N.B. tribunal’s application of provincial limitations on mental stress claims thrown out by court but federal employee’s claim still denied
Federal vs. provincial benefits regime
Federal government employees who are injured at work and seek workers’ compensation benefits are subject to the federal Government Employees’ Compensation Act (GECA). There is no federal workers’ compensation regime and claims are evaluated by the regime of the province or territory where the employee works.
However, the bar for certain claims is broader in the GECA than most provincial legislation, particularly mental stress claims, which can lead to confusion over the limits to a successful claim for benefits. This is what happened when a federal employee located in New Brunswick saw her claim for depression caused by stress at work flipped back and forth between the province’s workers’ compensation commission, appeals tribunal and Court of Appeal.
A New Brunswick court has overruled the denial of a federal employee’s claim for workers’ compensation for depression stemming from workplace stress — which was turned down because of provincial limitations on stress claims — but then denied the claim because it didn’t meet broader federal requirements.
Sheila Stewart was an employee of the federal government who worked in New Brunswick. Over time, she became stressed over things that were happening in her job. She felt she wasn’t being given enough work by her supervisor and instead gave other employees overtime when she was available. Her disenchantment was compounded by what she perceived as difficult working conditions, which included a vent over her workstation that blew cold air on her and contributed to shoulder problems, as well having to file materials on low shelves, which required her to kneel. When she complained about the workstation, she was moved to another workstation that was configured differently.
Stewart came further stressed after her supervisor asked her if she wanted to return to her former position. At the time, it would have been a sideways move as both jobs paid the same. However, shortly after she transferred, the position she left was reclassified to a higher wage rate. Stewart felt she was tricked and her supervisor knew ahead of time about the reclassification but didn’t tell her.
Workers’ compensation claim from gradual onset stress at work
All of these factors contributed to a gradual buildup of stress for Stewart and she developed depression. It began affecting her ability to work so she filed a claim with the New Brunswick Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission (WHSCC). In her claim, she stated the gradual onset of stress at her workplace constituted an accident under the Government Employees’ Compensation Act (GECA), which applied to all federal employees regardless of which province they worked. Despite the federal jurisdiction, workers’ compensation claims were evaluated by the boards in the province where an employee worked.
The WHSCC denied Stewart’s claim, finding her depression and stress didn’t come about because of a workplace accident. Stewart appealed to the commission’s Appeals Tribunal.
The tribunal found New Brunswick’s Workers’ Compensation Act didn’t allow compensation for the gradual onset of stress at work, so an accident under the federal act had to exclude it as well. This was because the federal GECA stipulated that federal employees were to receive compensation “at the same rate and under the same conditions as are provided under the law of the province where the employee is usually employed.” Therefore, said the tribunal, the requirements for the cause of Stewart’s depression to qualify as an accident under the GECA must be consistent with the provincial legislation.
However, the New Brunswick Court of Appeal disagreed with the Appeals Tribunal on the authority for determining what constituted a workplace accident. It found the GECA provision that provided for the same conditions as provincial legislation was intended to mirror the level of compensation once entitlement has been determined, not to redefine the GECA’s own definitions.
“Parliament has not, in my view, delegated to the legislature of each the province the right to amend federal legislation by redefining ‘accident’ in GECA in the province’s own image,” said the court. “Nor did Parliament intend to create a patchwork across Canada whereby federal employees in different provinces are faced with different thresholds for proving a compensable injury.
The court remitted the case back to the Appeals Tribunal to determine whether Stewart’s gradual onset of stress qualified as an accident under the GECA definition. However, the tribunal denied the appeal because Stewart wasn’t present and it said there were questions only Stewart could answer, not her representative.
The provincial Court of Appeal questioned the tribunal’s approach in requiring Stewart to be present. Rather than remit the case once again to the tribunal, the court addressed the matter itself.
Federal scope for stress compensation broader than provincial: Court
First, the court found gradual onset of stress caused by work factors could be considered a work-related accident within the definition in the GECA. The definition in the federal act stated “accident includes a willful and an intentional act.” The word “includes” indicated the intention of the act was to give an “expansive definition” which doesn’t have any language excluding mental stress, said the court. While most provincial workers’ compensation acts specifically exclude stress unless it is caused by “an acute reaction to a traumatic event” — as outlined in the New Brunswick act — the GECA has no such exclusion.
The court noted the tribunal had already found Stewart’s depression was caused by a gradual onset of stress from work factors when it dismissed the possibility of it being caused by an acute reaction to a traumatic event.
The court found there were no limitations to the meaning of “accident” in the GECA and, as a federal act, it should be “pan-Canadian” and not limited by the policies of provincial jurisdictions. That said, the court recognized the determination for an injury caused by gradual onset of stress should have a higher bar than an obvious physical injury. The majority of the court agreed there should be an objective test of how a reasonable person would react to the factors that contributed to Stewart’s stress.
First looking at Stewart’s claim she wasn’t given enough work while others were given overtime, the court found the work given to others was of a different job classification that Stewart’s. Given the employer’s right to assign work, the court found a reasonable person wouldn’t expect the employer to assign work to someone at a different classification than the work required.
The court also found when Stewart asked for a stool to file materials on lower shelves, she was immediately provided with one. Therefore, a reasonable person wouldn’t expect these circumstances to cause stress as it did to Stewart, said the court.
The court also felt a reasonable person would expect Stewart to be assigned a different station after she complained about the conditions at her original station and not that she would react negatively to the situation.
Finally, the court looked at Stewart’s claim she was tricked into transferring to her old position shortly before the position she left was reclassified to a higher wage. The court found it was common knowledge in the office that both positions were subject to a reclassification review and she took a chance by transferring. There was no evidence the supervisor knew in advance of the result of the review and Stewart’s reaction was not reasonable, said the court.
Applying the objectivity test, the court found Stewart was not entitled to compensation because her gradual onset of stress wasn’t an accident.
Stress caused by normal job environment not compensable: Judge
One judge, Justice Joseph T. Robertson, agreed with the majority in dismissing the appeal, but for different reasons. The test for whether gradual onset of stress was a compensable injury should not be reasonableness but rather whether the cause is “unusual or excessive” work-related events, said Robertson. Otherwise, “compensation would be available for an archipelago of subjectively and irrationally unpleasant disagreements in one’s workplace life that, in the fullness of time, weigh, along with other stressors of daily life, upon a person’s mental well-being to the point of giving rise to a medical diagnosis of depression.”
Robertson found Stewart’s depression was caused by events at work that were not unusual or excessive, but could be considered normal work stressors. Whether her reactions to the situations were reasonable or not, the situations were not outside of the ordinary that would warrant workers’ compensation, said Robertson. The court found the government investigated Stewarts complaints and an neither it nor a WHSCC claims investigator found any deliberate attempt to undermine Stewart’s confidence. An independent investigator also found there was no evidence of harassment or abuse of authority.
“No one has suggested (Stewart) did not perceive the events which took place as evidence of harassment and intimidation. No one has claimed (Stewart) did not suffer from depression as a result of these perceptions. But as a matter of policy the law has chosen to impose limitations on the ability of workers to claim compensation benefits for gradual onset stress, even though there may be a causal connection between the stressors of the workplace and the resulting depression,” said Robertson.
“The events which (Stewart) singled out as being evidence of harassment and intimidation, were nothing more than instances of normal interaction between employees,” said Robertson.