Texas Law and Workers’ Compensation Claims for Mental Trauma

11.06.2012


By ROBERT D. STOKES

The law is well settled in Texas that mental trauma claims must be traceable to a specific time, place, and cause. Transportation Insurance Company v. Maksyn, 580 S.W.2d 334 (Tex. 1979). In Maksyn, the Texas Supreme Court held that damage or harm resulting from a repetitious mental traumatic activity, as opposed to a physical one, cannot constitute an “occupational disease” for purposes of the workers’ compensation statute. (See Vernon’s Ann. Civ. St. Art. 8306 § 20.)

Joe Maksyn was a newspaper editor, regularly working 55 hours a week and often as many as 65 hours a week. It was not uncommon for him to take this “pressure work” home with him to complete on nights and weekends. According to his testimony, his hectic schedule ultimately caused symptoms including weakness, pressure in his head, and feeling frightened, dizzy, and lethargic.

After consistently performing his demanding occupational duties for 43 years, Maksyn finally “succumbed to the pressure, mental strain, overwork, and exhaustion from his managerial duties which culminated in hypertension, nervousness, vertigo, anxiety depression, and disability” to complete his work. 580 S.W.2d at 335. While there was a vast array of evidence that mental stimuli produced the condition, there was no evidence that his “anxiety depression” was the result of any repetitious physical traumatic activity.

"Occupational Disease" Defined

The court discussed the statutory revisions effected in 1971, when the legislature scrapped its exhaustive list of compensable occupational diseases in favor of a general definition of the term. Vernon’s Ann. Civ. St. Art. 8306 § 20 (“‘Occupational Disease’” . . . shall be construed to mean any disease arising out of and in the course of employment which causes damage or harm to the Physical structure of the body and such other diseases or infections as naturally result therefrom . . . ‘Occupational Disease’ shall also include damage or harm to the Physical structure of the body occurring as the result of repetitious physical traumatic activities extending over a period of time and arising in the course of employment . . .”).

However, it remained “the express intent of the legislature that nothing in this subtitle shall be construed to limit or expand recovery in cases of mental trauma injuries.” Texas Lab. Code Ann. § 408.006(a). Based on this history, the court held that mental stimuli alone are not sufficient to qualify a mental trauma injury as an “occupational disease” within the statutory definition, although they could allow for recovery based upon an accidental injury if supported by evidence of an “undesigned, untoward event traceable to a definite time, place, and cause.” 580 S.W.2d at 337-37.

The court cited Ayer v. Industrial Commission for the proposition that “a disabling mental condition brought about by the gradual buildup of emotional stress over a period of time and not by an unexpected injury causing event is not compensable unless accompanied by physical force or exertion” of some sort. 531 P.2d 208 (Ariz. App. 1975). Lacking any evidence of a physical traumatic activity, the court found that  Maskyn’s mental trauma injury was not an “occupational disease” and thus was not compensable. Id. at 336; see also Vernon’s Ann. Civ. St. Art. 8306 § 20.

Burden of Proof

In addressing mental trauma claims, the Appeals Panel of the Texas Division of Workers’ Compensation has repeatedly emphasized that the claimant bears the burden of proof; specifically, it is incumbent upon the claimant to prove: 1) an injury stemming from a definite time, place, and event 2) within the scope of employment 3) that did not emanate from a legitimate personnel action. Appeals Panel Decision No. 970292.

In that case, the claimant, an assistant at a bank, was on a personal phone call when her boss confronted her by asking “are you still on that phone call?” in a raised voice, the tone of which she found “disconcerting.” She subsequently experienced a “shutdown” and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with major depression. Evidence adduced at trial indicated that she had exhibited signs of emotional instability prior to the incident, in the form of mood swings and crying spells; one coworker described her as being on an “emotional roller coaster” and another testified that she was “moody and shaking” a lot.

A psychiatrist who treated her testified that the stressor that caused her PTSD was “the ongoing, repeated anxiety and stress of this situation” but later stated that the stress had actually been building over a longer period of time. The Appeals Panel found that the hearing officer did not err in determining that the incident complained of (the “disconcerting” comment) constituted a “legitimate personnel action” and making a finding of fact, which was sufficiently supported by the evidence, to that effect.

Another decision issued by the Appeals Panel is illustrative. Appeals Panel Decision No. 060176 involved a claimant employed as a juvenile correctional officer (JCO), the written job description of which explicitly warned of “stressful conditions, with possible occurrences of extreme heightened stress.” After about a month on the job, the claimant notified her supervisor about an incident she witnessed involving misconduct (evidently, sexual abuse) between staff and students on the employer’s premises.

The employer did not follow up on the report, and the claimant reports being subjected to retaliatory harassment and threats by other staff members and the superintendent after making the allegations. Specifically, she stated that the superintendent threatened her with a misdemeanor criminal action premised upon her failure to submit a written report detailing her observations.

She testified that she became a “nervous wreck” and began experiencing extreme anxiety and panic attacks as a result of the work-related stress. Her doctor identified that she was “suffering from major depression, anxiety, insomnia resultant from work situation” and recommended extended stress leave.

In rendering its decision, the Appeals Panel cited GTE Southwest, Inc. v. Bruce, in which the Supreme Court reinforced its prior holding of Maksyn that repetitive mental trauma resulting in injury does not constitute a compensable “occupational disease” under the Act. 998 S.W.2d 605, 610 (Tex. 1999). The GTE court further reemphasized that “when there is no evidence of a particular event causing the mental injury, there can be no recovery under the Act.” Id. at 611 (emphasis added).

The Appeals Panel reversed the hearing officer’s determination of a compensable mental trauma injury, finding that there was insufficient medical evidence to relate the asserted medical condition to a definite time, place, and cause in the course and scope of her employment. In doing so, it relied heavily on language scattered throughout medical reports referring to “recent developments at work” and “actions of the employer” that allegedly caused the condition; such phrases indicated that the mental trauma injury was not traceable to a particular time, place, and cause, but instead represented a culmination of multiple incidents in a work environment that produced gradual and ongoing stress.

Based on the finding that the condition was not traceable to a definite time, place, and cause, and thus was not compensable, the Appeals Panel stated that there was no need to reach the question of whether the alleged singular stress-producing incident was a legitimate personnel action.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert D. Stokes of the law firm of Flahive, Ogden & Latson in Austin, Texas, has defended Texas workers' compensation claims for more than 25 years. He was lead appellate counsel before the Texas Supreme Court in Ins. Co. of the State of Pa., v. Muro, American Zurich Ins. Co. v. Samudio, and Austin ISD v Manbeck. Stokes holds a J.D. from Baylor University and is Board Certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in Civil Appellate Law and Personal Injury Law. He is presently a member of the State Bar Committee on Pattern Jury Charges.

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