Wednesday, May 29, 2002
Employee’s Distress Over Workplace Gossip Not Compensable Injury—C.A.
By a MetNews Staff Writer
An employee who claims she was unable to work because of psychological distress caused by workplace gossip regarding her love life is not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Six overturned a ruling of the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, which held that Carrie Geredes, a bus driver/instructor for the Atascadero Unified School District, had suffered a compensable psychiatric injury.
Geredes—who admitted having had an affair with a coworker while both were married to other people—complained to the district after she was told that her ex-lover, another man she was allegedly pursuing, and that man’s wife were gossiping about her at work. The gossipers allegedly called her a “tramp” and a “husband stealer.”
Geredes, who acknowledged that the gossip stopped after she complained, was found by a psychiatrist to be temporarily totally disabled in October 1999. The alleged disability ended after a little more than two months.
In her claim for benefits, she claimed that she had suffered cumulative psychiatric injury between February and October 1999. She was examined by two doctors, designated as qualified medical examiners under the workers’ compensation statutes.
The doctor designated by Geredes said she had suffered injury to her psyche based on “work stressors.” The district’s examiner said she was depressed due to events in her personal life, including marital abuse, the breakup of her marriage, and the extramarital affair.
The workers’ compensation judge concluded that because the workplace gossip was about Geredes’ personal life, and not her job activities, any resulting distress was a non-compensable injury. The WCAB, however, ruled that because the gossip occurred at work and the gossipers were fellow employees, the injury was compensable.
Justice Paul Coffee, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the WCJ was correct and the board was wrong.
To be compensable, Coffee explained, the statute requires that an injury arise “out of and in the course of the employment.” There must, the justice said, be a causal connection between the employment and the injury.
“An injury that grows out of a personal grievance between the injured employee and a third party does not arise out of the employment if the injury occurred merely by chance during working hours at the place of employment, or if the employer’s premises do not place the injured employee in a peculiarly dangerous position,” the jurist wrote.
Coffee distinguished Albertson’s, Inc. v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (1982) 131 Cal.App.3d 308, where an employee who overheard her supervisor talking about the possibility of getting rid of her after she returned from a temporary layoff was held to be entitled to benefits based on psychological injury.
That case differed from Geredes’ case, the justice explained, because the employer-employee conflict in Albertson’s arose from issues that were “undeniably work-related.”
Geredes’ work, Coffee said, was not the cause of her difficulties but “merely provided a stage for the event.”
The case is Atascadero Unified School District v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, B155026.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company