Stressed at Work? You Might Have a Workers Compensation Claim

Vol. 2, No. 12

 

  • Has the stress resulted in permanent impairment?
  • Can it be proven that the cause of the stress was primarily work related?
  • Was the stress above the normal level for the position?

 

Have you ever been stressed at work? In the legal profession, we all have. But do you have a Workers Compensation stress-related claim in your state? The answer is you might, but proving your case will be at best difficult, and at the worst, stressful.

In reviewing numerous statutes and cases, stress-based claims are not your typical workplace-related injury. Unlike a broken arm or the loss of a limb or even loss of an organ or bodily function, stress-related claims are psychological in nature, not orthopedic or neurological. As such, stress-related claims have a higher standard of proof for a petitioner due to the very nature of the claim. Work-related stress claims are vague at best and present the practitioner with a unique and challenging Workers Compensation case.

No matter what job you are in there are varying levels of stress, which are handled differently by each individual. Stress is a natural reaction that all of us experience from being in situations that cause heightened levels of anxiety, sometimes resulting in mental distress (including the inability to reason), which can lead to emotional breakdowns and in rare instances, physical manifestations. Sometimes stress can result in permanent impairment, which might be compensable under the Workers Compensation laws of your individual state.

In New Jersey, for instance, all Workers Compensation claims are made pursuant to Title 34 of the New Jersey Statutes Annotated. Pursuant to Title 34, petitioners must establish that they were employees and that the injuries were caused while they were at work. Those criteria are needed in every Workers Compensation matter in every state. Most Workers Compensation cases do not involve permanency awards, but only result in temporary benefits being paid (i.e., wages) and/or medical cost being paid (those directly incurred as a result of the workplace occurrence). In order to obtain a permanency award, the petitioner must establish that the injury resulted in a “permanent” condition whereby the petitioner has permanently lost the use or function of a body part either partially or totally. In the case of a physical injury that is usually not difficult to prove. But in the case of a psychological injury, the cause of the injury and the “permanency” present unique proof problems for the petitioner.

 

Knight v. Audobon Savings Bank

In the recent case of Knight v. Audubon Savings Bank, No. A-0173-11T1, Superior Court of New Jersey (App. Div. 2012), the court held that in order to maintain a stress-related claim, the petitioner must establish that the permanent disability resulted materially from “objectively verified” job-related stress. That standard would be reviewed on a case by case basis. In Knight, the petitioner claimed that her supervisor’s screaming and heavy workload had made her job so stressful that it gave rise to a compensable psychiatric claim. The appellate court affirmed the Workers Compensation court’s decision that there was not a compensable claim.

Factually, Knight had received “good” to “very good” evaluations on her job performance evaluations, which she categorized as “negative” during her testimony. In February 2010, when she left her employment, she had told coworkers that she was leaving because there were problems with her mother’s hospice care. During her testimony, the petitioner testified that when she called two days later, her direct supervisor “screamed at her” on the phone due to a problem with a customer’s insurance policy. In her petition, Knight claimed that she left her employment due to the psychiatric stress that was caused by her supervisor’s ill treatment of her and not her mother’s condition. During testimony, coworkers did not support her allegations that she had been “screamed at” but did say that Knight and her supervisor did not get along.

Knight did present medical evidence that she suffered from stress as she was prescribed antianxiety medication in 2003 and 2004 for job-related anxiety, as diagnosed by her doctor. In 2010, a psychiatrist described the petitioner’s psychiatric disabilities as “adjustment disorder” with mixed “anxious and depressive features.” Those records were entered in support of her permanency claim.

In July 2011, a Workers Compensation judge ruled that the petitioner did not provide medical evidence that an “objectively stressful work conditions” caused her psychiatric diagnosis. The court stated that normal stress is inherent in every job and a petitioner must show “objectively” that the stress was above the normal level for that position and, further, that it was the cause of the petitioner’s psychiatric condition. Further, the court did not find the petitioner’s testimony credible regarding the cause of her stress condition. In short, the Workers Compensation court ruled that it could not find by credible evidence that “objectively verified work stress” were the “material cause” or were “to a material degree” a contributing factor to the petitioner’s stress claim and her petition was dismissed. On appeal, the ruling was upheld.

Knight is typical of most New Jersey claims for stress-related claims. In almost all cases the petitioner’s claim of job-related stress falls short of the standard of proof that the petitioner’s disability must result from an “objectively verified” job- related stress situation. As it is clear from the Knight decision, a petitioner’s stress claim must be supported by evidence that above normal work stress was the cause of the permanent psychiatric condition.

 

California's Workers Compensation Statutes

In contrast to New Jersey, California’s Workers Compensation statutes provide the requirements for an employee to recover for a stress-related claim. Pursuant to the California labor law, a psychiatric injury is compensable if there is a diagnosed mental disorder that caused the disability or the need for treatment. An injured employee must prove that the actual events of employment were the predominant cause (51%) among all of the combined causes of the psychiatric injury. The employee has the burden of proof, which must include the employee’s prior medical history, financial/medical issues, and personal/family issues. Additionally, the employee must have been employed by the employer for at least six months, which, according to the statute, need not be continuous. Sudden or extraordinary employment conditions are exceptions to this rule. Claims for psychiatric injuries that were caused by “lawful, nondiscriminatory good faith personnel actions” are prohibited by law.

Unlike New Jersey, stress claims in California must be supported mainly with physician’s testimony. Their reports must be based on a detailed review of the employee’s background, such as developmental history, personal problems, job satisfaction, and performance reviews. Depositions, coworker’s statements, personal records, psychometric test data, academic and military records, and interviews with family members must be part of the report. See California’s Labor Code, Section 3208 et al for the statutory requirements to make a prima facie stress-related claim.

To summarize, whether your stress-related case is in New Jersey or California or any other jurisdiction, the petitioner has the burden of proving a workplace stress-related claim with facts and medical proofs. If you get involved in a stress-related Workers Compensation case, be sure to evaluate the case closely and determine if the petitioner has a genuine Workers Compensation permanency claim. Investigate whether there was above normal stress levels for that position and make sure that your medical expert eliminates other potential causes that could have contributed to the psychiatric condition. If not, you and the petitioner/employee will have nothing but stress to show for your efforts.

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