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Riposte: Humiliating Work and the Law


i wrote the post below in july 2007 after discovering the remarkable court case of wilson v. monarch paper, in which a corporate vice president was awarded millions in damages for the humiliation he suffered from being demotied to janitor. i noted some questions and thoughts about the implications of this and suggested i would get back to it; i never did get back, but i still think the post is worth sharing.

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i’m trying to think through some issues raised by wilson v. monarch paper co., 939 f.2d 1138 (5th cir. 1991) and similar cases. in this case, a jury found, and the court system upheld, that a vice president of a company was entitled to millions of dollars in compensation for intentional infliction of emotional distress after being demoted to warehouse janitor. this raises many questions and thoughts that i’d like to explore in this post, and presumably return to as i think about it more. i guess for now i’ll put things in point form, since my thoughts are scattered.

- intentional infliction of emotional distress is not an easy kind of case to win, because the standards for abuse are pretty high. in wilson, the required standard was that the offending conduct be so outrageous that civilized society should not tolerate it.

- how widespread is the attitude that it is humiliating to be a janitor? do janitors think so? if not, are they simply in denial, or was the jury wrong?

- or is it a situation where the jury believed that the former vice president would have mistakenly believed that it is humiliating to be a janitor, either because of his idiosyncratic personal beliefs or because of the beliefs prevalent in his social class? it seems unlikely that a jury would find IIED and a judge would uphold it based on beliefs particular to an individual or class, unless it is a class belief shared by the judge and the majority of the jury.

- just what is it, anyway, that makes it humiliating for someone to be a janitor? are the factors purely social or is there something innate to humans that makes such work inherently humiliating?

- if, as i assume, the humiliation of being a janitor is entirely or primarily a social fact, why is such a social fact constructed? and why is a remedy for this humiliation offered in the narrow circumstances of executive demotion, but not in the broader setting of a society that assigns some people humiliating jobs on a career basis? in other words, how does the view that civilized society cannot tolerate the demotion of an executive to janitor reconcile with the fact that the same (presumably) civilized society assigns many people to be career janitors? what does this tell us about the relationship between law and society?

- all this assumes that what the jury found to be humiliating was the job itself, not, say, the fact that the person was forcibly transferred from one job to another, or the fact that someone was removed from a lucrative job. this seems to be borne out: we can safely assume that no jury would find emotional distress for someone who was transferred from janitor to VP, if the judge even allowed the case to proceed to a jury; and the law makes it perfectly permissible to fire a high-level employee for no good reason – certainly it’s not considered outrageous conduct.

- one conclusion that can be drawn is that in the eyes of the law, it is much better for a vice president to be fired than to be forced to choose between working as a janitor and quitting, which is always an option. can the conclusion also be drawn that it is better for people in general to not work at all than to work as a janitor? advocates of "welfare reform" suggest that it is more dignified to do any work than to do no work at all. but if this is true, why is it abusive to make a vice president choose between working as a janitor or quitting, but not abusive to simply fire him?

- one possible answer is that we believe in meritocracy: it is not unconscionable to have a society in which some people are forced to have humiliating jobs, because our society allows the individual some agency in determining his or her ultimate circumstances: people who are meritorious (by some definition that we need not look into right now) are rewarded with non-humiliating jobs, while those who are not meritorious must accept humiliating jobs. what is abusive is to improperly assign a meritorious person like wilson to a humiliating job.

- the problem with this is that it is very widely recognized that whatever role merit plays in determining one’s job prospects, it is far from the only factor, and circumstances of birth are a major determinant of whether or not one will end up in a humiliating job. and while this fact is lamented among liberals, it is tolerated by them, while illiberals seem to have no problem with it. would such illiberals on a jury not have found for wilson? or is this further confirmation that reactionaries lack analytical and/or moral intelligence?

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