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Occupational Stress – Goyden v. State Judiciary

By on July 7, 2008 in Claims with 0 Comments

The most important occupational stress psychiatric opinion is Goyden v. State Judiciary, 256 N.J. Super. 438 (App. Div. 1991), aff’d, 128 N.J. 54 (1992). Goyden was the first significant post-1980 case construing Section 31. It involved a claim by the supervisor of records in the office of the Clerk of the Supreme Court, who was adjudged at trial in the Division of Workers’ Compensation totally and permanently disabled due to severe depression. Petitioner alleged that conditions at work, including extreme backlog in filing court documents, a change in filing procedures to computers, and vindictive managerial procedures, led to his depression.

The appellate court in Goyden reversed the award of 100% total and permanent disability. First, it negated the petitioner’s allegation of vindictive management procedures, finding a basis for the job evaluations of the petitioner. “Merited criticism cannot fairly be considered to be a ‘cause… and condition… characteristic of or peculiar to a particular trade, occupation, process of place of employment.’” The court went on to say that merited criticism is common to all occupations. This is exactly the analysis of Section 31 that Professor Larson referred to above.

The court then proceeded to find that there was ample evidence in the psychiatric testimony that petitioner had a compulsive personality, which stemmed from his childhood and tied his self-esteem to his job. This underlying compulsive personality condition created the stress petitioner felt on his job and would have done so regardless of “peculiar” workplace conditions. “The existence of such a predisposition precludes compensability not otherwise supported by evidence of ‘peculiar’ conditions which would be stressful to those without such a predisposition,” Goyden at p.459, citing Williams v. Western Electric, 178 N.J. Super. 571, 582 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 87 N.J. 380 (1981).

The court next discussed the purpose of the 1979 Amendments with respect to Section 31.

This definition of ‘compensable occupational disease’ was part of the 1979 legislative amendments which narrowed eligibility for workers’ compensation. Previously, compensation was permitted for all occupational disease arising out of and in the course of employment, not just that ‘peculiar’ to the employment. The purpose of these 1979 amendments was to ‘benefit employers’ and to limit compensation for occupational disease to those which are characteristic of and peculiar to a particular employment.’

Goyden, at p. 443. The test now in occupational psychiatric claims is much more clear and also much more burdensome on claimants. The claimant must prove as follows:

  1. Objectively verified stressful work conditions (This will require more than just the testimony of the claimant, as the Williams court noted at p.585).
  2. Work conditions peculiar to the workplace (not just common to everyone).
  3. Medical evidence showing that these work conditions were the material cause of the psychiatric disability. This is particularly problematic where the worker already has a prior psychiatric problem. If such a preexisting psychiatric problem exists the claimant will have to prove that a person without that preexisting psychiatric condition would have reacted in the same manner to the work stress as the claimant did. Goyden at p.459.

Goyden deals more thoroughly with occupational psychiatric claims than any case before or since its decision. While the standards may seem somewhat confusing, the Goyden case sweeps aside a large portion of psychiatric claims just by stating that merited criticism cannot form the basis of a workers’ compensation claim. Many occupational psychiatric claims emanate from the reaction of an employee to some sort of legitimate work criticism. It is also clear from Cairns v. City of East Orange, 267 N.J. Super. 395 (App. Div. 1993) that a psychiatric reaction to the receipt of a layoff notice is not compensable. The reasoning behind Cairns is that worry over losing one’s job is common to everyone in all occupations. See also Iatridis v. Georgeson Shareholders, No. A-0284-08T3 (App. Div. March 31, 2010). The court said that stress caused from personnel decisions that occur at work is an ordinary part of life and not peculiar to any place of employment.

Goyden and Cairns have little applicability where a traumatic event leads to psychiatric problems, as in Prettyman v. State, 298 N.J. Super. 580 (App. Div. 1997). In that case, detectives wrongly accused petitioner of stealing a key to the receptionist’s desk. A bracelet was allegedly lost from a desk, which petitioner had checked, not knowing she was on film. Petitioner was looking for a key, but the detectives thought she was trying to steal the bracelet. The Appellate Division said, “… Even if the detectives’ actions were legitimate law enforcement techniques, the fact that their actions caused petitioner’s psychiatric disability is sufficient for an award of benefits. …” Id. at 597.

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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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