6th July 2016

Mental Stress Workers Compensation Claims

In Pennsylvania, a workers' compensation claimant alleging a mental stress injury caused by work must prove that he was exposed to "abnormal work conditions".  A recent Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Decision expands the definition of what constitutes an abnormal working condition as it relates to a mental stress-induced workers' compensation claim.  That case holds that, under certain circumstances, employees who are confronted with weapons are exposed to abnormal working conditions.  Proving an abnormal working condition is the heightened burden that a claimant-employee in a workers compensation case must meet where the claimant alleges a work related injury caused by stress at work.  As such, with few exceptions (discussed below), what a claimant must prove is not only that stress at work caused a mental injury, but also that the stress that caused the injury was not to be expected for the type of job the employee performs.  The Williams case is in contradiction to numerous previous cases which have held that an employee's job duties routinely place them in the presence of armed standoffs.  Will the Commonwealth Court's recent decision open the flood gates of compensability to additional mental injury cases involving the use of weapons?

In the 1985 Paramount Picture Witness, one of the main Amish characters has a discussion with his grandson in regards to handguns.  It is true that the principal purpose of a handgun is to take another person's life. When Dena Williams, a cashier at a suburban Philadelphia transport center, was crossing the employee lot on the way to her job on a fall morning in 2007, she was approached by a man who threatened her while brandishing a gun at her head.  The week before the assault, Ms. Williams had witnessed the same gunman trying to evade paying fare and the gunman's subsequent arrest by Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) Police.  Ms. Williams was told by the assailant at the time he pulled the gun on her that he would kill her if she testified against him.  She thereafter developed a mental illness.  In determining whether Ms. Williams' mental injury constituted a work-related injury, the court noted that a workers' compensation claimant alleging a mental injury caused by mental stress must prove an exposure to abnormal working conditions, and not a mere subjective reaction to normal working conditions.  The court also cited the US Airways case for the proposition that a claimant in a workers' compensation mental/mental case must prove that they were exposed to either actual extraordinary events occurring at work which can be pinpointed in time or abnormal working conditions over a long period of time.

The need to prove abnormal working conditions can be traced back to the Supreme Court Decision in Martin v. Ketchum wherein the Court held that a salesman who committed suicide was not exposed to normal abnormal working conditions, rather his death was a result of his perfectionist attitude. There, the Court stated, in an often quoted passage that, "It was Martin's failure to meet his self-imposed expectations and his perception of success that caused him to take his life. What caused his death was not his employment; Martin carried the impulse of his own destruction with him always. What happened to Charles Martin is a lesson about vulnerability of strong-willed, successful individuals. It is tragic. It is not compensable."

Since the date of the Martin Decision, more and more decisions have been handed down concerning the compensability of workers' compensation mental/mental claims involving the presence of a weapon such as a gun or knife. The majority of those decisions have found that it is not abnormal for an employee to be exposed to the threat of death by way of a weapon where the employee's job carries the threat of an armed assault. The easy cases that courts have dealt with address police officers and other law enforcement officials who have been confronted with weapons. In Kelly Farmery v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (City of Philadelphia), the Claimant was employed as a police officer who developed a mental illness following an incident involving a man who brandished a knife. Her mental illness involved symptoms of pain and tenderness in her abdomen which were of severity that she was, on occasion, required to go to a hospital emergency room.  Of interest is the fact that the Farmery case cited the Supreme Court case of Davis for the proposition that a claimant who asserts both a mental injury causing mental symptoms as well as a claimant asserting mental injuries causing physical symptoms (such as the abdominal pain that Ms. Farmery complained of, a mental/physical case) must prove abnormal working conditions. Therefore, as flushed out in Farmery, of the three types of mental injury cases; mental/mental, mental/physical, and physical/mental, only the physical/mental cases would not require a claimant to prove abnormal working conditions. The Commonwealth Court's holding in Farmery was that the Claimant was not exposed to abnormal working conditions, recognizing that,"...Some jobs are, by their very nature, highly stressful, especially the job of a police officer... For a high stress working environment to constitute a legally sufficient abnormal working condition there must be a finding either that the Claimant's work performance...was unusually stressful for that kind of job or a finding that an unusual event occurred making the job more stressful than it had been... Claimant's symptoms developed at the mere request the she perform certain jobs or assist other officers. She did not allege she worked under abnormal working conditions, nor did she offer any testimony to suggest that she was requested to perform work above and beyond her work duties as a police officer, such that would amount to abnormal working condition. Claimant testified regarding one specific incident, which brought on sever symptoms. Her testimony that 'I was confronted with a man with a knife and the pain got very severe and wouldn't go away'. does not support a finding of abnormal working conditions for a police officer."

While most people will agree that it is not an abnormal working condition for a police officer to be confronted with a weapon, the bright line between abnormal working conditions and normal working condition becomes more mottled as it relates to jobs which, in a vacuum, would have no exposure to a confrontation with guns and knives. Specifically, one would normally not assume that a bus driver would have to, on a routine basis and as a normal part of their job, be confronted with people who pull guns on them. However, that is exactly what the Commonwealth Court stated in McLaurin v. WCAB. There, the Claimant was employed as a bus driver for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) in West Philadelphia. Several hooded men entered Mr. McLaurin's bus without paying their fares and thereafter approached the claimant with a gun. Claimant subsequently pleaded for his life. He developed post-traumatic stress disorder. In defense of Claimant's Claim Petition, the Defendant/Employer presented testimony of a supervisor who indicated that the bus drivers are trained to expect dangerous passengers and given  training on how to deal with such difficult situations. The Defendant also presented testimony as to the number of assaults that occurred prior to and following the 2006 assault. In denying the Claimant's mental/mental injury claim, the court indicated that the Claimant,"...offered no proof that the October 2006 incident represented something that a SEPTA bus driver could not anticipate. On the other hand, SEPTA offered evidence showing that such incidents did occur with enough regularity that handling of them had been built into the operator's training program. The Workers' Compensation Judge therefore did not commit an error of law by holding that McLaurin's physic injury was not the result of an abnormal working condition." 

The Commonwealth Court reached the same conclusion as a lack of an abnormal working condition in a case involving a manager of an off-track betting facility who was held up at gunpoint. In Close v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board,  Ms. Close was confronted with an armed gunman while she was carrying a sack of money down a stairwell to her office on a lower level. The gunman spent two minutes confronting the Claimant with the gun which was pointed to her head at which time he threatened to shoot her if she moved. In denying the Claimants claim, the Commonwealth Court referenced evidence presented by the employer as to the fact that the Claimant had been trained in steps to take in a robbery and the fact that the facility had a security system, surveillance cameras and panic alarms including an alarm clip that managers carried with them. The court indicated that, "...The present case deals with a job in which robberies are, unfortunately, not out of the ordinary as evidenced by the fact that Claimant's establishment had been robbed several times. Moreover, all Managers, including, Claimant, were trained on how to deal with armed robberies, tested periodically to ensure that they knew the proper procedures, and provided with silent panic alarm clips to carry on them. In short, Claimant worked at an establishment where robberies were anticipated occurrences, and while Claimant was certainly faced with a dangerous and unpleasant work condition, she did not meet her heavy burden of proving that she was confronted with an abnormal working condition."

Return now to the Williams case, (the latest Decision of the Commonwealth Court), which stands for the proposition that, in certain circumstances, the factual scenario of being robbed/assaulted at gunpoint is not a normal working condition. Even though the Claimant in Williams had been previously robbed at gunpoint while working for SEPTA and, in another instance, slashed with a knife across the back of her leg during a robbery attempt, the Commonwealth Court found that that Claimant was subject to an abnormal working condition when she was last harangued. The Court found that Ms. Williams had been singled out by her assailant at the time of the assault and thus, unlike the bus driver in McLaurin who had been robbed at gunpoint, the court found that it was abnormal for this employee to be intimidated not to testifying under penalty of death. The Commonwealth Court concentrated on the fact that the Claimant's assault not only occurred while she was walking across the employee parking lot, (not in her cashier booth), but also looked at the fact that the Claimant was attacked as a result of her expected testimony in a robbery trial. In conclusion, the court noted that although SEPTA cashiers can expect to be confronted by individuals who rob them at gunpoint from the confines of their booth where SEPTA police are in the vicinity, in this case, the Claimant was robbed in the employee parking lot while on her way to work by a gunman who had previously evaded paying fare and whose motive in regards to assaulting the Claimant with a weapon involved witness intimidation.

Employees in other positions besides policeman, city bus driver, and managers of off-track betting facilities located in urban areas have also been faced with armed confrontation. Bank tellers have been held up at gunpoint and subsequently suffered psychiatric injuries; employers presenting testimony and evidence as to the training that those bank tellers undergo, including procedures to follow at the time of the robbery, i.e., silent alarm, dye packs, marked money, remembering the description of the assailant, etc. The question becomes, whether it is a normal working condition and to be expected for a bank teller to be subject to an armed robbery. 

The other class of employees subject to armed robberies is convenience stores sales clerks whose late night shifts undoubtedly invite the criminal element to rob, at gunpoint, these employees. Again, the question is whether these employees should expect to be subjected to an armed robbery given their job, the frequency of robberies of convenience stores and the training that the employees are provided to deal with the same.

The question becomes where the courts should draw the line in regards to classifying no employment as beyond the scope of the possibility of an armed robbery versus every job being without the stress of being subjected to being held up at gunpoint. Consider the case of a bar bouncer who could normally expect to be subjected to unruly patrons who, in various states of sobriety, become involved in a physical altercation with the bouncer. One could not rule out as being normal in such line of work being physically assaulted by a fist or a chair or a bottle. The question becomes whether a bar bouncer is subjected to abnormal working conditions when a bar patron pulls a gun on a bouncer and tells the bouncer that he is going to shoot his head off. In that case, the Claimant, who was married with two children, worked as an assistant supervisor (bouncer) at a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania bar. On September 26, 2009, at 2:00 a.m., he advised the last customer in the bar to finish his drink in ten minutes. In response thereto, the patron told the Claimant, "Who are you to tell me I have less than ten minutes to finish my drink? You don't even know me. I'm from Brooklyn. I'm having a bad day. You don't even know." The customer then declared that he was above the law, stood up and pulled out a gun, cocked the gun (which was without question loaded), and held the gun to the Claimant's forehead at which time the customer told the Claimant, "Sir, are you telling me now, tough guy, that I got less than ten f---ing minutes to finish my drink? I'm from Brooklyn. I'm having a bad day, and I will kill you if I have to. I've been locked up in the State of New York before, and have killed others. I will kill you over ten minutes for not letting me finish my drinks. You look down the barrel of my gun and tell me I have less than ten minutes to finish my drinks. (If someone) call(s) the cops there (will) be a f---ing blood bath and I will kill you all." It took the police approximately 20 minutes to arrive and arrest the patron at gunpoint. Claimant thereafter developed a stuttering problem, routinely became nervous and anxious, needed to take nerve medication and suffered a weight loss problem. He was diagnosed with suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Since the Supreme Court's proclamation of the abnormal working condition element required to prove a mental/mental or mental/physical cases, the lower courts have rarely extended the definition of the same to claimant's who have been subjected armed assaults where their job contains the risk of such confrontations. Williams seems to be fact specific, but all mental injury cases, as a result of their inherent quality, are unique unto themselves, as opposed to the cut and dry physical injury cases. It is easy to detect a broken bone or herniated disc by X-ray or MRI. It is not easy to peer into the mind of a claimant to determine whether they suffer from a mental injury, the cause of the same, and most importantly, whether that employee should have expected to be confronted with a weapon  in the course and scope of their job. It is predicted that more and more cases will wind their way to the Commonwealth and Supreme Courts addressing whether it is abnormal for employees to be confronted with weapons as it relates to their specific job titles.

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