Bedini v. Frost, No. 94-624

Docket NºNo. 94-624
Citation165 Vt. 167, 678 A.2d 893
Case DateMarch 15, 1996
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

Page 893

678 A.2d 893
165 Vt. 167
Frances BEDINI
v.
Oakley FROST, M.D.
No. 94-624.
Supreme Court of Vermont.
March 15, 1996.
Motion for Reargument Denied April 3, 1996.

[165 Vt. 168] Ronald A. Fox of Biggam, Fox & Skinner, Montpelier, for plaintiff-appellant.

Phyllis G. Severance and Thomas P. Simon of McCormick, Fitzpatrick & Mertz, P.C., Burlington, for defendant-appellee.

Before ALLEN, C.J., and GIBSON, DOOLEY, MORSE and JOHNSON, JJ.

ALLEN, Chief Justice.

Plaintiff Frances Bedini appeals the Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner's denial of her workers' compensation claim. We affirm.

Plaintiff was hired by a medical clinic in March 1992 as a medical receptionist/medical assistant. Although she had prior experience as a medical receptionist, she had never worked as a medical assistant. She expressed an interest in a career as a medical assistant, and saw the job as an opportunity for on-the-job training. When she was hired, her employer explained the duties of the job to her.

After a few weeks at the job, plaintiff's enthusiasm waned, and she began to feel the

Page 894

job was more than she could handle. Her employer, however, never asked her to perform duties beyond those in the job description. In July 1992, plaintiff complained about job-related stress to her physician, who was treating her for a preexisting physical condition. She never informed her employer of this stress.

Plaintiff's employer became increasingly dissatisfied with her job performance and counseled her several times about her deficiencies. In April 1993, the plaintiff requested an opportunity to meet with her supervisor to discuss her job performance. At this meeting, plaintiff's supervisor noted various problems with her job performance. Plaintiff left the meeting and did not return to work again. She again visited with her physician, who referred her to a licensed social [165 Vt. 169] worker for psychological counseling. On April 12, 1993, plaintiff was hospitalized for treatment.

Plaintiff subsequently filed a workers' compensation claim, which was denied by her employer's insurer. She then filed for a hearing on the denial before the Commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry. The Commissioner found that plaintiff was not subjected to unusual working conditions and that her injury resulted from her inability to master her job. The Commissioner denied her claim, and she then filed this appeal.

The only issue on appeal is whether the standard adopted by the Commissioner for mental injury claims is unreasonable and unjust and without legal basis. In this case, the Commissioner concluded that "in order for mental injury caused by stress at work to be compensable, a claimant must show that the stresses at work were of a significantly greater dimension than the daily stresses encountered by all employees."

Because the Commissioner's standard derives from her interpretation of the workers' compensation statute, 1 we review the Commissioner's standard with deference. Absent compelling indication of an error, interpretation of a statute by an administrative body responsible for its execution will be sustained on appeal. In re Duncan, 155 Vt. 402, 408, 584 A.2d 1140, 1144 (1990). We will not upset that interpretation unless it is unjust or unreasonable or leads to absurd consequences. In re Verburg, 159 Vt. 161, 165, 616 A.2d 237, 239 (1992).

The Commissioner's standard is supported by reasonable policy concerns. In earlier cases, the Commissioner noted that medical authorities agree that the precise etiology of most mental disorders is inexplicable. Because a mental injury could have resulted from such diverse factors as social environment, culture, heredity, age, sex, family relationships, and other interpersonal relationships, as well as employment, a high degree of uncertainty exists in the diagnosis of cause. The unusual-stress standard also permits a more objective inquiry into the cause of the injury. Greater objectivity is necessary in mental injury cases because the claimant's subjective impression that work-related stress caused her injury often forms the [165 Vt. 170] basis for the medical opinion that the injury was caused primarily by work-related stress. See, e.g., Seitz v. L & R Indus., 437 A.2d 1345, 1350-51 n. 6 (R.I.1981). Other policy considerations, not mentioned by the Commissioner, also support the Commissioner's standard. For example, it protects against nondetectable fraudulent claims and prevents the conversion of workers' compensation into general health insurance. See Dunlavey v. Economy Fire & Casualty Co., 526 N.W.2d 845, 856 (Iowa 1995) (unusual stress standard effective means to prevent fraudulent claims and conversion of workers' compensation into general health insurance). Because reasonable policy concerns support the Commissioner's standard, there is no compelling indication of error in the Commissioner's interpretation of the workers' compensation statute.

Plaintiff argues that the Vermont Workers' Compensation Act does not differentiate between psychological and physical injuries. While the statute does not expressly differentiate

Page 895

between physical and mental injuries, the Commissioner has adopted a standard that does so because of the greater uncertainty in the diagnosis of mental injuries than in the diagnosis of physical injuries. Although plaintiff argues that "the diagnosis of physical injury is no more or less an art or science than the diagnosis of psychological injury in the field of medicine today," the Commissioner has reasonably concluded otherwise. Moreover, all but nine states treat physical and mental injuries differently and do so for the same policy reasons as the Commissioner. See 1B A. Larson, The Law of Workmen's Compensation § 42.25(g), at 7-968 (1995 & Supp.1995). Therefore, the Commissioner's conclusion that physical and mental injuries require a different standard is not unreasonable.

Plaintiff also argues that the Commissioner's standard abandons the principle that an aggravation or acceleration of a preexisting condition can constitute an injury that is compensable under the workers' compensation statute. In Campbell v. Heinrich Savelberg, Inc., we held that "the aggravation or acceleration of a pre-existing condition can constitute a personal injury by accident under the Act." 139 Vt. 31, 35-36, 421 A.2d 1291, 1294 (1980). Mental injury claimants with preexisting conditions can still receive compensation, but they, like all mental injury claimants, must show that the work-related stress was greater than that experienced by all employees. The [165 Vt. 171] Commissioner's standard does not abandon the principle that claimants with preexisting conditions can receive compensation. 2

Affirmed.

JOHNSON, Justice, dissenting.

I cannot accept the majority's brief affirmance of the standard adopted by the Commissioner for mental stress claims, both because the Commissioner, and now this Court, have departed from the statutory scheme for workers' compensation claims, and because the Commissioner's conclusions confuse, rather than clarify, the precise standard applied in stress claims. I therefore respectfully dissent. Although I believe that...

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15 practice notes
  • Travelers Ins. Co. v. Carpenter, Docket No. 01-9474.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • June 20, 2005
    ...interpretation of the statute, see Morin v. Essex Optical/The Hartford, ___ Vt. ___, 868 A.2d 729, 731 (2005); Bedini v. Frost, 165 Vt. 167, 169, 678 A.2d 893, 894 (1996), but treated the statutory interpretation issue in Travelers Cos. as one of first impression without any indication that......
  • Means v. Baltimore County, No. 20
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • March 4, 1997
    ...Bailey v. American Gen. Ins. Co., 154 Tex. 430, 279 S.W.2d 315 (1955); Utah, UTAH CODE ANN. § 35-1-45.1 (1996); Vermont, Bedini v. Frost, 678 A.2d 893, 894 (Vt.1996); Virginia, Burlington Mills Corp. v. Hagood, 177 Va. 204, 13 S.E.2d 291 (1941); Washington, see Department of Labor & Indus. ......
  • Gallipo v. City of Rutland, No. 00-217.
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • December 21, 2001
    ...events. The decision is based on the standard for proving mental injuries in workers' compensation claims we approved in Bedini v. Frost, 165 Vt. 167, 678 A.2d 893 (1996). Plaintiff failed to file a timely appeal from this ruling. On July 20, 2001 in Gallipo v. City of Rutland, 172 Vt. ___,......
  • Travelers Indem. Co. v. Wallis, No. 02-360.
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • October 31, 2003
    ...As a result, we give deference to the Commissioner's interpretation and application of the workers' compensation laws. Bedini v. Frost, 165 Vt. 167, 169, 678 A.2d 893, 894 (1996). The Commissioner is required to make the claims adjudication process as "summary and simple as reasonably may b......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
15 cases
  • Travelers Ins. Co. v. Carpenter, Docket No. 01-9474.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • June 20, 2005
    ...interpretation of the statute, see Morin v. Essex Optical/The Hartford, ___ Vt. ___, 868 A.2d 729, 731 (2005); Bedini v. Frost, 165 Vt. 167, 169, 678 A.2d 893, 894 (1996), but treated the statutory interpretation issue in Travelers Cos. as one of first impression without any indication that......
  • Means v. Baltimore County, No. 20
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • March 4, 1997
    ...Bailey v. American Gen. Ins. Co., 154 Tex. 430, 279 S.W.2d 315 (1955); Utah, UTAH CODE ANN. § 35-1-45.1 (1996); Vermont, Bedini v. Frost, 678 A.2d 893, 894 (Vt.1996); Virginia, Burlington Mills Corp. v. Hagood, 177 Va. 204, 13 S.E.2d 291 (1941); Washington, see Department of Labor & Indus. ......
  • Gallipo v. City of Rutland, No. 00-217.
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • December 21, 2001
    ...events. The decision is based on the standard for proving mental injuries in workers' compensation claims we approved in Bedini v. Frost, 165 Vt. 167, 678 A.2d 893 (1996). Plaintiff failed to file a timely appeal from this ruling. On July 20, 2001 in Gallipo v. City of Rutland, 172 Vt. ___,......
  • Travelers Indem. Co. v. Wallis, No. 02-360.
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • October 31, 2003
    ...As a result, we give deference to the Commissioner's interpretation and application of the workers' compensation laws. Bedini v. Frost, 165 Vt. 167, 169, 678 A.2d 893, 894 (1996). The Commissioner is required to make the claims adjudication process as "summary and simple as reasonably may b......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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