The Lawletter Vol 36 No 1, September 9, 2011
Is a suicide prompted by stress in the workplace compensable under the workers' compensation law? A New York appellate court has left open the possibility that a suicide committed in reaction to an office investigation is covered as long as the office investigation was not a good-faith personnel action against the decedent.
In Veeder v. New York State Police Department, 86 A.D.3d 762, 928 N.Y.S.2d 89 (2011), the decedent had been employed by the state police department as a forensic scientist for approximately 31 years. In April 2008, during a reaccreditation process for the laboratory in which the decedent worked, an audit uncovered an inconsistency in the fiber proficiency tests that he regularly performed. The department commenced an investigation, and, over the course of three days, several meetings between the decedent and his supervisors were held to discuss the inconsistencies in the test results. The decedent advised his supervisors that he had skipped a step in the fiber test analysis procedure and, therefore, was noncompliant in performing the test. Thereafter, the department initiated a "nonconforming work inquiry." The decedent stopped going to work and ultimately committed suicide on May 23, 2008. The decedent's wife filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits, which was denied by the Workers' Compensation Board on the ground that the decedent's death had not arisen out of and in the course of his employment.
Section 2(7) of the New York Workers' Compensation Law provides, in pertinent part:
The terms "injury" and "personal injury" shall not include an injury which is solely mental and is based on workrelated stress if such mental injury is a direct consequence of a lawful personnel decision involving a disciplinary action, work evaluation, job transfer, demotion, or termination taken in good faith by the employer.
N.Y. Workers' Comp. Law § 2(7).
On appeal, the court rejected the claimant's contention that because her husband had committed suicide, his injuries were not "solely mental" and, thus, that Workers' Compensation Law § 2(7) did not apply. The court found that the unrefuted psychiatric evidence, as well as the decedent's suicide letters, established that his suicide had been predominantly the product of the depression and stress he experienced from the police department's inquiry into the inconsistencies in his fiber analysis tests. Accordingly, the critical inquiry was whether the "nonconforming work inquiry" was a disciplinary action within the meaning of the statute. The court found that the proceeding was a nonaccusatory factfinding action undertaken for the purpose of quality control. Even after the decedent had admitted that he was noncompliant, the focus of the inquiry was factfinding, and no disciplinary charges against the decedent were initiated or contemplated. Therefore, there was insufficient evidence to support a finding that the action was a disciplinary one. Nonetheless, the court remanded the matter to the Workers' Compensation Board to address the police department's alternative argument, which was not addressed by the Board, i.e., that the action was a work evaluation.