Compensation for stress at work

WCB rejects police officer’s claim for damages

The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal has rejected a claim by a former Regina police officer.

The police officer, who resigned from his position because of stress, had his claim for stress-related workers’ compensation benefits denied. The case provides an interesting look at how stress-related claims are handled by the WCB and when it will, and won’t, award benefits.

The case: Taylor v. Saskatchewan (Workers’ Compensation Board)

In January 1999 Staff Sgt. Marvin Taylor tendered his resignation to the Regina Police Services after a career spanning 26 years.

There was no joy for him in concluding his career. He was leaving because he was reporting to a superintendent with whom he had a toxic relationship.

In his resignation letter, Taylor offered up three options that were discussed with a union representative and the chief of police:


•a watch commander’s position; and

•remaining in his current job.

Taylor said he could not work the 12-hour night shift as a watch commander, and continuing to work with his current supervisor was not an option.

“(I) do not feel that I would be able to work with (the superintendent) due to his oppressive, belligerent behaviour,” wrote Taylor. “I am forced to tender my resignation with the Regina Police Service.”

In March 2002 Taylor read a newspaper article that discussed how the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) accepted and dealt with stress claims. He decided to make such a claim, since he had resigned from the police service as a result of the stress in dealing with his superintendent.

On March 21, 2002, he submitted a claim to the WCB. The claim was denied by the claims entitlement specialist, the first step of the WCB process. Taylor was advised of this denial by letter dated Sept. 23, 2002.

Every job has some stress

The WCB talked to Taylor, his superiors and other co-workers. In rejecting the claim, the WCB said there is an accepted amount of stress associated with any form of employment.

“These pressures and tensions include interpersonal relationships with your peers, subordinates and supervisors, as well as actions taken by an employer in good faith such as discipline, workflow, transfer, layoff, downsizing, demotion or termination,” the board said.

It acknowledged that Taylor worked in a stressful environment, but said it did not find any indication that he was under an excessive or unusual amount of stress due to his workload.

Work stress must be ‘excessive and unusual’

Taylor appealed the WCB’s ruling on Sept. 27, 2002. On May 12, 2003, an appeal committee of the WCB responded by letter, again refusing his stress claim.

It said Taylor was exposed to stress from a number of sources.

“Acceptance of stress claims is reserved for those situations where work stress was excessive and unusual and work stress was the predominant cause of injury,” the appeal committee said.

It said the WCB’s policy dictates that stress produced by industrial relations issues such as discipline, work evaluation, transfers, demotions and re-organization, does not provide a basis for acceptance.

“Acceptance is indicated if the demand of performing assigned duties, either due to the amount of work or degree of difficulty, imposes excessive and unusual pressures,” it said.

The source of Taylor’s stress included industrial relations issues, the death of his brother, personal health concerns and a heavy and difficult work load, the appeal committee said.

“Based on the timing of his resignation, and a number of other factors, the reaction to industrial relations issues represents the predominant source of his stress,” it said. “As his heavy and difficult work load was not the predominant source of stress, his claim cannot be accepted.”

Taylor appealed that decision to a quasi-judicial tribunal of the WCB. A hearing was held in November 2003 and a decision was issued in January 2004.

The tribunal also rejected his claim for stress-related WCB benefits.

“Police work can be considered a stressful occupation. However, the circumstances lead the board to believe this case is one of industrial relations,” the tribunal said. “As such the dispute surrounding this was the area of Mr. Taylor’s problems that initiated his resignation. The board’s policy concerning stress associated with industrial relations is very clear and specifically excludes this as a base for acceptance.”

Taylor appealed the tribunal’s decision to the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench, which rendered its judgment on March 29, 2004.

Decision not ‘patently unreasonable’

The court said for it to overturn the WCB’s decision, it would have to be “patently unreasonable.” It said the hurdle Taylor had to jump to prove that it was patently unreasonable was high, and ultimately agreed that the WCB was correct in denying his claim.

The court said stress is a difficult topic area for the WCB to tackle because it was not easily defined.

“Stress does not fall within the standard definition of injury,” the court said. “It is not something like a broken leg or hearing loss which is readily confirmed by objective observation. Stress is a symptom which arises from factors impacting on an individual. Reaction to those factors can vary substantially from person to person. Defining stress, for WCB compensation purposes, employing objective and observable criteria, is extremely difficult.”

Taylor argued that the stress he faced because of the toxic work environment went beyond the normal pressures and tensions arising in any work environment. And since the conduct was so egregious that it forced him to resign, he argued he was entitled to compensation.

But the court said its role in this case was not to determine whether it would have come to the same conclusion as the WCB. The question it had to tackle was whether the decision of the WCB was unreasonable or “not in accord with reason and good sense.”

The court said that while the issue facing the WCB was a difficult one, it handled the decision properly and dismissed Taylor’s claim.

Taylor appealed the ruling by the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal dismissed Taylor’s appeal, stating that the lower court’s decision fully addressed the issue.

“(The lower court) judge correctly set out the law, appropriately summarized the facts and then turned his mind to whether the Workers’ Compensation Board had been patently unreasonable in denying his claim for stress,” the Court of Appeal said. “He concluded it had not and we see no basis on which to interfere with this decision.”

The Saskatchewan WCB’s policy on stress

The policy for stress compensation adopted by Saskatchewan’s WCB since January 1992 is:

Injury from chronic stress will be seen to have arisen out of and in the course of employment if there is clear and convincing evidence that:

•the work stress was excessive and unusual in comparison to pressures and tensions experienced by the average employee. Normal pressures and tensions include routine industrial relations actions taken by the employer, such as discipline, work evaluation, transfers, lay offs, demotions or terminations, re-organizations, etc.; and

•the work stress was the predominant cause of the injury.

The WCB specifically exempted the usual, and inevitable, workplace stresses which it refers to as “routine industrial relations actions."

What does ‘patently unreasonable’ mean?

The Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench said the test of what constitutes a patently unreasonable error is a “severe” one in ruling on Taylor’s appeal for stress-related WCB benefits.

In a 1979 decision, New Brunswick Liquor Corp. v. C.U.P.E., Local 963, the Supreme Court of Canada said for a decision to be “patently unreasonable” it is “… so patently unreasonable that its construction cannot be rationally supported by the relevant legislation and demands intervention by the court upon review.”

In Regina (City) Police Commissioners v. Police Assn. (Regina), a 1996 decision, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal made the following comment about the test for a patently unreasonable interpretation:

“It is clear that the test for a patently unreasonable interpretation is a severe one. The decision must be ‘irrational.’”

For more information see:

Taylor v. Saskatchewan (Workers’ Compensation Board), 2005 CarswellSask 135, 2005 SKCA25 (Sask. C.A.)

C.U.P.E., Local 963 v. New Brunswick Liquor Corp., 1979 CarswellNB 17 (S.C.C.)

Regina (City) Police Commissioners v. Police Assn. (Regina), 1996 CarswellSask 159 (Sask. C.A.)

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