is needless and meddlesome legislation that will only lead to more litigation, additional frivolous lawsuits, and higher costs for the state’s businesses. Its vague language leaves employers with more risk and at a legal disadvantage. If enacted, it will further damage Rhode Island’s business climate.