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Jeanne Knight v. Audubon Savings Bank

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


June 26, 2012

JEANNE KNIGHT, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
v.
AUDUBON SAVINGS BANK, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT.

On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Labor, Division of Workers' Compensation, Claim Petition No. 2010-6282.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued April 23, 2012

Before Judges Alvarez and Skillman.

Jeanne Knight appeals from the dismissal after trial of her petition for workers' compensation based on a psychiatric disability. We affirm.

The following circumstances were developed during the trial. Petitioner was hired in 1990 as a teller by the employer, Audubon Savings Bank, eventually being promoted in 1999 to her final position as a mortgage processor. In 1992 petitioner trained Robin Fadio, who started working summers at the bank while in college. By 2004, Fadio had become a chief residential loan officer and vice president, and petitioner's supervisor.

Petitioner testified that although there were minor conflicts between her and Fadio from 1999 through 2004, the conflicts in the workplace became major when Fadio was promoted in 2004. She alleged that Fadio screamed at her, imposed an excessively burdensome workload upon her, and, generally, made her job so stressful that it resulted in a compensable psychiatric claim. Petitioner received several annual written performance evaluations completed by Fadio, which she characterized as negative, both during her testimony and when interviewed by the expert witnesses.

The written performance evaluations were themselves admitted into evidence. The November 2004 evaluation rated petitioner's work performance as falling in the "[g]ood" category. In November 2005, petitioner's score improved by a few points and continued to be "[g]ood." In 2006, petitioner's evaluation improved, falling in the "[v]ery [g]ood" category. Her score improved again in 2007, though it remained "[v]ery [g]ood." Her score decreased in 2008 and 2009, but remained "[v]ery [g]ood."

Petitioner said that she decided to leave her employment in February 2010 after her "negative" 2009 review. Her last day of work was February 2, 2010, when she left the office claiming there were problems with her mother's hospice care. Petitioner said that when she called the office two days later, Fadio screamed at her on the phone about a problem regarding a customer's insurance policy.

Petitioner filed for disability benefits on February 3, 2010, when she was advised that her mother "didn't have much time." She denied that she separated from her employment because of her mother's grave condition, claiming she left because of the psychiatric stress caused by Fadio's ill treatment of her. Petitioner presented three fact witnesses in support of this position during the trial.

The first, Bob Fiorentino, supervised both petitioner and Fadio. He was terminated from his employment in January 2009. Fiorentino confirmed that petitioner and Fadio did not have a good working relationship, and said that he too had conflicts with Fadio but worked well with petitioner. Fadio had yelled at him on a couple of occasions, but he never witnessed her screaming at petitioner. Fiorentino believed that petitioner was overwhelmed with the amount of work assigned to her, including work she thought fell outside of her job description. He did not, however, consider the expectations placed upon petitioner to be unreasonable even if the work overwhelmed her.

Petitioner's second witness, Susan Emerle, worked in close physical proximity to both Fadio and petitioner, heard them have many heated discussions, each provoking the other. In fact, Emerle saw petitioner at times deliberately goad Fadio, describing petitioner as "a very spiteful person," who referred to Fadio either as a "princes[s]" or "the witch." Emerle said although the relationship was not healthy, it was merely "two very strong-minded women just not finding common ground[.]" She observed that Fadio also did not get along with Fiorentino or Cheryl Smith, a retired employee. Emerle agreed that petitioner was assigned a heavy workload, but thought she actually enjoyed a great deal of flexibility in her position.

Petitioner's third witness, Lois Reiter, the administrative assistant to the bank president, never heard any loud disagreements between Fadio and petitioner despite the fact the office was relatively small. Reiter knew petitioner harbored animosity towards Fadio, but never considered Fadio to be inappropriately harsh in her interactions with petitioner.

Petitioner's treating physician, Dr. Harry Carnes, prescribed anti-anxiety medications for petitioner's job-related anxiety in 2003 or 2004. Carnes eventually referred petitioner to a psychiatrist, Dr. Arthur Goldman, with whom she first consulted on April 12, 2010. Goldman described petitioner's psychiatric disabilities as including adjustment disorder with mixed anxious and depressive features. He opined, based on the information provided by petitioner, that the diagnosis was disabling and caused by her work situation. Goldman was unaware that petitioner had also been taking Buspar, a tranquilizer, used primarily to treat anxiety, since 2003 or 2004. Goldman did not know that petitioner's evaluations were actually positive, not negative. When asked if his opinion regarding the cause of her psychiatric condition changed as a result, he said that he did not consider the comments to be "very" positive, nor did they change his opinion.

The employer's witnesses included Kyle McGonigle, who replaced Fiorentino as Fadio's supervisor in 2009. He denied hearing Fadio "yelling" at petitioner, and disputed much of petitioner's testimony. McGonigle said he understood that petitioner left her job because "[h]er mother was critically ill and her father was in poor health as well. She . . . needed to spend time with them." He knew that Fadio and petitioner did not like each other but never heard them raise their voices in the office.

Fadio also testified. Despite being critical of petitioner's job performance in some respects, she readily acknowledged that she had classified it in the "[g]ood" or "[v]ery [g]ood" range for years. Fadio did not even realize that petitioner was not returning to her job until she filed for disability.

The employer's expert witness, Walden M. Holl, Jr., a psychiatrist, diagnosed petitioner with a personality disorder based on her very dramatic and excessively detailed presentation. He said her disorder was "characterized by hysteria, vague and disorganized thinking, anxiety and depression." Holl attributed her adjustment disorder with depressed mood to the death of her mother and alleged workplace conditions. He did not believe that she required treatment for any job-related stress, however, which he estimated correlated to 22.5 percent of her disability. Holl expressed surprise when advised of petitioner's positive performance evaluations, as petitioner told him that beginning in 2005, she received unfavorable work reviews.

The workers' compensation judge rendered his written decision on July 22, 2011. He did not find petitioner to be a credible witness, in contrast with Emerle, Fiorentino, and Reiter. He also noted that even Fiorentino did not corroborate petitioner's claim that Fadio screamed at her.

Taken as a whole, the judge observed that the witnesses presented petitioner as resentful of Fadio. None supported her claims that Fadio screamed at her and was unreasonable in her work demands, or that she was overworked. In contrast, the judge found Fadio to be a credible witness who testified candidly about her interactions with petitioner.

Moreover, the court found it compelling that despite petitioner's testimony to the contrary, her job performance reviews were actually positive. The evaluations did include comments regarding the need for improvement, but were quite favorable overall.

In order to establish a compensable psychiatric claim, petitioner must prove that her disability resulted from objectively verified job-related stress. See Goyden v. State Judiciary, 256 N.J. Super. 438, 445 (App. Div. 1991), aff'd, 128 N.J. 54 (1992). The trial judge assessed the relevant Goyden factors, opining that petitioner had failed to demonstrate "objectively verified stressful work conditions." See ibid.

None of the witnesses corroborated petitioner's descriptions of her interactions with Fadio, and the job performance evaluations undercut her claims. The judge therefore concluded that petitioner's psychiatric condition did not result from her employment.

In addition, the trial judge noted that petitioner did not provide medical evidence that objectively stressful work conditions caused her psychiatric diagnosis. In fact, Goldman and Holl both stated that in reaching their expert opinions they relied solely on information regarding the workplace provided by petitioner. Given that the court did not find petitioner's descriptions credible, he discounted the expert opinions:

In short, the [c]court finds that other than the "bare statements" of the petitioner[,] there is a lack of any objective evidence supporting the medical opinions of psychiatric disability. See [id. at 445-46 (quoting Saunderlin v. E.I. DuPont Co., 102 N.J. 402, 412 (1986))]. .

In sum, the testimony and the evidence produced in this case do not provide the [c]court with credible evidence upon which it can find that [] it was "objectively verified work stressors" that "materially caused[," see id. at 445,] or were "to a material degree a contributing factor" in the petitioner's psychiatric reaction. [Williams v. Western Elec. Co., 175 N.J. Super. 571, 585 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 87 N.J. 380 (1981).]

On appeal, petitioner raises for our consideration the following two points:

POINT I

SUFFICIENT OBJECTIVE EVIDENCE WAS PRESENTED AT TRIAL TO ESTABLISH APPELLANT'S STRESSFUL WORK CONDITIONS RESULTING IN PSYCHIATRIC DISABILITY POINT II THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN RULING THAT THE MEDICAL EXPERTS LACKED OBJECTIVE EVIDENCE SUPPORTING THEIR MEDICAL OPINION OF DISABILITY We reject these contentions of error and affirm based upon the workers' compensation judge's written opinion, with only the following brief comments.

As the judge observed, the only witness who described highly stressful workplace conditions was petitioner. Her statements were refuted by other witnesses, however, and by several years of written performance evaluations. She was not found to be a credible witness, and the record supports the conclusion. See Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965) (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964)) (holding that the standard of review in a workers' compensation case is "'whether the findings made could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record' considering 'the proofs as a whole,' with due regard to the opportunity of the one who heard the witnesses to judge of their credibility.").

Similarly, petitioner's inaccurate descriptions of the workplace were the basis for the medical opinions elicited by both parties. Since the descriptions were unfounded, the resulting opinions were also unfounded. See Rosenberg v. Tavarath, 352 N.J. Super. 385, 401 (App. Div. 2002) (holding that an expert's opinion must be based on "facts and data"); Biunno, Current N.J. Rules of Evidence, comment 2 on R. 703 (2011). All in all, petitioner simply failed to establish that her psychiatric disability resulted from job-related stress.

Affirmed.

20120626

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