Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Workers' Compensation Law benefits not available for “mental injury” resulting from an employer’s lawful personnel actions

Workers' Compensation Law benefits not available for “mental injury” resulting from an employer’s lawful personnel actions
Matter of Veeder v New York State Police Dept., 2011 NY Slip Op 05921, Appellate Division, Third Department

The widow of a Division of State Police forensic scientist, Donna Veeder, filed an application for workers' compensation death benefits, claiming that her husband became depressed and committed suicide as a result of actions she alleged were taken against him by the Division in the course of an investigation of her late husband’s performance of his duties.

The Workers' Compensation Law Board affirmed, concluding that Workers' Compensation Law §2(7)* barred the claim since the Division's actions were made in good faith and were the result of "a lawful personnel decision involving an investigation and potential disciplinary action."

Veeder appealed contending that that §2(7) was inapplicable because her husband had committed suicide and thus his injuries cannot be "solely mental."

The Appellate Division rejected this argument, explaining that “The unrefuted psychiatric evidence contained in the record, as well as the suicide letters, make clear that decedent's suicide was predominantly the product of the depression and stress he experienced from the employer's inquiry” into his performance of his duties. Accordingly, if work-related stress is not compensable under Workers' Compensation Law §2(7), “it necessarily follows that any physical injury that resulted therefrom cannot be compensable either.”

Considering Veeder’s argument that the Division’s actions in this case were not undertaken in the context of a "disciplinary action" within the meaning of the statute, the Appellate Division decided that Board's finding lacks substantial evidence in the record.

The court noted that there was “unequivocally” testimony that “there was no disciplinary action underway during the inquiry” and that the purpose of the meetings was to review the procedures employed by Veeder’s late husband “in conducting the testing and to look into ways for the laboratory to improve its testing methods.”

As the Board, having found the Division's actions to constitute a "disciplinary action" under Workers' Compensation Law §2(7), it did not reach the employer's alternative argument that its actions in that regard could also be deemed an evaluation of decedent's work under the statute, and that the stress experienced by decedent was no greater than that normally encountered in the work environment.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division vacated the Board’s determination and remanded the matter to it “for resolution of these issues.”

* Workers' Compensation Law §2(7) provides, in relevant part, that "[t]he terms 'injury' and 'personal injury' shall not include an injury which is solely mental and is based on workrelated stress if such mental injury is a direct consequence of a lawful personnel decision involving a disciplinary action, work evaluation, job transfer, demotion, or termination taken in good faith by the employer"

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.courts.state.ny.us/reporter/3dseries/2011/2011_05921.htm

Handbooks focusing on State and Municipal Public Personnel Law continue to be available for purchase via the links provided below:

The Discipline Book at http://thedisciplinebook.blogspot.com/

Challenging Adverse Personnel Decisions at http://nypplarchives.blogspot.com

The Disability Benefits E-book: at http://section207.blogspot.com/

Layoff, Preferred Lists at http://nylayoff.blogspot.com/

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