Tennessee Expands Potential Immunity to Emotional Distress Claims to Private Employers

Date   May 2, 2019

Tennessee employers have a new defense against employees bringing workplace environment-related lawsuits. An amendment expanding Tennessee’s Healthy Workplace Act to include private employers went into effect on April 23, 2019. Prior to the expansion, the law only applied to state and local government entities.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-1-501, et seq., provides that if an employer adopts Tennessee’s model abusive conduct prevention policy, the employer shall be immune from an employee’s state law claim for negligent or intentional infliction of mental anguish based on another employee’s abusive conduct.

The model policy can be found here, and consists of eight elements:

  • Statement of Commitment, Values, and Purpose
  • Definition of Abusive Conduct
  • Employer Responsibility
  • Employee Responsibility (including witnesses)
  • Retaliation
  • Training for Supervisors and Employees
  • Complaint Process (Reporting, Investigation, Corrective Action)
  • Confidentiality

Employers’ Bottom Line: Tennessee employers will want to consider whether adopting a new policy that includes certain investigative requirements is worth the trade-off for the fairly limited application of immunity solely from Tennessee state law claims for negligent or intentional infliction of mental anguish, also known as emotional distress. The claim is generally regarded as an “add-on” to discrimination or harassment claims based on an employee’s protected category, such as claims brought under Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the Tennessee Public Protection Act. Adopting the policy does not provide immunity to claims or lawsuits under those laws. Additionally, if employers choose not to adopt the model abusive conduct prevention policy, an employer would only not be entitled to immunity. The employer would still be able to assert other legal defenses to claims for negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Businesses should review their existing handbooks and anti-harassment policies to decide whether their existing policies already substantively comply with Tennessee’s model abusive conduct prevention policy, or whether they want to add a compliant policy to provide the immunity defense.

If you have any questions regarding Tennessee’s Healthy Workplace Act or its application to your existing policies, or other labor or employment related issues, please feel free to contact the author of this Alert, Max Smith,, who is counsel in our Nashville office, any attorney in our Nashville or Memphis offices, or the FordHarrison attorney with whom you usually work.