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Stress Claims as a Remedy for Workplace Bullying

Workers' Compensation Stress Claims as a Remedy for Workplace Bullying [1]

By John D. Kovac, Esq.

Introduction

The workers' compensation system is currently the main venue offering a legal remedy for workplace bullying that does constitute discrimination based on race, age, sex and other protected categories under New Jersey and federal law. Under workers' compensation law, benefits are provided for work-related injuries. If the bullying does not result in an injury requiring medical treatment, though, there is no remedy. In many cases, however, bulling in the workplace results in stress-related health problems. According the U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey of 2007, the health of 45% of targets is affected.[2]

Bullying, as defined by The Workplace Bullying Institute, is repeated mistreatment manifested as either (1) verbal abuse; or (2) conduct which is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; or (3) sabotage that interferes with work; or (4) some combination of the above.[3]

Bullying cases can be considered a subset of stress-related workers' compensation claims. Many stress claims involve some bullying, often combined with other types of work-related stress. To understand how a bullying claim might play out in workers' compensation, one needs a fundamental understanding of compensation law and of how stress claims are governed by that law.

Three Necessary Elements of a Stress Claim

1. Proof of objectively stressful work conditions which the worker reacts to in a stressful manner. In Goyden v. State Judiciary, 256 N.J. Super 438 (App. Div. (1991), aff'd. 128 N.J. 54 (1992), the Court found that there was a mere subjectively perceived conflict with a supervisor which did not rise to the level of a compensable psychiatric claim. Goyden alleged that he was subjected to vindictive management procedures, particularly a biased and defamatory work evaluation that resulted in major depressive disorder, which compelled him to retire. The court, however, found that the criticism was merited. Goyden also alleged he was stressed by uncontrollable backlog and staff shortages, but the court found that these were not the cause of his stress. The Court noted, though, that work conditions such as backlog and staff shortages are subject to objective verification and thus could form a basis for a stress claim. Id. at 456.

Williams v. Western Electric Company, 178 N.J. Super. 571 (App. Div. 1981). makes clear that an employee's subjective reaction is not to be disregarded, though it cannot be the sole ingredient of the formula for compensation. Williams also teaches that objectively verifiable work conditions need not be outside of the ordinary work stresses: "The requirements of unusual strain or stress as a causative factor was rejected [. . . ] and we, as an intermediate court, cannot revive that approach." Id. at 106. Thus Williams specifically rejected the Wisconsin rule, which requires proof that the psychiatric injury must result from "greater dimensions than the day-to-day mental stress and tensions which all employees must experience." Id.

Walck v. Johns Manville, 56 NJ 522 (1970), involved a reaction to mental stress resulting in a heart attack. The petitioner feared he may lose his job, but this fear was unfounded. After the retirement of his long-time supervisor, the petitioner claimed, he became nervous, tense, and insecure about his work performance and about his ability to hold his job under his new supervisor. But the court found that his anxiety was purely subjective and based on an unfounded imaginary worry as opposed to a reasonable basis in fact. Therefore the court found that where the employee is a worrier who becomes unnecessarily nervous about losing his job and this worry results in a heart attack, it is not compensable.

In Williams v. Western Electric, supra, the petitioner alleged that his work on an assembly aggravated his underlying schizophrenia. However the court found that he had a purely subjective reaction to his job because of his schizophrenia: his diseased mind reacted to merely normal work demands. Therefore compensation benefits were denied.

2. Work conditions peculiar to the workplace (not just common to everyone). Fiore v. Consolidated Freightway, 140 N.J. 452, 468-470 (1994) illustrates "peculiar to the workplace":

If an employee contracted pneumonia as a result of working in a freezer as a packer, the condition would be a compensable occupational disease because it would be due to a cause which is peculiar to the employment. If the same employee contracted pneumonia as a result of incidental exposure to a fellow employee with pneumonia, however, this might not be compensable because the condition may not be due to a condition characteristic or peculiar to the employment.

Goyden held that merited criticism by a supervisor is common to all occupations and is therefore not peculiar to any particular trade or occupation. Id. at 451. In Williams, the petitioner had preexisting schizophrenia and evidence indicated he was equally irritated by things and people on and off the job. The facts in psychiatric claims brought before the Division must be distinguished from Goyden and Williams.

Cairnes v. City of East Orange held that a layoff or unemployment is not a risk arising out of employment but rather out of the economy and economic forces. A layoff notice is a threat that confronts every worker[4] and is therefore not stress peculiar to the workplace.

3. Objective medical evidence showing that the work conditions were the material cause of the psychiatric disability. Professional analysis in psychiatric claims, as opposed to physical claims, depends upon "analysis of the subjective statement of the patient." Saunderlin v. E.I. Dupont Company, 102 N.J. 402, 412 (1986). Though subjective evidence requires analysis beyond mere subjective statements and will not be present when the physician simply "parrots" the patient's complaints, objective evidence of a physical manifestation is not required in psychiatric claims. Id. at 412, 416. The distinction between objective and subjective "is not between physical and mental (or body and mind) but between independent professional analysis and the bare statement of the patient." Interposition of a professional judgment between a subjective statement and an award of disability does not involve exclusion of the subjective statement: any medical examination "must begin with the [patient's] subjective statement." In physical disability claims, medical analysis often goes beyond subjective statements by virtue of clinical and laboratory tests. But in psychiatric claims, diagnostic criteria include descriptions of states of mind "discoverable only through" the subjective statement. Id. at 412-414. Under Saunderlin, Reasoned analysis of the subjective statement of a psychiatric patient is objective within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 34:15-36. Id. at 313-314. But where petitioners saw their psychiatrists only once upon recommendation of their attorneys and the psychiatric reports merely dressed the complaints in "psychiatric nomenclature," the claims for psychiatric disability were dismissed. Id. at 418-419.

Specific Event versus Occupational Stress

In Prettyman v. State of New Jersey, 298 N.J. Super 580, 594 (App. Div. 1997), the court stated that Walck and Williams do not apply when an alleged psychiatric disability is caused by a specific event rather than a stressful work environment. Wrongly suspected of stealing from a coworker, petitioner was removed from work by the State Police and taken to a station for aggressive questioning. The court applied the "but for" test to determine that the petitioner's injuries arose out of her employment: but for the fact that she came to be suspected of theft while carrying out her usual duties, she would not have been taken for questioning a few days later. Respondent's contention, based on Cairns, that police investigations of theft are as normal to the workplace as layoff notices, was rejected along with the argument that the interrogation was a separate event that did not arise "during the course of employment." Among other things, the court's distinction in Prettyman between a specific event and a stressful environment suggests that a worker's predisposition cannot be used to bar specific event claims. Hence the court noted that the "employer takes the employee as the employer finds the employee, with all of the pre-existing diseases and infirmiti[es]." Evidence of the petitioner's emotional and excitable nature, precluded by the trial judge, was not deemed significant to respondent's defense. Id. at 592-595.

Limits to psychiatric stress claims apply to fact-specific circumstances and, in some cases such as Cairns, are based on considerations of public policy. These limits, however, do not apply to psychiatric injuries arising from accidents or occupational diseases that have caused other injuries, such as, for example, a machinist depressed after losing an arm or a construction worker depressed due to occupational pulmonary disease. A psychiatric claim in these latter instances would be limited only by Saunderlin, supra, which requires reasoned, objective, professional psychiatric analysis of the patient's state of mind.

Burden of Proof in Occupational Claims

In Lindquist v. City of Jersey City Fire Department, 175 N.J. 244 (2003), a firefighter with history of smoking cigarettes established that his exposure to smoke from fires contributed in a material way to his lung disease. Lindquist clarifies the standard applicable to all occupational claims in a way favorable to petitioners.

Standard of Proof: "It is sufficient in New Jersey to prove that the exposure to a risk or danger in the workplace was in fact a contributing cause of the injury. That means proof that the work related activities probably caused or contributed to the employee's disabling injury as a matter of medical fact. Direct causation is not required; proof establishing that the exposure caused the activation, acceleration or exacerbation of disabling symptoms is sufficient."

Bargain Theory: The Workers' Compensation Act "involved a historic trade-off whereby employees relinquished their rights to pursue common-law remedies in exchange for automatic entitlement to certain, but reduced, benefits whenever they suffered injuries . . . " At the " heart of this 'original bargain . . . . is the notion that the burden of proof on claimants would be easier . . . under workers' compensation laws than under common law."

As this standard applies to occupational claims in general, it would govern occupational stress claims and the related sub-category of occupational bullying claims.

3 Types of Workers' Compensation Benefits

1. Medical Treatment (Controlled by the Employer). Employee cannot go to his own doctor without getting prior authorization from the carrier—risks personal responsibility for payment in some instances. But the employer's right to control treatment may be lost if the treatment offered is ineffective or unreasonable. Benson v. Coca Cola, 115 N.J. Super 585 (Law. Div. 1971). See also N.J.S.A. 34: 15-15 providing that if the employer fails to provide treatment the employee may obtain it but the employee must request the treatment. A letter should be sent to the comp carrier or employer's attorney demanding adequate treatment.

Cure and Relieve. N.J.S.A. 34:15-15 requires an employer to furnish treatment "necessary to cure and relieve the worker of the effects of the injury and to restore the functions of the [worker's] injured member or organ where such restoration is possible." But Hanrahan v. Township of Sparta, 284 N.J. Super 427, 436 (App. Div. 1995), held that the phrase "cure and relieve" is not conjunctive: treatment must be provided as long as competent medical testimony establishes treatment is necessary to either cure the worker or relieve the worker of symptoms.

2. Temporary Disability Benefits ("TDB"). Paid weekly (for up to 400 weeks or 7.7 years) at 70% of average weekly wages up to a maximum in 2008 of $742 (SAWW 989.23 x .75). 34:15-12(b) and 34:15-38. Paid until the worker may resume her job or until MMI (is as far restored as the permanent character of the injuries will permit), whichever occurs first. Monaco v. Albert Maund, 17 N.J. Super. 425, 431 (App. Div. 1952).

Restricted Duty: Harbatuk v. S&S Furniture Systems Insulation, 211 N.J. Super 614, 628-629 (App. Div. 1986). If the employer provides full-time restricted employment within the worker's capacity, temporary disability benefits may be stopped, but not if the employer fails to offer suitable work. Furthermore Harbatuk favorably described an Oregon decision supporting the principal that a worker need not seek easier work in a different field while under active treatment to cure a work-related medical condition.

Med-Temp Motions: Must be filed if a worker has no way of obtaining necessary medical treatment, if there is a dispute over restricted duty, or if the worker is in financial distress and has no other means of obtaining temporary disability benefits. The motion is given priority on the calendar.

Temporary Disability Benefits (TDB). A disabled P can get TDB for six months (at 66.6%) while waiting for resolution of Med-Temp. Motion (fill out Agreement to Repay form). The Department of Labor gets a lien on comp recovery that must be repaid if the comp case is successful.

3. Permanent Disability Benefits. Worker not eligible until 26 weeks (6 months) after MMI or after return to work—whichever is earlier. Must show by objective medical evidence that the worker suffered a loss of functional capacity to work. The award is not for pain and suffering though pain and suffering may be considered if it affects ability to function. Both sides must have permanency exams to resolve the case. Benefits may be for permanent partial total (the worker is not fully disabled) or permanent total (due to injury the worker is unemployable in a reasonable stable job market).

Questions

1. Does the current law require permanent injury to win a judgment?

You can get medical and temporary disability benefits without being entitled to permanent disability benefits, but usually once medical attention is required, there will be some finding of permanency.

2. At what point of bullying should I seek legal recourse?

Certainly once your health is affected, if not before. However you should go to management immediately and ask for help. Psychiatric damages are compounded when management fails to properly respond and thus effectively becomes complicit in the bullying. Ask your employer to provide medical treatment if you feel upset or depressed, and report bullying immediately.

4. What are the best methods of documentation I should use?

E-mail, diary (note physical symptoms of stress—weight loss, upset stomach, vomiting, etc.), doctor visits (to company doctors and/or private doctors), e-mail to supervisors, etc.

5. Should I ask for my documented letters to HR to be placed in my personnel file?

You can but certainly keep a duplicate copy; or send by certified mail RRR.

6. How do I know if I can trust a colleague to help me with my case?

You never can be sure; it can be tough for colleagues to take action perceived to be against their employer. Nevertheless, corroboration is very helpful in bullying cases as well as in other stress claims. Such proof can come not only through coworkers, supervisors, personnel department staff, but also from therapists, family doctors, and family members. E-mail makes good evidence; supportive letters from coworkers also are helpful.

7. The economy is so bad right now, I feel like I will lose my job if I complain. What should I do?

Jobs are always at risk in these circumstances. You must weigh your health against financial needs if you can't work it out with the assistance of management. Look for written company policies. Most written policies have complaint procedures for harassment (usually gender or racial) but you may want to pursue the same procedures for bullying. You may go out of work and collect temporary disability benefits with doctor's certification. Psychiatrically injured workers may also be able to obtain a doctor note specifying work accommodations and thus seek protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act or NJ equivalent.

Notes:

[1] This article is a slight reworking of notes I prepared for presentation at "Bullying in the Workplace," a conference on November 22, 2008 sponsored by New Jersey State Bar Foundation and the Organization of Chinese Americans.

[2] http://bullyinginstitute.org/zogby2007/WBIsurvey2007.pdf

[3] http://bullyinginstitute.org/education/bbstudies/def.html

[4] In American Motors Insurance Company v. L-C-A Sales Company, 155 N.J. 29, 38 (1998) the New Jersey Supreme Court noted that Cairns was "based largely on 'the underlying policy considerations rather than the clear language of the act,'" quoting Cairns at 399. American Motors Insurance Company addresses the question of third-party coverage for an employer sued civilly for violating the Law Against Discrimination. Observing that Cairns involves a general economic risk applicable to all employment, the Court distinguished the situation in Cairns from one where an "employee-specific layoff notice" illegitimately targets an individual. Though American Motors Insurance Company does not address a workers' compensation claim, its reasoning nevertheless suggests that a layoff notice targeting a specific employee may create a right to compensation benefits if an illegitimate or illegal purpose is involved. Cairnes v. City of East Orange, however, held that a layoff or unemployment is not a risk arising out of employment but rather out of the economy and economic forces. A layoff notice is a threat that confronts every worker.

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