Can Compensated Job Stresses - Case Summary

The Parties

Mrs. LaRenda Raiford is the widow of Nathaniel Raiford. The late Mr. Raiford worked in the paint department.

Huntington Ingalls is an American Fortune 500 military shipbuilding company. The company is an offshoot of Northrop Grumman Corporation.

The Facts

Mr. Raiford worked for Huntington Ingalls Industries in its paint department for nearly thirty years, working the first shift in the sign shop.  When the sign shop closed in 2008, Mr. Raiford was then reassigned to painting on ships in several locations around the shipyard.  Shortly after this reassignment, he was moved to the second shift.

In his 2012 deposition, Mr. Raiford stated he was not happy with the shift change.  He worried about getting home because he did not drive and the bus did not run that late, so he had to hire a driver to take him home.  Additionally, his sleep pattern was being affected, and he could not concentrate on his work, although he was partnered with another worker.  On January 30, 2009, Mr. Raiford stopped working and he went to the hospital for what he thought was an anxiety attack.  Doctors admitted him and ran tests.  Although he returned to independent living for a time, Mr. Raiford did not return to any work after January 30, 2009.

Mr. Raiford first saw his general physician on February 2, 2009.  The doctor had concerns with Mr. Raiford’s “altered mental status” reported by Mr. Raiford to be due to distress from his work reassignment. The doctor also noted Mr. Raiford’s self-reported history of depression and sleep dysfunction. The doctor noted that repercussions from the stroke had yet to be determined, and also reported that Mr. Raiford was so distraught at the end of the appointment that he would not leave the doctor’s office and had to be taken to the emergency room.  At Mr. Raiford’s next appointment, on February 13, 2009, the doctor stated that the family informed him that Mr. Raiford had been admitted to the hospital due to an abnormal CT scan and an abnormal MRI.  On follow-up appointments, progress reports identified the doctor’s assessments of Mr. Raiford’s having a history of cerebrovascular accidents (CVAs) and other problems but did not identify a specific cause for these problems.  The doctor excused Mr. Raiford from work through September 2009; his notes also indicated that Mr. Raiford’s return to work had to be on the day shift due to his medication schedule.

On February 26, 2009, Mr. Raiford saw a psychiatrist for his sleeping and memory problems and post-stroke issues.  The psychiatrist reported that Mr. Raiford presented with mental problems and that he was worried about “getting himself together” so he could return to work.  They discussed that depression can follow a stroke and vascular disease, and the psychiatrist then diagnosed “affective disorder, organic.”  The psychiatrist continued to see Mr. Raiford until July 21, 2009, when he advised Mr. Raiford to take a medical retirement.  According to the psychiatrist, Mr. Raiford was then transferred to another physician.

On May 4, 2010, Mr. Raiford, via his nephew, filed a claim for compensation form. He alleged that he suffered from work-related anxiety, depression, and a stroke.  Afterward, Mr. Raiford was readmitted to the hospital and began an “ischemic stroke protocol.”

Employment Conditions

The injuries

Mr. Raiford suffered from a degree of psychological impairment, which included depression and sleep dysfunction. He may have suffered a stroke, although scans showed the stroke(s) could have occurred earlier. At the hospital during an admission in 2009, his abnormal CT scan and abnormal MRI both indicated evidence of old infarcts “in the pons” (a rare type of brainstem stroke) as well evidence of a “left thalamus (an area of the brain between the two cerebral hemispheres) with possible subacute (within two weeks previously) cerebrovascular accident involving the left frontal area.”

Hence the tests showed Mr. Raiford had what may have been an older stroke in his brainstem and he may also have had another, more recent stroke more deeply within his brain. Then upon his release, Mr. Raiford’s family was told he had had a stroke. Mr. Raiford was treated for stroke-related issues, depression, and anxiety, and he lived with his nephew for approximately four months after he left the hospital.

There is no claim for death benefits.

The employer’s actions

On May 21, 2010, Huntington Ingalls filed a notice of controversion (opposition). They asserted that the claim and notice of injury had been untimely filed and that Mr. Raiford’s conditions were not work-related.

Results of the Initial Hearing

Mr. Raiford claimed that his anxiety, depression, and stroke came about due to his shift change; and he was entitled to temporary total disability benefits accruing from January 30, 2009, until his death, as well as reimbursement of his medical expenses.  Huntington Ingalls argued that the notice of injury and claim were untimely filed and that they were prejudiced (I. e. their case was unfairly hobbled) by the delayed notice.  Alternatively, Huntington Ingalls asserted that Mr. Raiford’s condition was not compensable because it was not related to his work.

The administrative law judge determined that Mr. Raiford failed to give Huntington Ingalls timely notice of his injury and that this delay was unexcused, and that Mr. Raiford’s claim for compensation was untimely filed.

However, because a claim for medical benefits is never time-barred, the administrative law judge addressed the cause of Mr. Raiford’s medical conditions.  She found that Mr. Raiford established the harm claimed (the strokes and altered mental status), but not an accident or any working conditions which could have caused this harm.  Rather, the administrative law judge found Mr. Raiford’s condition was caused by his strokes, citing the reports of the examining physicians.  Even if the shift change at work did cause his anxiety and led to the strokes and depression, the administrative law judge determined that the shift change was a legitimate personnel action. She further determined that psychological problems caused by a legitimate personnel action are not compensable.  As a result, the administrative law judge denied the claim for reimbursement of medical benefits.

**The Appeal

According to the administrative appeals judges, the well-established law provides that a work-related psychological injury may be compensable, and a claimant need not show that his working conditions were “unusually stressful” in order to satisfy the “working conditions” element for a psychological injury case.  Even work-related stress that seems relatively mild may establish “working conditions,” as the issue is the effect on the claimant and not on the general population.  And if the psychological injury was caused by an accident at work or by specified working conditions, it is compensable.   However, a psychological injury resulting from a “legitimate personnel action” is not compensable under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, inasmuch as such an event is not a “working condition” which can form the basis for a compensable injury.

They further found that Huntington Ingalls’s personnel decision permitted it to continue Mr. Raiford’s employment after the sign shop closed by switching his job location and duties and, finally, shift.  Thus, it was reasonable for the administrative law judge to include the change of shifts among the types of personnel decisions designated as “legitimate personnel actions.”

The Ruling on Appeal

The initial ruling was affirmed on appeal.

The Takeaway

The claimant here lost out for two reasons: (1) his psychological stress came about because of a shift change which was done in order to keep him employed, and (2) at least some of his issues were caused by his strokes. The administrative appeals judges did not consider his employer to be the cause of either of those difficulties.

Ms. LaRenda Raiford v. Huntington Ingalls Industries, Inc
https://www.dol.gov/brb/decisions/lngshore/published/15-0003.htm