July 16, 2004
STRESS-RELATED WORKERS' COMPENSATION FOR POLICE IN FOUR STATES
By: John Moran, Associate Analyst
You asked whether other states provide stress-related (mental or emotional) workers' compensation benefits for police officers and how Connecticut distinguishes between heart disease and hypertension cases, which may be compensable, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) cases.
Of the four neighboring states we contacted (Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island), Massachusetts, like Connecticut, only gives police officers (or any other worker) workers' compensation for stress-related problems that result from a physical injury. The other three all provide stress-related benefits for a police officer or any other worker as long as he documented it with a medical diagnosis (just as with a physical injury).
In Connecticut the major distinction between heart disease and hypertension, on one hand, and PTSD, on the other, is heart disease and hypertension produce ongoing physiological symptoms, while PTSD often does not produce lasting physiological symptoms or may only produce episodes of such symptoms. There are Connecticut cases that show it is not always easy to distinguish between, for example, the ongoing high blood pressure of hypertension and the raised blood pressure brought on by panic attacks or a similar PTSD-related malady. (The National Center
for PTSD estimates that about 8% of men and 20% of women who are exposed to a traumatic, stressful event develop PTSD. Of those, about 30% develop chronic PTSD. See web link: www.ncptsd.org/index.html.) Ultimately, the state's Compensation Review Board has to decide on the facts of an individual case.
But if the PTSD arises from a physical injury that occurred on the job or an occupational disease, then it would be compensable. Connecticut law explicitly only provides compensation for stress-related problems if they arise from a work-related injury or disease (CGS § 31-275(16)(B)).
THREE STATES THAT PROVIDE STRESS-RELATED BENEFITS
New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island all provide stress (i.e., emotional or psychological injury) benefits not just to police officers, but to all workers who qualify. In general, the employee needs to show how the stress injury arose from his work with medical documentation, just as a worker would have to do in a case of a physical injury.
In Rhode Island the benefit is specifically provided for in state law. In New Jersey and New York, the respective laws simply refer to any injury that arises out of the employees' work or workplace, and courts in each of those states has interpreted this to include mental stress injuries in cases where there is no physical injury.
In New Jersey an injury or ailment is compensable under workers' compensation if the employee can show that work or the work environment caused it, according to New Jersey workers compensation Judge Renee Ricciardelli. She indicated that New Jersey law does not distinguish between mental and physical injuries, but the courts have interpreted the law to include mental injuries.
In 1992 the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of a court filing clerk seeking permanent disability status, under workers' compensation law, due to psychological illness arising out of stressful work condition (Goyden v. State of New Jersey, 128 N.J. 54 (1992)). This decision remains the precedent for stress cases in New Jersey.
In Goyden the court ruled since state law makes all injuries and diseases arising out of the course of employment compensable, then the primary task of the workers' compensation system is to determine whether the injury arose from the clerk's working conditions. Evidence submitted by psychiatrists who examined Goyden found that his psychological illness was genuine and undisputed.
The state appellate court had overruled the workers' compensation court's decision to give Goyden benefits, because the court found the clerk had a “compulsive personality,” which predisposed him to suffer from the mental condition that disabled him. The Supreme Court noted that Goyden performed his job ably for 20 years before the stressful filing backlog, which was beyond his control, developed.
The court held:
“Both the legislature and this court have followed the principle that a workplace injury is compensable if it is induced by conditions peculiar to the claimant's work. Our workers' compensation cases do not bar recovery to an employee predisposed to injury if the worker proves the required causal connection between the injury and the work.”
The court went on to say, in any case, Goyden's compulsive personality fell far short of being a pre-existing ailment, as he functioned well in the job for years. The court found that the appellate court was imposing a requirement that did not exist and there was not sufficient evidence to overturn the compensation court's original ruling that Goyden should be awarded compensation.
New York is similar to New Jersey in that the state's law does not distinguish between physical and mental injury and the courts have consistently held that documented mental or emotional injuries could be compensated.
“The appellate courts have repeatedly held that psychological injuries are compensable and it need not be connected to a physical injury,” stated Scott Nortz, an associate counsel with the New York Workers' Compensation Board.
He said, as with New Jersey, the legislature has declined to be more specific about what is an injury so the court rulings are law. In New York this covers all workers.
The Rhode Island worker's compensation law specifically provides for compensation for “mental injury caused or accompanied by identifiable physical trauma or from a mental injury caused by emotional stress resulting from a situation of greater dimensions than the day-to-day emotional strain and tension which all employees encounter daily without serious mental injury…” (RI General Laws § 28-34-2 (36)).
The Rhode Island Supreme Court has interpreted this to mean that an employee must show the work-related stress was greater than the day-to-day emotional stress that all employees of the same class or position experience in order to receive compensation. In other words, simply being a police officer, firefighter, or prison guard is not enough to get stress benefits. The employee must also show that the mental injury was caused by the workplace stress and not just that the workplace stress was a contributing factor to the injury.
Rhode Island municipal police and firefighters are not under the state's overall workers' compensation act. They have their own compensation section in the municipal title and it is much less detailed, but in practice the state follows the general workers' compensation act for provisions that are not explicitly stated in the police and firefighters provisions.
For example, two Providence police officers recently started receiving stress benefits (pay and medical care expenses) after being diagnosed with PTSD. Months earlier, the officers responded to a call to break up a fight and it lead to them shooting and killing on off-duty Providence officer. The officers' physicians, and physicians chosen by the city, all agreed that neither officer was capable of returning to duty.
Massachusetts is similar to Connecticut in that a stress injury must result from a physical injury in order to be eligible for workers' compensation.
Recently, Massachusetts awarded compensation to a state police officer, who was sexually assaulted while on the job and subsequently suffered emotional trauma so severe that there was a unanimous medical opinion that she was not fit for duty, according to state police deputy counsel Ann McCarthy. McCarthy said the officer was ruled eligible because the emotional trauma stemmed from the physical assault.
Although she added the state police department is seeking a disability retirement for the officer, it is not clear if the disability retirement board, which is separate from the Massachusetts workers' compensation system, will approve the application.