The state Supreme Court has remanded the first mental-mental case to the Commonwealth Court for review under a new standard that many attorneys who spoke with the Law Weekly said represents a shift in an area of workers’ compensation law that has been increasingly difficult for claimants.
According to several attorneys, the high court’s decision last month in Payes v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board has changed the standard of reviewing mental-mental cases, and could potentially lead to more favorable outcomes for claimants seeking recovery for mental injuries caused by a psychological stimulus.
In February, the Supreme Court remanded Kochanowicz v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board pursuant to Payes, which the court said held that a reviewing court must give deference to the workers’ compensation judge’s findings.
Workers’ compensation attorney Vincent J. Quatrini Jr. of Quatrini Rafferty said that, typically, appeals courts had not been honoring the findings of the worker’s compensation judges’ decisions regarding mental-mental cases as often as they had been in cases involving physical injuries.
“What the Supreme Court has done with the Payes case is take a step back from that,” Quatrini said.
According to Quatrini, the new standard will still require claimants to prove that their injuries were the result of an abnormal working condition; however, once a workers’ compensation judge finds that the abnormal condition existed, the appellate courts will only be able to overturn the decisions if the initial ruling was arbitrary or capricious.
Quatrini also noted that in 2007 the Supreme Court, in RAG (Cyprus) Emerald Resources v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, granted benefits to a miner who claimed to suffer an aggravation of a pre-existing psychological condition stemming from repeated sexual harassment by a supervisor.
“The fact that the Supreme Court has now twice affirmed the finding of the judge may materially improve the injured workers’ chances for recovery for an awful emotional event in the workplace,” Quatrini said. The court is “essentially going to use the same standards that [it] uses in physical cases, but you still have this heightened burden of proving this was an extraordinary event.”
Peter J. Weber of Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby said that by rejecting some of the requirements that go into proving an abnormal work environment existed, the Payes ruling liberalized the standards to allow workers to recover for mental-mental claims even if they typically work in high-stress environments.
“If the Supreme Court was going to include in the standard the foreseeability and assumption of risk, they had the perfect opportunity in Payes, but they chose not to,” Weber said.
Weber, however, declined to predict whether the ruling will result in more favorable rulings for workers claiming mental-mental injuries.
“There are a number of arguments that could be made the other way,” he said. “There’s still a reluctance to grant [benefits] because there’s nothing objective to verify that there has been an injury.”
In Payes, the court ruled that a police officer could receive workers’ compensation for alleged post-traumatic stress disorder after he accidentally struck and killed a woman with his patrol car. When the court remanded the Kochanowicz case, which involved a state liquor store employee who was robbed at gunpoint, it summarized Payes as holding that a reviewing court must give deference to the WCJ “and limit review to determining whether WCJ’s findings of fact are supported by the evidence.”
Payes, according to Samuel H. Pond of Philadelphia workers’ compensation firm Pond Lehocky Stern Giordano, indicates that the appellate courts will no longer lump all cases involving mental-mental injuries into the same class, and will begin looking closer at the cases individually.
“Is that a step in the right direction for injured workers? In my opinion, yes,” Pond said, adding that mental-mental claims will still be difficult to prove. “They’re very fact-specific and you need to be a good trial lawyer and to really do your homework on these cases to establish solid facts.”
Edward R. Carpenter of Carpenter McCadden & Lane agreed that, after Payes, considerations regarding abnormal work environments may be examined more closely.
“For a long time, you had those cases where it was almost like you couldn’t buy a mental-mental claim. It was hard to be successful with any claim,” Carpenter said. “I think it’s a lot easier now, and I think [Payes] has had an impact on that.”
However, mental-mental cases, he said, remain the “toughest nut to crack.”
Attorneys who spoke with the Law Weekly agreed that appellate courts tend to be restrained when upholding awards of mental-mental benefits.
Along with the Payes and RAG (Cyprus) Emerald Resources cases, the high court also OK’d a grant of benefits for a police officer in the 2002 case City of Pittsburgh v. Logan after the officer claimed that several traumatic events, including gang members placing a bounty on his head, caused a psychic injury.
However, in the 2000 case Davis v. Workmen’s Compensation Appeal Board (Swarthmore Borough), the high court said a police officer should not receive benefits for the claim that related to repeated stressful and life-threatening situations causing psychic injuries, and in 2001, the court also said benefits should not go to a police officer who claimed injuries stemming from an armed standoff in City of Philadelphia v. Civil Service Commission of the City of Philadelphia.
In the 2007 case Kennelty v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Schwan’s Home Service), the Supreme Court also held that being robbed at gunpoint cannot be considered an abnormal working condition for a food delivery driver, and reversed the Commonwealth Court’s holding.
In 2008, the high court denied allocatur in Babich v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, which involved a prison nurse who claimed to have suffered mental injuries from repeated traumatic incidents, including having feces thrown at him and his life threatened. The denial let stand the Commonwealth Court’s decision to deny benefits.
In the Kochanowicz case, the Commonwealth Court in 2011 denied benefits to a state liquor store employee who had been held at gunpoint during a robbery, holding that because the employee had received some training regarding potential robberies, the injury did not arise out of an unforeseeable working condition.
A review of the Law Weekly’s archives indicates that of the cases it reported since 1996, the Supreme Court said benefits were appropriate in three of the 16 mental-mental cases it considered. Two of those three awards went to police officers. Of the 16 cases the high court agreed to hear, five of the cases involved police officers, research indicates.
Several attorneys who spoke with the Law Weekly questioned whether some of the cases above would have been decided differently following the Payes decision.
Carpenter said that given some of the problems claimants had faced in earlier cases, he was initially surprised that Payes was awarded benefits; however, he said the cases are often so fact-specific the outcomes are difficult to guess.
According to Pond, in the past few decades the courts have gotten carried away with establishing hurdles for workers to clear before they can receive benefits for mental-mental injuries. The abnormal working condition requirement, he said, was judicially created and he said he would like to see the burden dismantled through legislation.
“We have to go back and understand the basic tenets of the Workers’ Compensation Act,” Pond said. “I’m hoping that it becomes a level playing field, and that these cases are given a real shot.”
Weber, however, said that because the determinations are still very fact-specific, judges could still be difficult to convince regarding mental-mental claims.
“I think the Commonwealth Court is going to still be conservative on that issue,” Weber said. “But they might be a little more hamstrung than they were before.”