In Massachusetts, Emotional Distress At Work May Qualify An Employee To Receive Workers’ Compensation Benefits

A successful plaintiff in a lawsuit for personal injury due to an intentional or negligent act by another may be awarded damages by a judge or jury for emotional distress, in addition to compensation for physical injuries and lost wages. A Massachusetts court recently confirmed that compensation for emotional distress is also available through the workers’ compensation system to an employee suffering from work-related stress.

The Appeals Court of Massachusetts in February 2014 ruled in favor of an employee who sued his employer for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The court found that the proper remedy for the employee is workers’ compensation. (The case is Jason Nicholls vs. Boston Transportation Department & Another, 13-P-293, 85 Mass. App. Ct. 1102; 3 N.E.3d 1119; 2014 Mass. App. Unpub., February 27, 2014.)

The plaintiff in this case was a parking control officer, a stressful job in itself, but to add to his stress, he had an allegedly abusive supervisor. The plaintiff worked for the Boston Transportation Department (BTD), patrolling the streets of Boston, ticketing and towing motor vehicles.  Angry car owners sometimes reacted to his ticketing or towing their vehicles by subjecting him to verbal, emotional, and even physical abuse. One outraged motorist slammed him against a utility pole.

After the incident involving the utility pole, several physicians, one of whom was retained by BTD, diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and attributed the diagnosis to the stress of his work. He took a leave of absence.

The employee alleged that his supervisor began making his work experience even worse. The BTD director of administration and finance sent him a letter, stating that he was medically cleared to return to work and ordering him to report to duty by a certain date or be fired. The statement that the plaintiff was medically cleared to return to work was later discovered to be a mistake. The plaintiff called the administrator, arguing with him over the letter. The next letter the plaintiff received was a notice of termination.

Less than one month later, BTD contacted him, offering him a job as a dispatcher, but only if he first obtained certification from a doctor of medical fitness for the job. However, after he had obtained and provided the doctor’s verification, BTD advised him that the dispatcher position was ‘frozen’ and no longer available.

He was terminated only a few months following his attempted return to work, as a result of an arbitration process, part of a collective bargaining agreement. He claimed that he only learned of his termination when he submitted his medical clearance to return to work as a parking enforcement officer, having never been notified of the termination proceedings.

After he was fired, he filed suit against BTD, alleging handicap discrimination, retaliation, interference with contract, and intentional infliction of emotional distress by the BTD administrator with whom he had argued on the telephone.

The Superior Court dismissed all the plaintiff’s causes of action except the claim against BTD for intentional infliction of emotional distress, due to the actions of the supervisor. Both sides appealed.

The Appeals Court affirmed the dismissal of all the causes of action except intentional infliction of emotional distress.  The court kept the cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress alive, at least temporarily, by finding that the employee had a potential remedy through workers’ compensation.

The court found that the BTD administrator had triggered the workers’ compensation coverage when he acted within the scope of his duties as the director of administration and finance for BTD in:

  • Directing the plaintiff to return to work;
  • Threatening him with termination if he failed to do so; and
  • Engaging in a hostile telephone conversation on the subject.

The Court of Appeals held that the supervisor had no individual liability for the plaintiff’s alleged work-inflicted emotional distress. However, BTD, as the administrator’s employer, had vicarious responsibility for the supervisor’s actions within the scope of his employment, and therefore the plaintiff had a potential claim for benefits from workers’ compensation.

For more information about the workers’ compensation process, contact a Boston workers’ compensation attorney from Pulgini & Norton to schedule a free consultation to find out more about what our lawyers can accomplish for you. Contact us with a brief description of your situation or reach us by phone at our Downtown Boston, Hyde Park, or Braintree, Massachusetts office locations.

More Posts:

Pain Management and Workers’ Compensation, Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog, April 23, 2014

The Top Five Most Expensive Workers’ Compensation Claims, Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog, March 26, 2014

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