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Court Rejects Occupational Stress Claim

Employee could not prove objectively verified stressful conditions

New Jersey has a sensible occupational stress standard, namely that the person claiming work stress as a cause for psychiatric illness must prove objectively that the work conditions were stressful. Since all employees experience some degree of stress, this standard is not very easily met.

In Knight v. Audubon Savings Bank, A-0173-11T1 (App. Div. June 26, 2012), Jeanne Wright alleged that her boss, the chief residential loan officer and vice president, screamed at her and gave her such negative job reviews that she became incapacitated with stress. Three co-employees testified on behalf of petitioner.

Respondent first proved that the petitioner’s actual written performance evaluations were consistently good for several years. Although petitioner perceived them as negative, her rating was consistently “good.”

Secondly, at the time petitioner left her employment and filed for disability benefits on February 3, 2010, her mother was dying. She told other employees that there were problems with her mother’s hospice care. That created an inference that work stress was not the real reason for her separation.

Third, the testimony of her co-employees did not fully support her case. All the employees said that petitioner had a strained relationship with her supervisor, but that was the only point they agreed on. One employee said that he never saw the supervisor yell at petitioner, although he himself had been yelled at by the supervisor. He also said he did not consider the expectations placed on petitioner at work to be unreasonable. The second witness said that she perceived petitioner and her boss as being equally provocative. She heard petitioner goad her supervisor on several occasions. The final witness said that she never heard any loud disagreements between petitioner and her boss. She did not consider the supervisor to have been inappropriately harsh with petitioner.

Respondent offered testimony from lay witnesses as well, all of whom disputed that there was any yelling at work and who said they thought petitioner left work to care for her mother.

The testimony of the expert psychiatrists in this case was completely at odds. Petitioner’s expert said that her depression and anxiety were caused by work conditions. However, he admitted that he had been unaware that her evaluations were in fact good, and that she had been taking anti-anxiety medication since 2003 or 2004. The respondent’s expert opined that petitioner had a personality disorder and a depressed mood due to her mother’s death.

In the end, the Judge of Compensation focused on the fact that the job evaluations were not really negative. They contained remarks about needing to improve, but they were mostly positive. The Appellate Division affirmed: “As the judge observed, the only witness who described highly stressful workplace conditions was petitioner. Her statements were refuted by other witnesses, however, and by several years of written performance evaluations.”

This case is a textbook example of how an employer can successfully defend a stress claim. Testimony from employees disputing the allegedly stressful work conditions is crucial. Proving that petitioner simply misapprehended her job evaluations as negative was also decisive. Occupational stress cases rise or fall on the facts, not so much on expert opinion, because the expert only knows what the claimant provides to the expert. Hence, practitioners must pin down the facts through testimony from witnesses with a particular focus on whether there is objective evidence of work stress.

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