Compensability of Stress Claims Based On Workplace Harassment
One of the more frustrating areas of Workers’ Compensation law is stress claims. Often, the extent of a claimant’s disability is based solely on their subjective complaints because there is no apparent physical disability. Doctors are sympathetic to their patients and readily determine that their work environment is the source of their stress. This can be difficult to defend against, especially when the evidence suggests that the claim arises from a simple disagreement between coworkers or a harsh reprimand from a supervisor. It is important to identify any evidence that may suggest the claimant is particularly sensitive to these triggers.
As we know, the claimant must show that he/she experienced stress greater than that which other similarly situated workers experience in the normal work environment to fall into a compensable claim. But what kind of stress is considered “extraordinary”? The Third Department has determined that isolated incidents of insubordination are not considered “extraordinary” stress unless they involve threats. Therefore, a claimant cannot succeed on a stress claim based on a single instance of a supervisor raising his voice or giving a reprimand. It is similarly insufficient to support a stress claim with an allegation of only one instance of a co-worker raising his/her voice. Further, the mere use of profanity is also not sufficient to maintain a stress claim based on workplace harassment.
Other factors that will direct the outcomes of stress claims are the claimant’s prior relevant medical history, the claimant’s usual work environment, the circumstances of the harassment, and the employer’s actions. An investigation should be done to determine if any written report or formal memorialization was made of the interaction the claimant has identified as stressful. If there are employer witnesses, they should be prepared to testify to the usual tone and language used by employees and supervisors in the work environment. These claims can be difficult to defend, but diligence in investigation along with favorable employer witnesses can pay dividends at the ultimate hearing on a stress claim.