No workers comp for criticism or questions

Workers Comp image
Criticism not compensable

If the boss criticizes you, can you claim workers’ comp? Some readers may consider the question unworthy of judicial resources but it was at the heart of Joseph Upton’s Case, which the Appeals Court had to ponder recently.

Imagine this situation. An employer suspects that an employee may not have been completely candid about a work-related matter relating to money. The employer questions the employee about the discrepancy. After being questioned the employee experiences an emotional reaction with physical symptoms (e.g. chest pains, shortness of breath) serious enough to prevent a return to work. May the employee collect workers compensation for the “emotional disability”?

Last week the Appeals Court said no. If an emotional disability arises out of “supervisory criticism or questioning” it constitutes a bona fide personnel action, and under Section 1(7A) of the Workers’ Compensation Act disabilities that arise principally out of such actions are not compensable. In reaching this conclusion, the court overturned the decision of the reviewing board in the Department of Industrial Accidents, which had itself overturned the decision of the administrative judge who heard the case.

The current version of Section 1(7A) is the product of several attempts by the Legislature to limit the circumstances in which employees can collect for emotional injuries. Given this progressive tightening of the statute by barring recovery for emotional distress resulting from transfer, demotion, and termination, the Appeals Court found it “improbable that the Legislature would… then allow compensation for the preliminary and tentative events of investigation and fact finding.” This reading of the plain language of the statute in the context of the problem the Legislature was trying to solve produced a common-sense result in line with that of the administrative judge. In contrast, if the court had let board’s decision stand employers would find themselves in an impossible situation, unable to even question an employee for fear of triggering an emotional-disability workers’ comp claim.

After explaining how its analysis of the Workers’ Compensation Act differed from the board’s, the Appeals Court addressed the issue of judicial deference. Where an administrative agency has the task of administering a statute, traditionally the courts defer to the agency’s interpretation. But after noting that “the policy of judicial deference is not a practice of judicial abdication,” the court observed that the board had never before taken the position that emotional injuries resulting from questioning or criticism merited compensation. So, the court concluded, “the usual factors supporting deference for an agency interpretation are absent.”

What should employers take away from this decision? The statute does not entitle employees to compensation for emotional disabilities arising out of bona fide personnel actions, which can include “supervisory criticism or questioning.”

Click here for an account of the underlying case.

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