Cnty. of Sacramento v. Worker’s Comp. Appeals Bd.
On January 2, 2008, a juvenile hall probation officer filed a claim against the County of Sacramento alleging psychiatric injuries as a result of being subjected to an internal affairs investigation based upon a complaint of a coworker. According to the AME’s opinion, the following three events equally caused the officer’s psychiatric injury: the coworkers’ complaint, the internal affairs investigation, and the officers’ feelings of not being supported by his superiors.
According to Lab. Code § 3208.3 (h), a psychiatric injury is not compensable if the psychiatric injury was substantially caused by good faith personnel actions. A personnel action is a substantial cause of a psychiatric injury if it accounts for at least 35% to 40% of the psychiatric injury. Lab. Code § 3208.3 (b)(3).
The WCAB awarded compensation to the officer based on the agreed medical evaluator’s opinion that even though the internal affairs investigation constituted a personnel action, the personnel action was only 33.3% of the cause of the injury, just short of the 35% threshold for compensability.
The court of appeal, however, found that the WCAB erred by accepting the AME’s opinion regarding what constitutes a personnel action. The court concluded that the AME’s opinion regarding the officer’s claim of feelings he was unsupported by his supervisors did not constitute a cause of the psychiatric injury, but instead was the injury or was a reaction to the cause of the injury.
As the officer’s feelings of not being supported by his superiors were eliminated as a cause of injury, the County may have established that the threshold of 35% was reached. Consequently, the case was remanded to obtain better medical evidence as to what events, if any, caused the officers’ feelings about his supervisors.
This case provides guidance as to the roles of what determinations must be made by a medical expert and the trier of fact. The role of a physician is to determine whether there has been a psychiatric injury and the percentage attributable to the cause of that injury. Unlike a medical expert, the role of the judge is to determine, based on substantial medical evidence, the cause of the psychiatric injury and whether that cause constitutes a personnel action. Furthermore, if the cause is determined to be a personnel action, the judge must then determine whether it was done in good faith.
This case also highlights the differences between the actual events, which must be identified in determining the actual cause of an injury and the emotional or psychological reaction to such events.