Medical Opinion Must Specify What Specific Events Cause “Abnormal Working Conditions” For Psychological Injury in PA Workers’ Comp

We have previously discussed that a mental injury (resulting from a non-physical situation) in Pennsylvania must be the result of “abnormal working conditions” to create an entitlement to workers’ compensation benefits. The aspect typically on appeal is whether working conditions were actually “abnormal.” In a recent decision by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, however, the issue was actually whether the injured worker had presented sufficient evidence to prove the medical aspect of the case.

In the matter of Frog, Switch & Manufacturing Company v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Johnson), the injured worker was victimized by racial and gender harassment (for which a complaint was filed with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission [PHRC]). From this harassment, she developed depression. The injured worker filed a Claim Petition, alleging a psychological injury from abnormal working conditions.

The injured worker testified, and also presented the testimony of a co-worker. No testimony was taken from any medical providers. Instead, the injured worker presented a few treatment notes from her treating doctors. After hearing the evidence, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) granted the Claim Petition. This was affirmed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB).

Upon further appeal, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania reversed, finding that there was not sufficient evidence presented to support the granting of the Claim Petition.
The WCJ had found that the events at work triggered the emotional response. On appeal, the Court analyzed the testimony of the injured workers, and the fact witnesses, and found the some facts did not match, such as whether the injured worker was crying right after a certain incident or not. The dissent (with whom we agree) found this to be an overly technical analysis, beyond the proper scope of appeal. It felt as though the Court was simply reweighing the determinations of credibility made by the WCJ.

While the injured worker did not take medical depositions, she submitted records from her treating doctors. These records did not describe any incidents in particular, but did observe that the cause of the depression was “her stressful and overwhelming work conditions.” This was found credible by the WCJ. The Court found that, without reference to the specific events, the medical records did not provide sufficient support for the Findings of Fact made by the WCJ. The Court also found that the opinion was deficient because it failed to ‘”specifically delineate’ the cause of Claimant’s injury,” This author would suggest these quibbles with the medical evidence would also be matters of credibility, which are within the sole purview of the WCJ.