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Emotional Injuries Resulting from a “Bona Fide Personnel Action” in Massachusetts

While emotional and mental injuries caused by the workplace are compensated under Massachusetts’ workers’ compensation law, emotional disabilities that arise primarily because of a bona fide personnel action are not.

In a recent appellate case, a prison employee claimed he suffered emotional disability that arose from an investigative interview at the prison where he worked. The prison employee began working as a jail officer at the sheriff’s department when he was 24-years-old.

In 1999, two officers attacked an inmate while the employee in question was working. A disciplinary officer determined that the employee had made false report filings about the assault and had not properly kept the log book, among other wrongs. The employee was fired.

The employee asked for arbitration and the arbitrator reduced the sanction from a firing to 6 months of being suspended without pay. He was reinstated with specific back pay, as well as benefits.

He appealed, claiming that the arbitration order violated public policy. Lengthy litigation ensued, but eventually an appellate court confirmed the award. The employee was reinstated. When he started to work again in 2008, the sheriff owed him certain compensation. In order to comply with the arbitration order, the sheriff prepared an earnings document that stated the employee’s outside earnings while he was not working for the prison.

The employee signed the document under penalty of perjury, but afterward the sheriff discovered the employee might not have revealed all of his earnings. Two investigators asked the employee to meet them, along with a union rep, to discuss the issue.

After the meeting, the employee went to the hospital short of breath, and with tingling arms and chest pains. He couldn’t go back to work and filed a workers’ compensation claim for total incapacity benefits. In the alternative, he asked for partial incapacity benefits, medical benefits, and attorneys’ fees and costs.

An administrative judge denied the employee’s claim. He appealed and the same administrative judge heard the appeal for four days before denying the appeal, reasoning that the employee’s disability arose from a bona fide personnel action.

The worker appealed, and the decision was reversed by the board. The board concluded that the interview causing his injury was investigative in nature and consequently not a personnel action because the interview did not alter Upton’s employment status or employment relationship. The board also found that the employee truly was disabled for some time after the investigative interview and the disability was based on his emotional reaction to the interview.

The issue before the Massachusetts appellate court was if the workplace investigation interview constituted a “bona fide personnel action.” The appellate court reasoned that employer conduct doesn’t have to alter employee status or relationship to constitute “personnel action.” Even criticism or questioning by a supervisor that could lead to a change in status could be construed as personnel action.

The appellate court closely analyzed the statutory prohibition against giving workers’ compensation to a worker hurt by a bona fide personnel action “including a transfer, promotion, demotion or termination.” The court reasoned that if the Legislature wanted to define personnel action as “transfer, promotion” and similar actions, it would have used “consisting of” instead of “including” when listing these examples. “Including” implied that there are additional personnel actions beyond the ones expressly listed.

The original termination of the employee was what caused the employee to have to report his pay from other sources. This was an event within the original ongoing personnel action from years prior, rather than an unrelated event.

The appellate court explained that the personnel action exception was designed to restrain compensation for work-related disabilities unassociated with physical injuries. Purely emotional injuries from good faith personnel actions are not compensable under workers’ compensation law in Massachusetts.

If you have been seriously injured on the job, an experienced Massachusetts workers’ compensation attorney may be able to help you navigate the complex workers’ compensation laws. Contact us by calling 800-367-0871 or using our online contact form.

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