Do Higher Standards from a Supervisor Translate to a Successful Claim?
A worker was employed by a county where his duties included conducting field inspections and testing of gas pumps and bar code scanners.
He also had a sign business that he operated part time. The rules at the county were lax. When a new supervisor took over, the work conditions changed, and the time-keeping rules were enforced strictly. The worker, like coworkers, had been in the habit of leaving work early without accounting for his time.
A coworker said that the worker conducted his personal sign business during work hours. The worker was "written up" for two time-related infractions. The worker claimed his punishment was unfair because he was the only person being held accountable.
Later, the supervisor verbally chastised the worker in front of coworkers, causing him to feel humiliated. I addition, a coworker told the worker that the supervisor used an anti-Semitic expression in referring to him. The supervisor also used other ethnic slurs in referring to coworkers it was alleged. The worker contended that he began experiencing depression and anxiety after learning of the supervisor's anti-Semitic comment. The supervisor allegedly never used an anti-Semitic remark in the worker's presence. The worker applied for a medical leave of absence.
The worker filed a complaint with the county, alleging that the supervisor created a discriminatory, hostile work environment. The personnel department dismissed the complaint. The worker was subsequently charged with four additional disciplinary infractions.
The worker sought workers' compensation benefits. The trial judge denied benefits for an occupational disease based on legal causation, finding that the anxiety resulted from merited criticism.
Was the trial court correct in denying benefits to the worker?
A. No. The trial judge improperly failed to consider medical proof.
B. Yes. There was nothing peculiar in the worker's work conditions that could have triggered the anxiety he claimed.
C. No. The worker proved that work-related conditions were the principal cause of his stress.
How the court ruled: B. In an unpublished decision, the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division held that the worker was not entitled to an award for workplace stress. Wildstein v. Middlesex County Department of Weights and Measures, No. A-3389-09T1 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 06/17/11, unpublished).
The court explained that the trial judge correctly decided that the worker failed to establish the legal causation necessary to support his claim. Legal causation requires that the illness be "work connected." The judge noted that there was no direct confrontation between the worker and the supervisor when the supervisor used ethnic slurs. The judge opined that the primary reason why the worker became upset was due to the supervisor's management style.
A is incorrect. Prevailing in a workers' compensation claim requires a worker to prove both legal and medical causation. The court explained that since the judge denied the claim based on the legal prong, it was unnecessary to consider the extent of medical disability claimed by the worker.
C is incorrect. The court explained that the worker was not required to prove that work-related conditions were the principal cause of his stress. Although the judge found that the principal reason for the worker's stress was due to his new supervisor's expectations, he failed to prove his disability was caused by objectively stressful working conditions that were peculiar to his employment.
Editor's note: This feature is not intended as instructional material or to replace legal advice.
August 5, 2011
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