Are worker's psychological problems after sexual harassment compensable?
The sexual harassment escalated to the supervisor inappropriately touching the worker everyday over a two-year period. When she asked him to stop, he laughed and walked away. The worker also claimed that the supervisor asked her to touch him inappropriately, but she refused and left the room. She said that after this incident, she began to experience escalating stress, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The worker's general physician opined that the sexual harassment caused her psychological problems. A psychologist noted that the supervisor's role differed from regular coworkers and led to her heightened psychological issues.
The worker did not immediately report the incident to the college, but her husband informed the cafeteria manager when he learned of the incident. The college handled the case in the form of a workers' compensation claim. The college agreed to pay for the worker's psychological treatment, medication, and time lost while out of work. After 17 years, the college stopped paying even though the worker's doctors recommended continued therapy.
The worker sought benefits. The college conceded that her injury occurred within the course and scope of her employment. The Industrial Commission dismissed the case, finding that it lacked jurisdiction because her injury did not arise out of her employment. The worker appealed.
Was the commission correct in dismissing the case for lack of jurisdiction?
The college's payment of medical expenses for 17 years showed that it accepted compensability of the claim.
B. Yes. Sexual harassment is not covered by workers' compensation.
C. No. Sexual harassment by a supervisor arises from a worker's employment.
How the court ruled: B. The North Carolina Court of Appeals held that the worker's injury did not arise out of her employment, so the commission did not have jurisdiction to hear the claim. Cagle v. Marriott/Guilford College/Marriott Claims, No. COA11-816 (N.C. Ct. App. 02/07/12).
The court said that it previously held that sexual harassment did not arise out of employment because it was a risk to which the employee was equally exposed to outside the employment. Emotional injuries resulting from sexual harassment were not a "natural and probable consequence or incident of the employment." The court said that the situation in the case could have just as easily occurred outside of her work as it did in her employment. The college pointed out the worker's own life experience of being sexually harassed by her grandfather, a teacher, a boy at school, her first husband, and former coworkers.
Despite the worker's arguments, the court said that distinguishing between a supervisor and coworker relationship was irrelevant to the case.
A is incorrect. The court said that the college's payment of medical expenses was not an acceptance of compensability.
C is incorrect. The court explained that the evidence showed that the supervisor's motivations and actions were entirely personal in nature and were not business-related. His actions were foul behavior against the worker, but it was separate from their common employment interests.
Editor's note: This feature is not intended as instructional material or to replace legal advice.
March 15, 2012
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