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February 25, 2014

Workers’ Compensation Law benefit claims based on "work-related" mental stress


Workers’ Compensation Law benefit claims based on "work-related" mental stress 
2014 NY Slip Op 00916, Appellate Division, Third Department

A police officer [Claimant] was on duty when he was called to the scene of an incident in which an armed suspect was firing shots at passing motorists and law enforcement officers.

Claimant and two fellow officers were assigned to be part of a "contact team," which approached the shooter from behind. The suspect was shot several times and died from those wounds. Claimant began to miss work and then filed an application for workers' compensation benefits. His claim was controverted by the police department.

Claimant was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder related to the incident, which rendered him disabled. A Workers' Compensation Law Judge, however, denied his claim, finding that the events giving rise to Claimant's injury were part of his job description and responsibilities as a peace officer. The Law Judge ruled that Claimant had not sustained an accidental injury in the course of his employment.

The Workers' Compensation Board ultimately affirmed the Law Judge’s decision and Claimant appealed.

The Appellate Division upheld the Appeal Board’s decision, explaining that for a mental injury premised on work-related stress to be compensable, "the stress must be greater than that which usually occurs in the normal work environment."*

Whether the stress experienced by a claimant is more than that normally encountered is a factual question for the Board to resolve, and its finding will not be disturbed when supported by substantial evidence.

In this instance, said the court, although Claimant's supervisor described the particular circumstances of the encounter as "extraordinary," the regular course of duty for a police officer — no matter the size of the department — requires that he or she be on notice each day that deadly force may be required to subdue a suspect who is endangering public safety.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division said that it declined to disturb the Board's decision.

Other claims seeking Workers' Compensation Law benefits in which the individual claim he or she was entitled to benefits due to stress suffered on the job include:

1. Mattoon v Workers' Compensation Board, 284 A.D.2d 667 – employee not eligible for Workers’ Compensation benefits after leaving her job “due to work-related stress that resulted in depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.” resulting from employee’s reassignment to anther position.

2. Witkowich v SUNY Alfred State Coll. of Ceramics, 80 AD3 1099 - Stress resulting from a lawful personnel action, including discipline, is not a compensable injury within the meaning of the Workers’ Compensation Law

3. Veeder v New York State Police Dept. - 86 AD3d 762 - Workers' Compensation Law benefits not available for “mental injury” resulting from an employer’s lawful personnel actions

*Section 2(7) of the Workers’ Compensation Law specifically excludes from compensation "an injury which is solely mental and is based on work related 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.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2014/2014_00916.htm
.

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