D.C. Workers Compensation:  Court of Appeals rejects objective standard for mental disability claims

In Muhammad v. District of Columbia Depart. Of Emp. Serv., No. 10-AA-1049 (D.C. Jan. 5, 2012), the claimant had suffered a back injury on the job and was on temporary total disability. After three years, the employer enrolled the claimant in vocational rehabilitation, in an effort to find him sedentary work. After a year of unsuccessful vocational counseling, rehabilitation efforts were terminated. Subsequently, the claimant's treating physician recommended that the claimant begin seeing a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist diagnosed the claimant with severe depression. The employer then arranged for a psychiatric IME, which diagnosed the claimant with a depressive disorder caused by the claimant's limited coping response to the challenges imposed by vocational rehabilitation.

The claimant then petitioned for permanent total disability benefits. The ALJ denied the claim, concluding that claimant's psychiatric injury was not medically causally related to the workplace injury to the claimant's back. The Compensation Review Board ultimately affirmed.

On appeal, the Court reversed and remanded the Compensation Review Board's denial of benefits on the grounds that the claimant's psychological injury did not arise out of and in the course of employment. The Court directed that on remand, the Board must resolve the question whether a claim flowing from vocational rehabilitation might be covered as involving what Professor Larson refers to as a 'quasi-course of employment' injury. Quasi-course of employment activities are activities undertaken by the employee following upon his or her injury which, although they take place outside the time and space limits of employment, and would not be considered employment activities for usual purposes, are nevertheless related to the employment in the sense that they are necessary or reasonable activities that would not have been undertaken but for the compensable injury. This was recognized as an issue of first impression in the District in the case of Nixon v. District of Columbia Dept. of Emp. Serv., 954 A.2d 1016 (D.C. 2008), but the issue has never been reached by the Compensation Review Board.

The Court noted that the Board incorrectly directed the ALJ to determine if the psychological injury resulted from a strictly personal reaction by the claimant. The Court stated that contrary to the Board's assertion, employers must accept employees as they find them. The controlling standard is that the Workers' Compensation Act neither requires, nor permits, use of an objective test under which an employee seeking compensation for psychological injuries must show that an average person not predisposed to such injury would have suffered a similar injury.

Although the Court has rejected the use of an objective standard for evaluating an individual's reaction to workplace conditions, it did not eliminate the requirement that the workplace conditions that a petitioner asserts caused the injury must exist in reality. In mental-mental cases a test for the existence of actual workplace stressors must be one verifying the factual reality of the stressors in the workplace environment, rather than one requiring the claimant to prove that a hypothetical average or healthy person would have suffered a similar psychological injury.