News & Knowledge

Upton's Case: Employer Investigations And Workers’ Compensation

(Massachusetts Court of Appeals, Slip Op. No. 12-P-325, October 18, 2013)

The Massachusetts Court of Appeals recently held that a workplace investigatory interview causing an employee’s emotional disability constituted a bona fide personnel action under M.G.L. c. 152, §1(7A), and therefore, the employee was not entitled to worker's compensation benefits.

The employee, a jail officer at the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, had been terminated from his position in 1999 following a disciplinary hearing in which a hearing officer had found that the employee had filed false and untimely reports regarding an assault on an inmate. The employee grieved the termination to arbitration, and in 2001, the employee was reinstated with a six-month suspension without pay, less any outside earnings or unemployment he had received.

The sheriff appealed the arbitration order, and the case entered extensive litigation. In 2008, the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the judgment of the Superior Court confirming the arbitrator’s award. The employee was reinstated in 2008, and signed a document under the penalties of perjury confirming the amount of outside earnings and unemployment compensation he had received while out of work from the Sheriff’s Department. Shortly afterwards, information was uncovered that suggested the employee had failed to report all of his earnings. The employee was then called into a meeting to discuss this possible discrepancy. Following the meeting, the employee went to the emergency room with complaints of shortness of breath, tingling in his arm, and chest pain. He was unable to return to work and subsequently filed a claim for weekly benefits under Sections 34 and 35 of the Worker's Compensation Act.

Following a DIA hearing, the administrative judge denied the employee’s claim on the ground that his disability had resulted from a bona fide personnel action under Section 1(7A). The employee appealed, and the Reviewing Board reversed the administrative judge’s decision, concluding that the investigative interview was not “akin to ‘a transfer, promotion, demotion, or termination’,” and therefore was not a “personnel action” under the Act.

The Appeals Court reversed the decision of the Reviewing Board, concluding that the language of Section 1(7A) did not limit the types of personnel actions to those listed by the Reviewing Board. Section 1(7A) provides that “no mental or emotional disability arising principally out of a bona fide, personnel action including a transfer, promotion, demotion, or termination except such action which is the intentional infliction of emotional harm shall be deemed to be a personal injury within the meaning of this chapter.” The Court concluded that the word “including” implied some additional actions, such as activities leading up to the listed actions. The Court also concluded that this interpretation met the purpose of the statute, as preliminary investigative actions are part of the personnel process, which ultimately result in the final event of a change of status in employment.

“Fairly conducted inquiries furnish the employee the opportunity to refute suspicion or criticism and the employer the information necessary for accurate personnel decisions. The Legislature did not plausibly intend to expose those processes to workers’ compensation liability for the purely emotional consequences experienced by affected employees.”

The case was remanded to the Department for entry of an order denying the employee’s claim for benefits by reason of any disability resulting from the investigative interview.

© Tamara Lee Ricciardone, Partner