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Goyden v. State

Decided: June 10, 1991.


Before Judges J.h. Coleman, Ashbey and Landau.

Per Curiam

Per Curiam.

Respondent employer, the State of New Jersey, appeals from the decision of a Judge of Compensation that petitioner William Goyden is 100% disabled because of a chronic and severe depression attributable to his work as supervisor of records in the office of the Clerk of the Superior Court.*fn1 We reverse.

The Judge of Compensation found that Goyden began the only employment of his life with the Clerk's office in 1959. He became supervisor of records in 1976, a position he held until his retirement in September 1984, at age 42. His immediate supervisor was Alvin Fortson, Assistant Department Clerk. Robert Wagner, Department Clerk, was next in the chain of command. Wagner reported to Lewis Bambrick, Clerk of the Superior Court, who, until he retired in 1983, exercised general supervision over Goyden's section. Bambrick was succeeded by John Mayson. During that time volume increased, there developed increased backlogs in the filing of court documents, along with a change in procedures whereby documents were to be filed locally, instead of centrally. During the spring of 1984 Goyden announced his intention of retiring in September 1984. Prior to retirement, he filed a workers' compensation claim for disability to his internal organs and nervous system stemming from occupational exposure. Following that retirement, which proceeded as scheduled, he was never again employed. He received psychiatric treatment which was unavailing.

Respondent does not question that petitioner is psychiatrically disabled.*fn2 It contends that the Compensation Judge's finding that petitioner's employment in 1983-1984 was objectively stressful and precipitated his mental illness was unsupported and did not accord with the principles of Williams v. Western Electronic Co., 178 N.J. Super. 571, 429 A.2d 1063 (App.Div.1981).

In his October 10, 1989 oral decision, the Judge summarized his findings.*fn3 He found that Goyden was

employed in a highly responsible position as a Supervisor of an entire section within the Clerk's Office. At one time he was responsible for up to 70 persons. His staff was reduced without any reduction in the work load. A new computer system was put in place which was not adequate and an ever increasing backlog of unfiled documents resulted.*fn4 The petitioner's mentor, Mr. Bambrick, resigned in a manner which was described as being "under fire" and a new program was instituted which the petitioner felt would not work.*fn5

I feel that this is sufficient objective evidence of working conditions sufficiently stressful to contribute to the development of a mental disorder.

The Judge stated the issue and the applicable principles of law:

The real issue in this matter is whether or not the psychiatric condition from which the petitioner suffers arises out of and during the course of his employment pursuant to the New Jersey statutes.

I am . . . satisfied that the petitioner meets the requirements set forth in the case of [Williams v.] Western Electric Company, 178 N.J. Super. 571 [429 A.2d 1063] (Appellate Division 1981). The Court in Williams although it reversed a finding of compensability in the case before it, made it abundantly clear that emotional injuries caused by gradual job-related mental stress can be compensable under the appropriate circumstances. The Court stated that in order for such an injury to be compensable . . . the claimant must prove the existence of objective evidence of job stress which when viewed "realistically" establishes working conditions sufficiently stressful to contribute to the development of a mental disorder. It further emphasized that although objective evidence is required, the employee's subjective reaction is not to be disregarded.

We begin any workers' compensation analysis with the applicable statutes; N.J.S.A. 34:15-30 et seq. Goyden claimed that he was entitled to compensation for a permanent mental disability from a compensable occupational disease "arising out of and in the course of employment."

"Disability permanent in quality and total in character" means a . . . neuropsychiatric total permanent impairment caused by a . . . compensable occupational disease, where no fundamental or marked improvement in such condition can be reasonably expected.

N.J.S.A. 34:15-36.

"Compensable occupational disease" defined

a. For purpose of this article, the phrase "compensable occupational disease" shall include all diseases arising out of and in the course of employment, which are due in a material degree to causes and conditions which are or were characteristic of or peculiar to a particular trade, occupation, process or place of employment.

N.J.S.A. 34:15-31.

This definition of "compensable occupational disease" was part of the 1979 legislative amendments which narrowed eligibility for workers' compensation. Previously, compensation was permitted for all occupational disease arising out of and in the course of employment, not just that "peculiar" to the employment. The purpose of these 1979 amendments was to "benefit employers" and to limit "compensation for occupational disease to those which are characteristic of and peculiar to a particular employment." See Williams, supra, 178 N.J. Super. at 575 n. 2, 429 A.2d 1063. Williams applied the prior law. Ibid.

Our statutory analysis finds support in Dean Larson's treatise. The disability award sought here represents the broadest reach of compensability, a disease not manifested by physical symptoms nor caused by an accident. 1B Larson, The Law of Workmen's Compensation, ยง 42.23(b) (1987 ed.). Dean Larson characterizes this combination of work-related cause and nature of injury and disease as "mental-mental." Within that broad compensability, the broadest compensable "mental" cause is a gradual work-related mental stimulus rather than one traumatic incident. Ibid.

In Williams, Judge McElroy pointed out that prior compensation awards for mental disability in New Jersey were limited to those caused by traumatic incidents rather than by gradual mental stimuli. Williams, supra, 178 N.J. Super. at 578, 429 A.2d 1063. This relationship between work-related cause and injury is characterized as "physical" cause and "mental" injury or disease ("physical-mental"). See Saunderlin v. E.I. DuPont Co., 102 N.J. 402, 412-413 n. 7, 508 A.2d 1095 (1986). It is fundamental that our law makes no such distinction. Ibid. The Supreme Court has, however, referred to the need for objective evidence to support expert opinion concerning a psychiatric disability. Saunderlin v. E.I. DuPont Co., supra.

The Williams opinion reviewed and rejected the law of states permitting compensability where the evidence of work-related cause was based primarily on the worker's "subjective" view concerning what working conditions were sufficiently stressful. Williams, 178 N.J. Super. at 581, 429 A.2d 1063.*fn6 Judge McElroy observed that, were we to award compensability to a worker who suffered a mental collapse because he feel behind in his work if he followed a supervisor's instructions (Carter v. General Motors Corp., 361 Mich. 577, 106 N.W.2d 105 (1960)), or, because the worker was a compulsive perfectionist (Mackenzie v. General Motors Corp., 394 Mich. 577, 106 N.W.2d 105 (1960)), or, because the worker was a compulsive perfectionist (Mackenzie v. General Motors Corp., 394 Mich. 466, 232 N.W.2d 146 (Sup.Ct.1975)),*fn7 we would "change our workers' compensation statute into a program of general health insurance -- clearly not the intent of our Legislature." Id., 361 Mich. at 582, 106 N.W.2d 105.*fn8

When analyzing criteria for mental disability compensation, Williams also relied heavily on Walck v. Johns-Manville Products Corp., 56 N.J. 533, 267 A.2d 508 (1970), which involved a decedent who allegedly died of a heart attack caused by non-physical work stress during his last year of employment. Id. at 537, 267 A.2d 508. The Walck Court held that "if the nature of an employee is such that he is a worrier, the mere fact that he becomes unnecessarily tense and nervous as to whether he is going to keep or lose his job, without more, would not make a heart attack compensable, even if the heart attack did result from that worry." Id. at 557, 267 A.2d 508.

Finally, it is noteworthy that, in reversing the compensation judge's award in Williams, despite that judge's credibility findings, Judge McElroy found fault with the "credibility of the [petitioner's] entire case." In so doing he relied on discrepancies between the worker's complaints in his petition, the complaints to which he testified, and the complaints which he made to the testifying experts, and which formed the basis of their opinions. Id., 178 N.J. Super. at 574 n. 1, 588, 429 A.2d 1063. As in that case, the issue here is not whether a workers' compensation claimant malingered, but whether the stress, admittedly subjective, stemmed from objectively proven stressful work conditions, rather than conditions which only the petitioner found stressful (or, perhaps, conditions which were not shown objectively to exist at all).

Under Williams, therefore, for a worker's mental condition to be compensable, the working conditions must be stressful, viewed objectively, and the believable evidence must support a finding that the worker reacted to them as stressful. In addition, for a present-day claimant to succeed, the objectively stressful working conditions must be "peculiar" to the particular work place, and there must be objective evidence supporting a medical opinion of the resulting psychiatric disability, in addition to "the bare statement of the patient." Saunderlin, 102 N.J. at 412, 508 A.2d 1095. See Perez v. Pantasote, Inc., 95 N.J. 105, 116, 469 A.2d 22 (1984).

Before examining the medical testimony which not only supported a finding of permanent disability but was relied on by the Judge of Compensation to connect that disability to the working conditions, we first look to those conditions as characterized by the Judge. A compensation judge's decision must be upheld if there is sufficient credibility evidence in the record as a whole to sustain his findings, after giving due weight to his expertise in the field and his opportunity to hear and observe the witnesses. DeAngelo v. Alsan Masons, Inc., 122 N.J. Super. 88, 90-91, 299 A.2d 90 (App.Div.), aff'd o.b., 62 N.J. 581, 303 A.2d 883 (1973); Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 599, 210 A.2d 753 (1965). However, a compensation judge's findings must be supported by articulated reasons grounded in the evidence. Lewicki v. New Jersey Art Foundry, 88 N.J. 75, 88-90, 438 A.2d 544 (1981).

In this analysis, we work backwards from the date of Goyden's retirement, September-October 1984. Goyden conceded that, by summer 1984, any disciplinary action concerning his work would have been justified because he was unable to concentrate, being preoccupied with his grievance. He said that his work, which he previously considered to be without fault, was then unsatisfactory, although no adverse action was taken. Mayson described Goyden as becoming more agitated. He said Goyden took time off and did not seem as interested in his work. Mayson said, however, that he told Goyden that he should take any time he needed for his health (a remark Goyden found threatening).

Neither Mayson nor Goyden identified any late 1984 criticism of Goyden's work. Goyden characterized a late July or August 1984 audit of the backlog as based on Mayson's not believing his figures. Fortson, however, testified that there were audits of all departments, and Mayson testified that the audit was done because of his request for overtime funds and additional staff which included Goyden's requests. Mayson said that the purpose of the audit was not to check on the validity of Goyden's document count, but to see how many pleadings could be filed over a specified period of time. While Goyden said he began to feel that the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) was not satisfied with his retiring in September, but was going to take steps to remove him, and he feared he would lose his pension benefits, he pointed to no objective working condition to justify that fear. Goyden also said the audit revealed that his backlog predictions were justified. We thus find that, even if Goyden subjectively viewed the events ...

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