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Hostile Work Environment: Compensable

Pornographic cartoons, rumors of sexual escapades while on a business trips, and a co-worker hell bent on your destruction. No, this is not an episode of Melrose Place: this is working for the City of Asbury Park. On November 23, 2009, the Appellate court found that the Judge of compensation (Hon. Leslie Berich, from the Freehold court) had correctly ruled that the psychiatric conditions that Lori Ross suffered from were related to the hostile working conditions she was exposed to.

The facts of the case established that the petitioner, Lori ross, was the victim of an organized “rumor” campaign at the hands of Cassandra Dickerson. according to the decision, Dickerson was ‘jealous’ of compliments that a shared supervisor directed to Ross. As a result, she began a smear campaign about the petitioner, allegin sexual indiscretions and crafting stories of escapades which occurred during business travel.

The claimant was also the subject of a pornographic cartoon depicting her relationship with another co-worker. There was also testimony that rather than address these problems head-on, the City attempted to lay off the offended worker.

The petitioner presented evidence that she suffered from ‘Adjustment Disorder with Mixed Anxiety and Depressed Mood.’ The testifying psychiatrist attributed this condition tot he claimant’s employment experiences, which were described as an “unhealthy work environment.” The Judge agreed, and found in favor of the claimant.

The facts in this case are extraordinay and show a very dysfunctional workplace in which the claimant can show a pattern of peculiar stresses which amount to more than just a psychiatric reaction to the work itself.

In New Jersey, a psychiatric injury can be compensable by itself – that is, without any physical injury. This was recognized by the Court in Williams v. Western Electric Co., 178 N.J. Super. 571, 577 (App. Div.), cert. denied, 87 N.J. 380 (1981). That doesn’t mean that any psychiatric reaction tot he workplace is compensable – just those in which the claimant can meet their burden of proof that the work exposure was a ‘material’ contributing cause of the alleged psychiatric injury.

The Courts later ruled that the workplace exposures must be ‘peculiar’ – that is, the workplace conditions must be uniquely linked to the employment, and the medical opinion must be supported by objective evidence. In the Ross case, the work exposures were indeed peculiar: dirty cartoons and an organized smear campaign could not be considered a ‘regular’ part of a ‘normal’ employment anywhere.

“regular’ incidents of employment, common to all jobs, such as a layoff notice, a bad review, or even a normal dressing-down by a superior, are not the basis for a compensable psychiatric claim in New Jersey.

Workplace psychiatric claims always boil down to a fact analysis. This must be applied on a case-by-case basis. If a claimant can show that the working conditions are ‘objectively stressful’ and ‘peculiar’ to that specific employment, the claim may be compensable.

Case: Lori Ross v. City of Asbury Park, A-0379-08T3, (App. Div. Decided Nov. 23, 2009).

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