What legal recourse do I have against my boss who bullies and harasses me to the point where I am on medical leave for anxiety?

Though your workplace may be incredibly stressful and unpleasant and your boss a mean bully who makes your life miserable, this is legal, absent violations of a work contract or violation of a protected classification (your age, sex, race, religion). If you feel there is a violation, file a complaint with the federal EEOC or your state equal/civil rights agency. If it is in violation of a contract or union agreement, you could file a lawsuit for breach of contract. But otherwise, you may simply have to endure it, or seek other employment.

There are only two situations where you may have a legal case, each discussed below. But first, some context. It is important to understand the concept of “employment at will.” Some legal terms are obscure or difficult to understand. Not employment at will—it means what it sounds like. Employment is purely at the “will”—or free choice—of the two parties. The employer can terminate an employee at any time, for any reason, or change anything it likes about the job (including pay and benefits); and the employee can quit or resign at any time. Neither employer nor employee has any obligations to each other.

There are a number of effects or consequences to employment at will, which all flow out of the basic idea that an employee has no rights to a job. One of those consequences is that an employer does not need to be nice, or fair, or courteous, or professional, to an employee. To the contrary, an employer (e.g., your boss) can bully and harass you as much as he or she wants. He or she can make your job the absolutely worst experience of your life, and treat you worse than most people would treat their worst enemies—and that is legally acceptable. The employer has the right to do this, because you have no right to your job. And because they have the right to do this, you have no legal recourse against them, even if it causes you significant anxiety. You can’t sue people or businesses for what they have the legal right to do.

Therefore, as a general matter, you have no legal case against a bullying and harassing boss. Your only recourse is to quit or resign, because that is the other side of employment at will: you can’t be made to stay in a bad job, but can seek other employment.

That said, there are two exceptions that may give you a viable legal claim:

  1. You have a written employment contract for a definite or defined term, like a one-year contract, which is still in effect. (If you belong to a union, your union contract or collective bargaining agreement might have some bearing on the matter.) Contracts are enforceable in court, according to their plain terms. If the contract gives you some rights against bullying, like the right to file a grievance or have a hearing about the behavior, the company must honor those rights, or else you can file suit against your employer for “breach of contract” for compensation. The important thing to remember, is that you only have those rights which the contract gives you, no more, so even if you have a contract, if by its terms it does not help you, you will not have a legal claim.
  2. The second, and more common (since the vast majority of us do not have contracts) exception is that certain forms of job discrimination are illegal. Under federal law, an employer cannot discriminate against an employee due to his or her race, color, national origin, genetic information, age 40 or over, sex, disability, or religion. Since “discrimination” includes “bullying” or “harassment,” the employer cannot harass or bully you due to these characteristics. But you must have evidence that the bullying is due to one of these characteristics, such as, for example, race. If the evidence shows that the bullying is unconnected to it—maybe you are the same race as your boss, or he or she treats everyone, regardless of race, badly— then there is no discrimination claim.

Some states add a few more protected characteristics, such as family status (e.g., no discriminating against or bullying parents, or unmarried employees) or sexual orientation. Check the law of your state to see if there are any additional protected category(ies).

If you believe that you are being bullied due to a protected characteristic, get into touch with the federal EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) or your state’s equal/civil rights agency, as applicable, to file a complaint.

But if there is no illegal discrimination and no violation of a contract, the bullying and harassment, while unprofessional and unfair, is legal.