By Frank Ferreri, September 11, 2023

Just how much stress does it take to support a workers’ compensation claim? That’s a question we started to answer last month by breaking down recent cases that address when stress turns into an occupational disease for Federal workers, and when it doesn’t.

This month, we look at a few more cases.

S.G. and Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration, No. 22-0495 (ECAB November 4, 2022)

Alleged injury: A 44-year-old safety and occupational health inspector alleged he developed anxiety, depression, stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder after being accused of creating a hostile work environment. OWCP denied his claim, noting the allegations were not factually substantiated.

Holding:  ECAB remanded the case to OWCP, finding that while the inspector provided a detailed response to OWCP’s development letter, along with supporting documentation, no response was received from the employing establishment.

“Once OWCP undertakes to develop the evidence, it has the responsibility to do so in a proper manner, particularly when such evidence is of the character normally obtained from the employing establishment or other government source,” ECAB wrote. “It shall request that the employing establishment provide a detailed statement and relevant evidence and/or argument regarding his allegations.”

C.D. and U.S. Postal Service, No. 20-1445 (ECAB October 3, 2022)

Alleged injury: A 55-year-old electronic technician filed an occupational disease claim, alleging he developed hypertension, anxiety, and stress due to factors of his Federal employment. He reported that his job could be dangerous due to the involvement of moving machine parts and that he had to keep up with an increasing workload due to other mechanics leaving his work facility. He also reported he had started to fear dying by being “sucked into” a machine and that he had experienced a racing heartbeat. OWCP denied the claim.

Holding: ECAB remanded the case for further development because, after the employer did not respond to its requests, OWCP did not make any further attempt to obtain comments from a knowledgeable supervisor regarding the accuracy of the technician’s allegations, the technician’s position description, and information regarding whether there were staffing shortages that affected the technician’s workload or extra demands for any reason.

P.T. and Department of Veterans Affairs, N0. 20-0825 (ECAB September 23, 2022)

Alleged injury: A 50-year-old licensed practical nurse alleged that he sustained post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, and insomnia related to work. Allegedly, the nurse was treated differently due to his sexual orientation, given disciplinary counseling based on hearsay, was sworn at, called a “drama queen,” shoved, stalked, had $6,000 removed from his bank account, had a fake Facebook account created in his name with damaging information, and had his automobile vandalized. OWCP denied the claim, finding the evidence insufficient to establish compensable factors of employment.

Holding: ECAB agreed with OWCP, noting the nurse’s allegations involved administrative actions involving his supervisors. But what about the alleged harassment the nurse faced at work? ECAB found the evidence too thin.

“The employing establishment investigated his allegations in this regard and found that the investigation did not substantiate a hostile work environment,” ECAB wrote.

“[The nurse] has not established with corroborating evidence that any specific threat was made against him and has not alleged or established that management ignored or tolerated any alleged threats or that it failed to take preventative action.”

M.V. and Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, No. 20-0397 (ECAB September 8, 2022)

Alleged injury: A 38-year-old IRS agent alleged she developed fear, anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder after being assaulted by a taxpayer while in the performance of duty. The attack caused her to have flashbacks.

During the incident, the agent, who was seven months pregnant at the time, had a package thrown at her, and it struck her arm. Then, her manager ordered her to photocopy the contents of the package, which took 45 minutes. Following the incident, the agent was hospitalized due to preterm labor and delivered the baby prematurely.

OWCP denied the agent’s claim due to deficiencies in her factual and medical evidence.

Holding: ECAB sent the case back to OWCP, finding that more evidence was needed all around. Although the board found that the agent did not establish that management put her in an unsafe position, it also determined that OWCP failed to sufficiently develop the evidence regarding whether she was assaulted at work while in the performance of duty, particularly since there may have been video evidence of the encounter, and no such evidence was disclosed.

T.H. and U.S. Postal Service, No. 22-0658 (ECAB September 1, 2022)

Alleged injury: A 55-year-old city carrier filed a claim for anxiety, depression, headaches, chest wall strain, and post-traumatic stress disorder while in the performance of duty. She indicated the postmaster called her into his office, swore at her, and jumped out of the chair as if he was going to hit her. During an incident in which the carrier complained about employee who “don’t do s***,” the postmaster allegedly responded, “You don’t do s***,” and an argument ensued. In another incident, the postmaster alleged yelled at the carrier, “You haven’t done s***,” and “You don’t do a f***ing thing, you don’t do s***; what the f*** do you do?” OWCP denied the carrier’s claim, finding she had not established a compensable factor of employment as causing or contributing to her diagnosed emotional condition.

Holding: ECAB sent the case back to OWCP because the carrier provided “reliable and probative” evidence in the form of multiple witness statements with respect to her allegations of a hostile work environment, harassment, and abuse, specifically the postmaster’s yelling and swearing at her.

As these cases and ECAB precedent show, where the disability results from an employee’s emotional reaction to her regular or specially assigned duties or to a requirement imposed by the employment, the disability comes within the coverage of FECA. On the other hand, the disability is not covered where it results from factors such as an employee’s fear of a reduction-in-force or her frustration from not being permitted to work in a particular environment or to hold a particular position.

What makes the difference is the evidence, and ECAB tends to rely on what a claimant puts forward to back up her allegations, which often come in the form of coworkers’ statements, and medical evidence. [email protected]

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