Under certain circumstances, an injured worker can obtain Illinois workers’ compensation benefits for purely psychological injuries. These “mental-mental” cases occur when an injured worker sustains psychological injuries as a result of non-physical work-related factors. There are two types of these cases: 1) where the employee suffers a sudden, severe emotional shock traceable to a specific incident, or 2) where the employee develops a psychological injury after a series of work-related events. The courts have habitually been hesitant to allow recovery under the second theory, repeatedly emphasizing that mental disorders stemming from normal working stresses are not compensable. Rather, to meet the high bar for recovery, the injured employee must prove three things: 1) the mental disorder arose in a situation of greater dimensions than the day-to-day emotional strain and tension which all employees must experience; 2) the conditions exist in reality, from an objective standpoint; and 3) the employment conditions, when compared with the non-employment conditions, were the major contributory cause of the mental disorder.
An interesting example of this is Chicago Transit Authority v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2015 IL (1st) 123722WC-U, where a CTA bus driver successfully proved a “mental-mental” claim under the “series of events” theory. The employee’s bus route included a stop at a high school in a neighborhood with one of the city’s highest violent crime rates; every day there was a strong police presence, with at least five police cars, when school was dismissed. The employee explained that the bus would completely fill up with 80 or 90 students, many of whom refused to pay, and when he confronted a student who had not paid, he was usually threatened with physical violence. He also constantly received verbal threats from many of the students. The employee then described a series of four instances over a two-month period which he claimed caused a psychological injury. In the first, three individuals had followed a fourth young man onto the bus, then physically attacked and attempted to rob him. Two weeks later, a female student had become belligerent when the bus had an equipment problem, screaming curses at the employee, then pushing her way to the steering wheel and wildly pressing buttons on the dashboard. In the third incident, the employee had stopped to pick up passengers when a group of young people opened the rear panel on the bus and disabled the battery; the employee had to exit the bus to reconnect the power and as he was working, the group of teens taunted him with racial slurs, then threw a bottle as well as a brick at him. In the final incident, the employee had a meeting with his supervisor about a letter he received from the State’s Attorney’s office requiring him to testify in the criminal proceedings arising from the assault on the bus; he was anxious about the letter and he wanted help from the employer in dealing with the prospect of testifying. The meeting was not productive and the employee explained that he was upset and felt abandoned by the employer. He continued to be in this upset state as he drove his route, and he had a panic attack that afternoon. It was after this incident that he sought psychological treatment and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
There was no real dispute regarding the second and third prongs of the test, as the surveillance video from the bus provided objective evidence that the instances occurred as the employee had described, and the uncontradicted expert opinion from the treating psychologist showed that the employee had post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his work-related experiences. Instead, the employer disputed the claim based on the first prong: in what would make the worst recruiting campaign ever, the CTA argued that the employee’s claim should fail because what he experienced was no worse than the abuse its drivers experience on a daily basis from “discourteous passengers and unruly teenagers.” The CTA failed, however, to provide any evidence at trial of the relative levels of stress and tension its drivers experience. Instead, the CTA opted to ask the Appellate Court to surf the internet so it could see for itself just how unpleasant it is to drive a CTA bus: “The employer invites this court to review its website to find that the claimant’s experiences were nothing more than a typical two months in the life of a CTA bus driver.” The Appellate Court declined CTA’s invitation, and instead relied on the evidence:
The facts adduced at the arbitration hearing do not support the employer’s claim that the claimant’s experiences on those four dates were typical of all its bus operators. First, and foremost, the record established that, unlike the typical CTA bus operator, the extreme stress and tension to which the claimant was exposed came from just one portion of his job – picking up students at Englewood High School. The record indicates that all of the stress and tension to which the claimant was exposed came from these students. These students were the ones who threatened the claimant with violence, yelled obscenities and racial epithets, assaulted and robbed one another in his presence, refused to pay the proper fare and dared the claimant to do something about it, vandalized and disabled the bus, and then threatened the claimant and threw objects at him while he tried to repair the damage they caused. The unrebutted testimony of the claimant established that these passengers were far more than merely “discourteous” and “unruly”; they were violent and dangerous. Every day at 3 p.m., the claimant was exposed to this violent and dangerous environment and, on four occasions in a two month span, the strain and tension produced symptoms which led to a diagnosis of PTSD. While the claimant presented no direct evidence of the stress levels of other CTA drivers, the evidence in the record was sufficient to support an inference that the claimant’s stress and tension was greater. Chicago Transit Authority, 2015 IL (1st) 123722WC-U, ¶30.
This case is interesting not only because it is one of the rare instances where a “mental-mental” case was successful, but also because the employer’s chosen defense is partially based on the argument that all its employees are treated badly.