Appellate Division Sets New Precedent for Determining What Makes a “Normal Work Environment” in Mental Stress Workers’ Compensation Claims
In most ordinary workers' compensation claims, the burden of proof is very favorable to the injured worker. In workers' compensation claims where the only injury alleged is mental stress, however, the injured worker bears the additional burden of proving that the stress he or she was subjected to at work was greater than the stress that a similarly situated worker is subjected to in the normal work environment. Mental stress claims are therefore among the hardest workers' compensation claims to establish, and insurance carriers usually kill these claims by showing that the claimant was not singled out, that everybody else the claimant worked with went through the same stress. Some occupations are clearly more stressful than others. Corrections officers and air traffic controllers, for instance, deal with more daily stress as an inherent part of their jobs than the average occupation. Even if this stress is severely debilitating to a particular corrections officer or air traffic controller, it cannot legally form the basis of a New York workers' compensation claim because all workers in the same occupation suffer the same stress. The New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department, however, has now made a crucial distinction in this analysis. In Cox v. Saks Fifth Avenue, 2015 NY Slip Op 06003 (App. Div., 3d Dept., July 9, 2015), the court held that " the imprimatur of "normal" cannot be placed upon a workplace where an employee is directed to carry out a deceptive, unethical or potentially illegal practice because an employer also gave that direction to other employees. The claimant in this case worked in the Chanel handbag department of Saks Fifth Avenue and was asked to fabricate reserve orders of high end Chanel handbags by listing the credit card numbers of customers who never actually ordered such handbags. The Workers' Compensation Board disallowed the claim on the ground that all of the claimant's "similarly situated" coworkers were given the same instructions. The Appellate Division, however, noted that the claimant's supervisors had testified that Saks Fifth Avenue had gotten in trouble for such practices in the past and that the claimant himself testified that he would have been fired had he engaged in such conduct at the previous upscale department stores he worked at. The court therefore reversed the Board, concluding that "[t]he mere fact that other employees may have received the same instruction" does not make the claimant's work environment "normal" within the meaning of the workers' compensation burden for mental stress cases. The appeal was submitted by Geoffrey Schotter.