A Capehart Scatchard Blog

Court Rejects Occupational Stress Claim

By on June 27, 2012 in Claims with 1 Comment

Employee could not prove objectively verified stressful conditions

 New Jersey has a sensible occupational stress standard, namely that the person claiming work stress as a cause for psychiatric illness must prove objectively that the work conditions were stressful.  Since all employees experience some degree of stress, this standard is not very easily met.

In Knight v. Audubon Savings Bank, A-0173-11T1 (App. Div. June 26, 2012), Jeanne Wright alleged that her boss, the chief residential loan officer and vice president, screamed at her and gave her such negative job reviews that she became incapacitated with stress.  Three co-employees testified on behalf of petitioner.

Respondent first proved that the petitioner’s actual written performance evaluations were consistently good for several years.  Although petitioner perceived them as negative, her rating was consistently “good.”

Secondly, at the time petitioner left her employment and filed for disability benefits on February 3, 2010, her mother was dying.  She told other employees that there were problems with her mother’s hospice care.  That created an inference that work stress was not the real reason for her separation.

Third, the testimony of her co-employees did not fully support her case.  All the employees said that petitioner had a strained relationship with her supervisor, but that was the only point they agreed on.  One employee said that he never saw the supervisor yell at petitioner, although he himself had been yelled at by the supervisor.  He also said he did not consider the expectations placed on petitioner at work to be unreasonable.  The second witness said that she perceived petitioner and her boss as being equally provocative.  She heard petitioner goad her supervisor on several occasions.  The final witness said that she never heard any loud disagreements between petitioner and her boss.  She did not consider the supervisor to have been inappropriately harsh with petitioner.

Respondent offered testimony from lay witnesses as well, all of whom disputed that there was any yelling at work and who said they thought petitioner left work to care for her mother.

The testimony of the expert psychiatrists in this case was completely at odds. Petitioner’s expert said that her depression and anxiety were caused by work conditions.  However, he admitted that he had been unaware that her evaluations were in fact good, and that she had been taking anti-anxiety medication since 2003 or 2004.  The respondent’s expert opined that petitioner had a personality disorder and a depressed mood due to her mother’s death.

In the end, the Judge of Compensation focused on the fact that the job evaluations were not really negative.  They contained remarks about needing to improve, but they were mostly positive.  The Appellate Division affirmed:  “As the judge observed, the only witness who described highly stressful workplace conditions was petitioner.  Her statements were refuted by other witnesses, however, and by several years of written performance evaluations.”

This case is a textbook example of how an employer can successfully defend a stress claim.  Testimony from employees disputing the allegedly stressful work conditions is crucial.  Proving that petitioner simply misapprehended her job evaluations as negative was also decisive.   Occupational stress cases rise or fall on the facts, not so much on expert opinion, because the expert only knows what the claimant provides to the expert. Hence, practitioners must pin down the facts through testimony from witnesses with a particular focus on whether there is objective evidence of work stress.

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John H. Geaney

About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, a shareholder and co-chair of Capehart Scatchard's Workers' Compensation department, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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There is 1 Brilliant Comment

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  1. This case supports the proposition that if an expert witness relies on facts not found be the court the opinion of the experts opinion is flawed and not worthy of reliance.

    Ms. Knight told her expert that she left the job due to her supervisor giving her unwarranted poor performance evaluations which turned out to be false.

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