A recent unpublished decision by a Judge of Workers’ Compensation in New Jersey confirmed that a worker’s response to an employer’s legitimate personnel decision is not covered by the Workers’ Compensation law in New Jersey. In this case, a security officer at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits for occupational exposure to stressful work situations, and harassment by her supervisor. She alleges permanent psychiatric disability. Her claim was expressly denied by her employer.
Part of the worker’s allegations of harassment included the allegation that her supervisor allowed a co-worker to take longer breaks than her, and that her supervisor would not allow her to wrap a blanket around her when she felt cold while working. The worker also testified that her supervisor had confronted her about her using too much sick time, and about leaving her post at 1:30 PM, instead of 2:00 PM, when she was scheduled to leave. She left the job shortly thereafter.
The Judge found that the worker failed to prove the two most important elements of an occupational psychiatric disability: (1) That the working condition was objectively stressful, and (2) that it was peculiar to the particular work place. The Judge found in favor of the employer stating that the worker had an underlying personality condition — in this case a long pattern of defiance and difficulty with authority figures — which created the stress she felt on her job. The Judge was of the opinion that this worker would have found any working condition stressful, and did not do so because of “peculiar” workplace conditions. The Judge stated that the law in New Jersey has always been that the personnel decisions of employers are not events that are “peculiar” to the particular work place, and if they cause a worker to feel stress, they are NOT considered covered by the workers’ compensation system. An employee’s response to a bona fide personnel decision or criticism by the employer is considered to be an ordinary part of life, and not a workers’ compensation issue. This would include an employee’s reaction to a stressful situation such as a lay off or termination, or a reaction to disciplinary action or criticism by an employer.
Under Goyden v. State Judiciary 256 N.J. Super 438 (App.Div.1991) aff’d. 128 N.J. 54 (1992) our Appellate Court specifically states that merited criticism cannot be considered a condition characteristic of or peculiar to a particular place of employment, because it is common to all occupations. While there are legitimate occupational psychiatric workers’ compensation cases in New Jersey, they are difficult under our law, and require the right set of facts.