WCAB decision in stress claim overturned because psychiatrist report was flawed
 June 1, 2013

Stress claims in California continue to plague employers, even though they are hard to prove. The worker must demonstrate that his or her condition is work-related, which requires that the majority of the stressor(s) are from the workplace. And, even when the worker has a genuinely stress-related condition, if it is due to a "good faith personnel action,” the Labor Code provides the employer with a solid defense. On April 22, 2013, in County of Sacramento vs. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, the Third Appellate District threw out a decision of the WCAB, ruling that a medical evaluator's testimony did not constitute substantial evidence in support of a workers' compensation award because it muddled the concepts of cause and effect. The result was that symptoms of the worker’s psychiatric injury were erroneously identified by the evaluator as causes of the injury, while she dismissed the lawful personnel actions that caused the injury as merely a minor causative factor.

A supervising probation officer (Parker) at juvenile hall filed a complaint against supervisor Michael Brooks, alleging that he used excessive force. The complaint triggered an internal affairs investigation. Brooks was told of the allegations against him and the pending investigation and he was directed to refrain from any supervisory duties involving Parker. Brooks believed the directive was unreasonable, since it was his job to supervise Parker. He asked to be reassigned or placed on administrative leave pending completion of the investigation. His request was denied, although he was permitted to change his shifts to reduce contact with Parker. One day, Brooks arrived at work and saw that Parker was also on the schedule. Brooks was too upset to work and filed a workers' compensation claim.

A psychiatrist evaluated Brooks and diagnosed him as suffering from adjustment disorder with depressed and anxious moods. She testified that Brooks’ disorder was caused by (1) Parker’s complaint, (2) the internal affairs investigation, and (3) Brooks' "feelings that he was unsupported by his supervisors.” The County denied liability, arguing that the claim was barred by the personnel action defense set forth at Labor Code §3208.3(h), which provides that a worker’s psychiatric injury is not compensable “if the injury was substantially caused by a lawful, nondiscriminatory, good faith personnel action.” According to the psychiatrist, the internal affairs investigation was at least one-third the cause of Brooks' injury. If even a small amount of the remaining causation could be attributed to personnel actions, then personnel actions constituted a substantial cause of Brooks' injury and the Labor Code §3208.3 defense applied. She testified that Brooks’ feelings that his supervisors did not support him purportedly constituted an additional cause of his injury.

The workers' compensation judge ruled in Brooks' favor and the WCAB affirmed that decision. The Board's causation analysis treated Brooks' "feelings that he was unsupported by his supervisors" as a cause of psychiatric injury. The Court of Appeal strongly disagreed. In reality, the court found, Brooks’ feelings were the injury, or symptoms of the injury, not the cause of the injury. The evaluator admitted under questioning that although she tried to separate out the causes of Brooks' injury, "no doubt it is all interrelated." She was unable to differentiate between the causes of Brooks' injury and the symptoms of that injury. The court ruled that the psychiatrist's reports and testimony were so confusing and inconsistent that her opinion could not support the board’s conclusion that personnel actions were not a substantial cause of Brooks’ injury. The Court of Appeal concluded that the WCAB should have, but did not, examine the record for evidence concerning what caused Brooks’ “feelings that he was unsupported by his supervisors." Absent the error, the board might well have concluded that personnel actions substantially caused Brooks’ psychiatric injury. Prevention Strategies: Make sure that your supervisors can establish the good faith, job related basis for their personnel actions, including performance evaluations and work-related decisions. Always document carefully the grounds for any adverse action, so that if a worker claims stress-related illness, you can establish an applicable defense to any claim for workers’ compensation benefits.

Patricia S. Eyres (Patti) is Managing Partner of Eyres Law Group, LLP. She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University and earned her law degree from Loyola Law School, cum laude in 1977. Patti calls herself a “recovering litigator,” who knows first-hand the value of paying attention to prevention. After spending 18 years devoted exclusively to defending companies in the courtroom, she resolved to help business leaders recognize potential legal landmines before they explode into lawsuits. She brings a unique and practical perspective to the critical legal issues impacting the workplace. As CEO/Publisher of Proactive Law Press, LLC, , Eyres supervises the production and publication of books, training materials and educational products for business owners, public school administrators, front-line leaders, HR and Risk Managers. She can be reached at peyres@eyreslaw.com or 480-607-5847.


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