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Court Takes a Step Back on Proving Abnormal Working Conditions

A little over a year ago, the state Supreme Court case of Payes v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania State Police), 79 A.3d 543 (Pa. 2013), finally eased the burden, even if ever so slightly, on the injured worker attempting to prove a mental-mental claim for a psychiatric work injury and disability. It was hoped by the claimants’ bar that the case signaled a reverse in the longstanding trend of the courts finding new and inventive ways to deny mental-mental claims. The Supreme Court essentially found that the lower tribunals had overreached in many instances.

At issue in any mental-mental case is the heightened burden of proof first identified by the 1990 Supreme Court case of Martin v. Ketchum, 568 A.2d 159 (Pa. 1990). In Martin, it was held that an injured worker seeking to prove a psychological claim based solely on mental stimulus must prove abnormal working conditions to prevent merely subjective, perceived or imagined claims from being found compensable. Martin’s progeny added the additional consideration that mental injuries must be considered in the context of specific employment. In other words, the specific work environment must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. Dangerous professions that are inherently subject to working conditions that would be abnormal in almost every other setting suddenly became entirely normal.

In Payes, the Supreme Court took the Commonwealth Court to task for going beyond the foundational precepts it had set. The court found that the abnormal-working-conditions analysis cannot end with a finding that a claimant works in a highly stressful occupation. That would invalidate any factual findings. The court stressed adherence to the trier of fact’s determinations bound by the well-supported facts found by the [workers’ compensation judge].

In this month’s Commonwealth Court case of Frog, Switch & Manufacturing v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Johnson), (No. 149 C.D.2014), the bar has been raised once again with respect to an injured worker’s efforts to prove a mental-mental claim. The court took issue with the quality of evidence needed to support a mental-mental claim. In that case, the claimant, Lindora Johnson, filed a claim petition, alleging that she sustained a work injury in the nature of atypical depression related to abnormal working conditions. The allegation stemmed from three separate workplace incidents of racial and sexual harassment, which were also brought before the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. The claim petition identified a closed period of disability, from the identified date of injury Sept. 29, 2009, through April 19, 2010, when Johnson returned to work.

Given that the alleged disability period was less than 52 weeks, Johnson chose to submit medical treatment notes from various doctors to support her burden, as allowed by the act, as opposed to expert medical testimony. In further support of her burden of proof, Johnson also testified on her own behalf and presented the testimony of a co-worker.

Following multiple hearings, the workers’ compensation judge granted Johnson’s claim petition. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board affirmed the WCJ’s decision. On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, the employer’s primary argument was not whether the working conditions were abnormal, but whether the WCJ’s findings of fact were supported by substantial evidence. While the employer did argue a lack of abnormal working conditions secondarily, the court never reached a conclusion on the issue because it found that the WCJ’s findings were, in fact, not supported by substantial evidence. Given the slightly lighter burden as outlined in Payes, this focus on the quality of evidence is a bit troubling.

The WCJ found that as a general matter, the workplace incidents triggered the emotional response. The board did not see fit to disturb those findings. However, the Commonwealth Court went into minute detail in comparing the witnesses’ testimony to the medical reports and concluded that there was not substantial evidence to support the WCJ’s findings.

Specifically, the court stated: Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to claimant and drawing all reasonable inferences therefrom, we cannot find in the record before us ‘such relevant evidence a reasonable person might find sufficient to support the WCJ’s findings’ of fact 14, 38, 39 and 40.

The dissenting opinion took issue with this conclusion. While allowing that the majority recited the correct test to determine whether the WCJ’s findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, it was argued that the majority neither viewed the evidence in a light most favorable to claimant nor drew all reasonable inferences therefrom. In fact, the dissent opined that the majority did just the opposite.

Certainly, it is easy to take issue with the records from the treating doctors submitted by the claimant. The records were a bit vague in describing any particular incident, but as indicated above, they related the cause of the psychological injury to work conditions that the WCJ deemed abnormal. That should have been enough to bind the appellate courts to accept those credibility findings as per the Payes decision. However, the court held that since the specific events were not referenced in the records, the substantial evidence test was not met. Moreover, the court pointed to the lack of direct correlation between the fact witness testimony and the medical records. From the claimant’s perspective, this is quarreling with credibility determinations, which should have been resolved at the trial level. The legal burden is high enough.

The obvious lesson to be learned from this case is that medical evidence should be tailored to directly relate an injured worker’s psychological condition to a specific incident. General references to abnormal working conditions will not be accepted as competent evidence to support the burden of proof. While it is certainly easier to control medical evidence when it is being offered through trial deposition testimony, medical reports presented to meet the burden can be an option in limited disability cases where the reports are specifically tailored to the burden. It is imperative to use Johnson as a guide in that regard. Nonetheless, it is unfortunate that the appellate courts have offered employers yet another way to contest mental-mental claims.

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