Supreme Court denies chronic stress WCB claim after employee reacted to disciplinary letter

by Dentons
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The Supreme Court of Canada has denied an employee’s claim for workers’ compensation benefits for “chronic stress” which he said resulted from a disciplinary letter that followed years of conflict over another workplace issue.

The employee, a park warden with Parks Canada, had for years argued that park wardens should be armed when carrying out law enforcement duties.  He filed a health and safety complaint which generated internal complaint processes and a number of court cases and appeals.

Parks Canada received a request under access to information legislation and instructed the employee to disclose certain data on his work computer so that it could comply with the request.  Parks Canada was not satisfied that he responded properly, so it gave him a letter notifying him that he would be disciplined if he did not provide an adequate response to the access to information request.

The employee already had a written reprimand on his file and feared that the next discipline would be dismissal.  He claimed that the letter triggered a psychological condition that followed years of conflict over the health and safety issue. He filed a claim with the Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board. The relevant Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board policy stated:

11.  When does WCB accept claims for chronic onset stress?

As with any other claim, WCB investigates the causation to determine whether the claim is acceptable. Claims for this type of injury are eligible for compensation only when all of the following criteria are met:

•   there is a confirmed psychological or psychiatric diagnosis . . .

•   the work-related events or stressors are the predominant cause of the injury; . . .

•   the work-related events are excessive or unusual in comparison to the normal pressures and tensions experienced by the average worker in a similar occupation, and

•   there is objective confirmation of the events.

In addition to the duties reasonably expected by the nature of the worker’s occupation, normal pressures and tensions include, for example, interpersonal relations and conflicts, health and safety concerns, union issues, and routine labour relations actions taken by the employer, including workload and deadlines, work evaluation, performance management (discipline), transfers, changes in job duties, lay-offs, demotions, terminations, and reorganizations, to which all workers may be subject from time to time.  [pp. 5-6]“

There was no dispute that the employee had met the first two criteria under the policy to receive WCB benefits for chronic stress: that there was a confirmed psychological or psychiatric diagnosis, and that the work-related events or stressors were the predominant cause of the injury.  However, the employer disputed that (1) the work-related events were excessive or unusual in comparison to the normal pressures and tensions experienced by the average worker in a similar occupation, and (2) there was objective confirmation of the events.

The Supreme Court of Canada decided that it was open to the Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board to find that the “predominant cause” of the employee’s psychological injury was his reaction to the letter, and that such request was not unusual in terms of normal pressures and tensions in a similar occupation.  Therefore, the WCB’s decision to deny workers’ compensation benefits to the employee was reasonable.

Martin v. Alberta (Workers’ Compensation Board), 2014 SCC 25 (CanLII)

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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