Workers’ Compensation Benefits Only Available for Emotional Injury Due to Personnel Actions if in Bad Faith
Under Massachusetts workers’ compensation law at Mass. G.L. ch. 152, § 1 (7A), an employee is not eligible for an award of benefits for a psychological and emotional injury that results from a bona fide (good faith) personnel action. But the employee would be eligible for benefits if a personnel action, such as a transfer, a promotion, a demotion, or a termination, is an intentional infliction of emotional harm, which, under the law, is not in good faith. To justify an award of benefits, the action must also be the predominant cause of the employee’s inability to work.
Hearing Judge Finds Employer Actions in Bad Faith
A dialysis nurse employed by Fresenius Medical Care Holdings, Inc. had been previously diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from a brutal childhood, but her mental state was stable at the time of the incidents leading to her workers’ compensation claim. The hearing judge had awarded § 34 benefits and medical benefits to the employee. The judge had found that some of the work events that the nurse claimed led to her being disabled due to worsening of her PTSD could be construed as personnel actions, but that they were not in good faith and the exclusion from recovery for emotional injuries under § 1(7A) did not apply.
Findings on Appeal
The insurer, American Casualty of Reading, Pa., appealed, denying that the actions that formed the basis of the employee’s injury were in bad faith, but claiming that they were “bona fide personnel actions” under current law and not intentional inflictions of emotional harm, as would be required under §1(7A) and § 29] for the employee to be eligible to receive benefits.
The Massachusetts Reviewing Board at Board No.03561-09 heard and decided the appeal. The Reviewing Board rejected the insurer’s contention that any personnel action is by definition in good faith. The Board found that the hearing judge, in conducting her analysis regarding good faith, had to determine whether the employer subjectively acted in good faith. The Board reviewed the record and decided that the judge’s factual findings should be sustained, since there were at least four actions by the employer against the employee that were not in good faith.
- A Corrective Action Form requiring the employee to arrive by 7:00 a.m. each day and obtain doctors’ orders prior to beginning dialysis, which the judge found was actually a supervisor’s attempt to scapegoat the employee for the supervisor’s failure to tell the employee of an order not to perform dialysis on a patient;
- A disciplinary action for the employee’s alleged tardiness, which the supervisor knew to be false;
- A Corrective Action Form for the employee’s allegedly leaving a dialysis machine un-disinfected at the end of the day and for being late, which in fact was retaliation by the supervisor for the employee’s going over the supervisor’s head; and
- During the employee’s Annual Review, she was informed she would be suspended for three days for being argumentative, for questioning her assignments or monthly schedule, and for being unprofessional and disrespectful. The hearing judge made factual findings that these allegations against the employee were all false.
Reviewing Board Affirms Award
The Board concluded that the hearing judge had ample evidence to find that the employer’s personnel actions against the employee were not in good faith, and that those actions therefore constituted intentional infliction of emotional harm, a valid basis for her claim for benefits for her emotional and psychological injury.
Finally, the Board rejected the insurer’s argument that the employee had failed to show that the personnel actions were not only not in good faith, but were also the predominant cause of her psychological injury. The Board relied on the medical evidence, specifically the opinion of the impartial physician, Dr. Whaley, as sufficient to conclude that the series of events at work was the major and predominant cause of the exacerbation of the employee’s PTSD. The Board affirmed the judge’s decision awarding benefits to the employee and ordered the insurer to pay the employee’s attorney fees.
If you have become ill or been injured at work, 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.
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