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Mathesius v. Saint Barnabas Medical Center

Decided: June 2, 1993.


On appeal from the Division of Workers' Compensation.

Petrella, Long and Keefe. The opinion of the court was delivered by Keefe, J.A.D.


Respondent Saint Barnabas Medical Center (St. Barnabas) appeals from a judgment of one hundred percent disability, awarded in favor of petitioner. In essence, the compensation Judge found that a stress induced stroke arose out of and in the course of petitioner's employment. On appeal, St. Barnabas contends that the Judge relied upon incompetent evidence to render his decision and misapplied applicable substantive law. We agree and reverse.

Petitioner worked for St. Barnabas for twenty three years, beginning there as a volunteer. She later became a paid unit

coordinator and eventually a unit manager. In 1974, on her own initiative, petitioner approached the vice president of the hospital with her proposal to begin a Patient Relations Department. After receiving permission to do so, she organized and subsequently ran the department until her retirement in 1988.

John Spilek, an Assistant Vice President, became petitioner's supervisor in 1984. Petitioner testified that she believed Spilek did not like her. When asked why she had this perception, petitioner noted that Spilek never came to her office for informal meetings, and never complimented her department. When pressed for specifics regarding these negative statements, petitioner was unable to provide concrete examples.

The specific incidents surrounding this claim have to do with a period of time beginning with the end of January, 1988. Petitioner advised Spilek on January 22, 1988 that she was going to have cataract surgery during the following week, and that she expected to be out for a few days. She inquired, at that time, as to whether Spilek wanted her to take home materials necessary to complete her year end report while she was recuperating. Petitioner testified that she was advised by Spilek that there would be sufficient time to complete the report upon her return to work, and that she should spend the time at home taking care of herself. At trial, Spilek agreed with petitioner's characterization of that meeting, although his recollection of their conversation was more vague than that of petitioner. The year end report in question was one which petitioner had completed for her department for the past fourteen years. It was based on monthly reports, also prepared for the department by petitioner, and was usually anywhere from three to five typewritten pages. Petitioner testified that she loved writing, and loved her department, and that the report was easy to write. She normally did it in two days. Spilek testified that the report, although it went to the Executive Vice President of the hospital, was not a measure of efficiency, or any vehicle which could be used as a source of evaluation of petitioner's performance. It was rather, he noted, an opportunity to

summarize the positive aspects of a department by detailing specific events which had occurred throughout the year. Spilek testified that there would have been absolutely no repercussion if petitioner had handed in a shorter or less detailed report for the year in question than she had in any other year.

Both petitioner and Spilek were in agreement that the due date for the year end report had always been somewhere around the second week of February. The date was actually determined by the Executive Vice President of the hospital, and was acknowledged by inter-departmental memo, which was received by each department far in advance of the actual date.

On Saturday January 30, 1988 at approximately 6:30 p.m., while at home recuperating from her cataract surgery the Tuesday before, petitioner claimed to have received a call from her assistant Burt Gartenlaub. Burt advised petitioner that she would have to complete her year end report in time to "have it on John's [Spilek's] desk on Monday." Petitioner apparently received this news with some incredulity, as she had discussed this very matter only one week prior with Spilek himself. However, petitioner did not attempt to confirm the information with Spilek or his secretary, who had allegedly made the call to Gartenlaub. Neither Gartenlaub or Spilek's secretary testified.

Petitioner testified that after her conversation with Gartenlaub she was "very, very upset." She proceeded directly to the hospital to gather her materials to do the report. She noted that she was at the hospital no longer than one half hour, and was back home by about eight o'clock or eight thirty, as the hospital is only a five minute drive from her home.

Petitioner testified that she had been "too upset" to begin the report that evening, and set her alarm to begin at seven the next morning. She did not sleep well, and was awake before her alarm sounded the next morning. She went directly to work on the report. She did not stop to eat breakfast or lunch, but did eat a half slice of toast, and tried to drink a glass of milk and a vodka

and tonic at some point during the day. Both drinks tasted "funny," so petitioner testified that she threw them out.

Petitioner testified that throughout the day she experienced a pounding heart, a burning feeling and felt "hot" all over. She stated that she knew something was happening, but didn't think it was anything she couldn't "handle." She noted that she could not even think clearly at times, because she was so angry that she had to do the report.

I love to write and I love the department, so it was easy to write the report, but I couldn't get over the unfairness, it just kept -- my head was on fire, I couldn't believe that it could happen and at some point my heart began to pound and I ...

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