Robertson v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., Docket No. 116276, Calendar No. 6.

CourtSupreme Court of Michigan
Citation641 N.W.2d 567,465 Mich. 732
Docket NumberDocket No. 116276, Calendar No. 6.
PartiesWarren M. ROBERTSON, Jr., Plaintiff-Appellee, v. DAIMLERCHRYSLER CORPORATION, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date09 April 2002

641 N.W.2d 567
465 Mich. 732

Warren M. ROBERTSON, Jr., Plaintiff-Appellee,

Docket No. 116276, Calendar No. 6.

Supreme Court of Michigan.

Argued November 7, 2001.

Decided April 9, 2002.

641 N.W.2d 569
Zamler, Mellen & Shiffman, P.C. (by Paul S. Rosen), Southfield, (Daryl Royal, of counsel), Dearborn, for the plaintiff-appellee

Lacy & Jones (by Michael T. Reinholm), Birmingham, for the defendant-appellant.

Conklin, Benham, Ducey, Listman & Chuhran, P.C. (by Martin L. Critchell), Detroit, for amicus curiae the Michigan Self-Insurers Association.

Lacey & Jones (by Gerald M. Marcinkoski), Birmingham, for amicus curiae the Michigan Insurance Federation.

Clark, Hill, P.L.C. (by F.R. Damm, Paul E. Scheidemantel, and Mary C. Dirkes), Detroit, for amicus curiae the Michigan Manufacturers Association.

Jill S. Mulder, Assistant General Counsel, Accident Fund Company Legal Department, Lansing, for amicus curiae the Accident Fund Company.

641 N.W.2d 568

In this worker's compensation case, we must determine whether the Court of Appeals properly vacated the Worker's Compensation Appellate Commission (WCAC) order affirming the magistrate's decision denying worker's compensation benefits. In part, the magistrate considered plaintiff's perceptions of an actual work event in deciding whether plaintiff had established a compensable mental disability injury under M.C.L. § 418.301(2). The Court of Appeals determined that such considerations by the magistrate were irrelevant to a mental disability analysis. We vacate the Court of Appeals order and remand this matter to the magistrate for analysis under the statutory framework as set forth below.

641 N.W.2d 570

Plaintiff began working for defendant employer in 1973, working at various auto assembly plant locations. In 1984, he began working at defendant's Sterling Heights Assembly Plant. Plaintiff worked on the assembly line in the paint department on what he described as the "sealer deck or decking job." Because plaintiff was also artistically talented, he was placed in the Product Quality Improvement Partnership (PQIP) department and given the position of "artist."

In the early part of 1994, plaintiff was assigned a new supervisor, George Asher. According to plaintiff, Asher began "needling" plaintiff to use his artistic abilities and "redo" some paintings on Asher's boat. Plaintiff stated that he told Asher that he would do the work on his own time at his home. However, according to plaintiff, Asher insisted that it be done on company time. Plaintiff refused to do this.

Later that year, plaintiff, on his own time, worked on a personal project for another executive employed by defendant. Plaintiff completed this project for this executive before a 1995 New Year's Eve party. According to plaintiff, that is when "things got out of hand" with Asher. Plaintiff stated that in February 1995, Asher disciplined plaintiff for having improperly taken a personal day off two months earlier. Several days later, plaintiff and a fellow employee, Al Sipes, were called into Asher's office. Asher informed the two men that they would no longer be working in the PQIP department, and that they were to return to their previous designated positions. Plaintiff stated that he then "lost it." Specifically, plaintiff admitted that he and Asher exchanged harsh words. Asher claimed that plaintiff backed him into a corner with a 2 X 2 piece of wood and threatened him and his family. Plaintiff left work following this incident.

Later that evening, plaintiff's wife called the plant manager, Frank Slaughter, to inquire into these events. Slaughter informed plaintiff's wife that the PQIP department had been discontinued and that plaintiff had been asked to return to his previous position. Slaughter further requested that plaintiff's wife have plaintiff return to work the following Monday morning. However, when plaintiff returned to work, he was escorted from the building. Plaintiff had been given a five-day suspension for using abusive language and disorderly conduct.

Plaintiff later stated that he then went "out of control" and "would probably have killed someone" if he had not received help. He admitted himself to an in-patient mental health facility that same day, and remained in the facility for about six weeks. Upon release, he continued receiving psychiatric treatment, and never returned to work. In August 1995, plaintiff filed a claim for worker's compensation benefits.

At the hearing on plaintiff's claim, he testified with regard to several precipitating factors for his hospitalization including: "Chrysler Commercial Art Supervisor wanted me to do work on his boat on company time. I refused and now I'm in trouble at work. I'm very depressed" and "I worked hard to get the status and overnight this individual [Mr. Asher] wiped it out." Additionally, Dr. Dabbagh, plaintiff's mental health provider, concluded that the conflict between defendant and Mr. Asher was the pivotal reason for plaintiff's depression and anger. In part, Dr. Dabbagh stated that

there was a conflict between him and the supervisor, and for that reason, he was removed from his job and put on the line after about eighteen [years], if I
641 N.W.2d 571
recall, from working on that job, and that's what really basically has precipitated his episode of depression and anger.

Slaughter testified that plaintiff's transfer from PQIP to his previous position was the result of the department having been shut down. Specifically, he stated that in late 1994 and early 1995, new car launches at defendant company were going poorly. To compound this problem, employees were working considerable overtime and there were significant equipment problems. Thus, costs were high. To solve this problem, defendant reduced overtime and cut "nonstandard" positions. Plaintiff's position was "nonstandard"; thus, he was returned to his prior position. Slaughter asserted that this decision was his own and that he did not consult with Asher, who confirmed that he had not been consulted about plaintiff's transfer.

The worker's compensation magistrate determined that plaintiff "failed to establish that he is or was disabled as defined by the act." According to the magistrate, the evidence showed that "any conflict between George Asher and plaintiff was clearly the product of plaintiff's expansive mind and is a misperception." The magistrate further stated that the "credible" testimony of defendant's witnesses indicated that there had been no retaliatory intent behind plaintiff's reassignment, but instead that it represented a "simple economic business decision by upper management." Because the actual event of plaintiff's reassignment to the assembly line could not be "seen as significantly contributing to, aggravating, or accelerating plaintiff's mental disability," the magistrate concluded that plaintiff had failed to establish that he was disabled as defined by the act. Upon review, the WCAC stated that the job transfer had been the only actual event, and that there was no evidence of any animus on Asher's part directed toward plaintiff. Thus, the WCAC affirmed the magistrate's decision.

The Court of Appeals vacated the decision of the WCAC and remanded the case to the magistrate. Robertson v. Chrysler Corp, unpublished order, entered January 11, 2000 (Docket No. 222363). The Court stated that the magistrate's decision that the actual work event did not significantly contribute to or aggravate plaintiff's mental disability was erroneous because it "appears to have been influenced by his findings that the plaintiff misperceived the reason for the reassignment, and that the reassignment was the result of business considerations and was not retaliatory." In the view of the Court of Appeals, "whether plaintiff correctly or incorrectly perceived or interpreted the events at work is irrelevant, as is the existence of a legitimate business reason for the reassignment." While such a conclusion is consistent with a previous decision of this Court, we believe that decision wrongly interpreted Michigan law and must be overruled.


Whether a worker's compensation claimant's perceptions of actual events of employment are to be considered in deciding whether a claimant has established a compensable mental disability under M.C.L. § 418.301(2) is a matter of statutory interpretation. Matters of statutory interpretation are questions of law. In re MCI Telecom, 460 Mich. 396, 413, 596 N.W.2d 164 (1999). This Court reviews questions of law under a de novo standard of review. DiBenedetto v. West Shore Hospital, 461 Mich. 394, 401, 605 N.W.2d 300 (2000).



From its inception in 1912, Michigan's worker's compensation system has provided

641 N.W.2d 572
benefits for employees who are injured in the course of their employment. The initial worker's compensation act, however, did not expressly provide compensation for employees who suffered mental disabilities.1 Despite this, our Court determined that coverage existed for mental disability injuries because such injuries were merely a variant of personal injury within the scope of the act. See, e.g., Klein v. Len H. Darling Co., 217 Mich. 485, 187 N.W. 400 (1922).2 Thus, if the mental disability arose out of, and in the course of, an employee's employment, that employee would be covered under the act

This can first be seen in Klein where the employee died as a result of severe emotional shock experienced after he accidentally dropped a radiator on the head of a co-worker. Id. at 487, 187 N.W. 400. The decedent believed, erroneously, that he had killed the other worker, and this belief caused him such mental strain that he lapsed into delirium and died. Id. at 488, 187 N.W. 400. This Court held that the shock received by the decedent from witnessing this injury...

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