March 25, 2012 9:43 AM   Subscribe

Is there anything illegal about being verbally abusive in a triggering way to someone with mental illness?

A close relative of mine struggles with mental illness including attempted self-harm in the past. The friend of a man she was formerly in a relationship with-- a woman she barely knows-- sent her an incredibly hurtful, cruel, (untrue) email calling her a terrible person, that she was a nobody, and basically a bunch of awful things like that. It was clearly sent as a proxy from the POS ex. I am truly beyond livid that someone knowing my relative's past of mental illness, low self-esteem, etc. would send her this email.

Is there any sort of legal recourse for this? I can think of basically two parallels: 1) it is clearly bullying behavior, and even worse because the perps are "adults". 2) Given that mental illness is an illness, sending this sort of triggering email seems rather akin to knowingly serving a peanut to someone with a peanut allergy. This isn't the sort of thing that's like "total assholes; whatever"-- this could represent a serious setback in terms of her health progress and the people on the other end KNOW THIS.

I doubt my relative would want to take any sort of legal action-- I feel bad even secretly asking on her behalf-- but I am interested to know nonetheless. I am really beside myself and haven't ever witnessed such monstrous cruelty before. This is in MA, USA if it matters.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

There are laws against harassment, though.
posted by empath at 9:50 AM on March 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

IANAL/IANTP (I am not the police) Depending on MA's state laws/your own local laws, you may be able to file a harassment report with the police. If it continues, you could also check into an order of protection OR a restraining order, as that makes it against the law to contact your relative or for your relative to contact them. Although at this point, since it's just the single email, I don't know what the police would allow to be might just be better to delete the email and go on.
Also, if you can, go to the police station and ask to speak to an officer in reference to this issue to see if the officer can give any insight without actually having to "call" the police to come out and file a may save you a lot of hassle.
Best of luck, let us know if you find any solutions. Harassment in any form is a low-blow, but harassment with knowledge of triggering a health problem is just plain shitty.
posted by PeppahCat at 9:55 AM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

IANYL. The only thing that comes to mind is intentional infliction of emotional distress, but that's a particularly hard tort to win on, especially without a pattern of action by the perpetrator. (NB: I do not know if this tort is actionable in Mass. See a lawyer licensed in your state to determine whether your relative has a claim if any kind.)
posted by devinemissk at 9:59 AM on March 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm not a lawyer, but this is what I can recall from a few law classes:

Most torts require harm - that is to say, if your relative hurts or kills herself over this, or is set back psychologically such that she can't leave the house and loses her job, then you might be able to collect some damages from the other person. Pretty big 'might' though, and it would have to be pretty egregious - encouraging someone to go commit suicide and then they do, for instance, could lead to a successful wrongful death claim, but just calling them ugly would not even if that were the last straw for them.

The exception would be emotional distress as divinemissk mentions, but it's be hard to win on with just one message and would require something beyond, I think, a typical "telling you the truth about what a horrible girlfriend/wife/partner you were" email.

On the criminal side, of course, the bar for evidence is much higher. Recklessness ( might be a useful concept but again, it'd be only valid if some harm were suffered.
posted by Lady Li at 10:04 AM on March 25, 2012

My sister works for the MA State Crime lab. She is not a cop. She said, loosely paraphrasing, that while MA has some decent laws about bullying and hate crimes that the only real way you can be doing something illegal with a single email is if you specifically threaten someone or (with someone with a mental illness) if you instigate someone to harm themselves or others. Usually in cases like these the contact needs to be repeated and unwanted for you to get into legal-problem territory. She suggests, of course, contacting someone versed in the laws of the state because this was top-of-her-head memory stuff.
posted by jessamyn at 10:11 AM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Certainly in some circumstances verbal bullying can be a crime. You really want to talk with a lawyer or peace officer to get a better idea, though.

But private or criminal legal action is going to require your relative to complain and participate in legal proceedings, so if she can't handle or isn't willing to do that, legal action won't be possible.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:14 AM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's going to be very difficult to take any successful legal action based on a single instance of speech expressing (from your description) opinions.
posted by planet at 10:33 AM on March 25, 2012

In my state, the criminal harassment statute requires a repeated course of conduct, so at least where I live I don't think one email would qualify.

There is a tort cause of action called intentional infliction of emotional distress, covering really beyond-the-pale actions (like a false report of a loved one's death). Prett sure an email saying "you're a worthless loser" would not qualify and this certainly doesn't meet my personal bar for filing a civil lawsuit.
posted by jayder at 10:48 AM on March 25, 2012

The pattern of behavior here may not yet have risen to something actionable or illegal, but it could if it continues.

I suggest you get your relative a new email address, and email the people who should know about it so they can note the change. Then, find someone (maybe you) to monitor the old email address to keep tabs on whether any other bad correspondence arrives and direct anyone she wants to be in touch with to the new address. Save any messages that continue the pattern.

(Swiped from The Gift of Fear.)
posted by alphanerd at 11:00 AM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Go to the District Attorney with the E-mail message.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:06 AM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not a legal remedy, but you could try reporting the email to the sender's ISP. allows you to look up abuse-reporting email addresses for ISPs; for example, the contact email for is

No guarantee of any action here on the part of the ISP, unfortunately.

Also, if you can help your relative configure some filters on her email account, that would be a boon. A good filter in this case would screen out abusive words in case the senders get "smart" and start using throwaway email addresses. Blocking the sender's existing email address as well as that of the ex would be advisable too.

Good luck.
posted by Currer Belfry at 11:26 AM on March 25, 2012

Not only is this extremely unlikely to be illegal, but a single email? Also extremely unlikely to rise to the level of harassment.

On the other hand, if this isn't about just a single email, but is rather part of a continuing series of actions, then yes, it qualify as harassment.
posted by easily confused at 1:05 PM on March 25, 2012

I am not a lawyer and have no idea what kind of case could be pursued here. But I might, in your shoes, write a brief note to the woman and tell her that her email had been filed away for a potential future harassment case, and that any future communications will be received the same way.
posted by feets at 4:23 PM on March 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

i'm memail you, but since you're annonymous: did you set up a junk mail filter so that any email from this person goes into the trash folder? i'd think the best recourse against the person who sent the email is to just ignore them.
posted by cupcake1337 at 9:06 AM on March 26, 2012

« Older Where's my pencil?   |   FT or WSJ ? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.