Tuesday, January 13, 2004
Stress Over Employer’s Stock Price No Basis for WCAB Award—C.A.
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board erred in awarding stress-related disability benefits to a former Pacific Gas & Electric Co. employee who claimed that he was so upset over the utility’s financial problems he was unable to work, the First District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Div. Five Friday annulled the board’s award to Clifford Bryan, who worked for the San Francisco-based company for more than 30 years. The court sent the case back for further review of Bryan’s claimed entitlement to benefits under Labor Code Sec. 3208.3(b)(1), which provides for compensation if a worker is disabled as a result of a psychiatric injury that is predominantly work-related.
Bryan started as a meter reader, spent 13 years collecting delinquent bills and shutting off service to defaulting customers, and eventually was assigned to a customer service post that he hated. He left work in October 2001, after seeking medical care for chest pains that his doctor said were stress-related.
He told the workers’ compensation judge that his already-stressful job became worse as the company began to downsize, customers became irate over brownouts, blackouts, and rate increases, and the company filed for bankruptcy. He said he had approximately $200,000 in PG&E stock and feared the loss of his savings.
Bryan’s doctor said he suffered from a “major depressive disorder” that was entirely work-related. But the doctor who evaluated him on behalf of the employer said that his problem was only 35 to 40 percent work-related, after factoring in such additional factors as Bryan’s hernia, the stress of being a recovering alcoholic, the recent death of his father, and his daughter’s medical problems.
The WCJ concluded that Bryan’s problems were not predominantly work-related, but a divided WCAB panel disagreed, holding that “the downsizing of [Bryan’s] employer...[Bryan’s] daily interactions with irate PG&E customers, the loss of the value of [Bryan’s] PG&E stock, and [Bryan’s] concern about the future of PG&E and his retirement funds, were all actual events of employment that were predominant as to all causes of [Bryan’s] psychiatric injury.”
Presiding Justice Barbara J.R. Jones, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the board’s ruling was contrary to the intent of Sec. 3208.3, part of the Margolin-Greene Workers’ Compensation Reform Act of 1989 enacted in response to the proliferation of claims based on alleged psychiatric injury and the perceived abuse of the system by some claimants.
As originally enacted, the section required an applicant to show that “actual events of employment were responsible for at least 10 percent of the causation from all sources contributing to the psychiatric injury.” A 1993 amendment, however, requires that “actual events of employment” be “predominant as to all causes combined of the psychiatric injury.”
Bryan’s worries about downsizing, Jones said, should not have been considered because it was not a discrete “event” affecting only him since “arguably, all employees who work for a troubled company experience stress” and liability would be “virtually unlimited” if this were a basis for a workers’ compensation award.
Similarly, the jurist said, Bryan’s voluntarily decision to purchase stock in the company was a personal investment decision rather than an employment event; his stress, Jones reasoned, was no different than that experienced by the company’s non-employee investors. And his worries about the company’s future, Jones said, were likewise not personal to him.
The only factor cited by the board that legally supports its decision, the jurist said, was stress related to Bryan’s interaction with irate customers. While this was related to downsizing—Bryan was transferred to the position because his previous assignment was eliminated—it was “specific and identifiable” as work-related stress and could thus support an award under Sec. 3208.3, Jones said.
The case was sent back to the board for a determination as to whether that one factor was sufficient to support a finding that Bryan’s emotional problems are predominantly work-related.
The case is Pacific Gas & Electric Company v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, 04 S.O.S. 173.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company