Jose Pedroza v. BRB, Director, Office of Workers' Compensation, et al

[B]Case Name: [/B][I]*Jose Pedroza v. BRB, Director, Office of Workers Compensation, et al.
[/I][B]Date Decided:[/B] October 1, 2009
[B]Court: [/B]United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit
[B]Judge: [/B]Judge Collins
[B]Citation: [/B]583 F.3d 1139[B]Background:
[/B]Employee, Jose Pedroza, petitioned for review the Benefits Review Board (“BRB”) denial of benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (“LHWCA”) for psychological injuries due to National Steel & Shipbuilding Company’s (employer) adverse personnel actions in response to Pedroza’s causing an explosion at harbor by striking a 440-volt cable line while unloading a ship.

Pedroza, and employee of National Steel brought this appeal to review the determination of the BRB that claimed Pedroza was not entitled to benefits under the LHWCA because of psychological injuries caused by National Steel’s legitimate adverse personnel decisions.

While Pedroza was unloading an US Naval ship, he struck a 440-volt cable line causing an explosion. Pedroza did not seek medical treatment but claimed he suffered anxiety after the accident.

National Steel wrote a letter to Pedroza about the accident and informed him the accident was caused by his negligence and subsequently sought treatment. Pedroza countered with a letter denying responsibility and containing an apology. Pedroza also complained against National Steel for their disregard for his health and well being following 25 years of service. Pedroza further asserted he was unfairly treated by National Steel for their failure to write a similar letter to the rigger who accompanied him during the accident.

Following a meeting, in which the Union Safety Supervisor warned Pedroza to improve his performance, Pedroza improved his performance for a short period of time. Pedroza went on leave for 3 months following 4 memos, written by supervisors, outlining his poor work ethic.

Pedroza finally went on medical leave, on request of his doctor, and filed a workers’ compensation claim for psychological injuries caused by his stressful working conditions.

The Administrative Law Judge, and both parties concede, that Pedroza’s psychological injuries were a result of legitimate personnel actions.

This Court therefore had to determine whether psychological injuries resulting from legitimate personnel actions are compensable under the LHWCA.

[/B]Are psychological injuries, resulting from legitimate personnel actions, compensable under the LHWCA?

[/B]Pedroza conceded, that his psychological injuries were not caused by general working conditions, but caused by legitimate personnel actions.

However, the BRB found that psychical injuries resulting from legitimate personnel action is not the type of injury that was intended to be compensable under the LHWCA. The Court reasoned that to recover for psychological conditions, it must have been caused by general working conditions.

The BRB, in [I]Marino [/I](20 B.R.B.S. 166 (1998) determined layoffs or reduction in force do not constitute “working conditions” giving rise to a compensable injury under the LHWCA. There, the Board instructed the ALJ to determine whether injuries were caused by “cumulative stress on the job due to supervising a number of locations and insufficient personnel to perform the job” among other things.

The Board in [I]Marino [/I]believed that granting compensation to employees for psychological damages for rightful layoffs would hinder employers from making legitimate personnel decisions.

Accordingly, the BRB, in examining Pedroza’s claim, found that these were not the kind of injuries the LHWCA was designed to compensate.

Pedroza argued however, that this interpretation differed from many state compensation laws and that the LHWCA should follow in the same light. Pedroza pointed to the fact many state boards did not even examine whether the employer(s) engaged in legitimate personnel decision. Therefore, according to Pedroza, the compensation should be made without inquiring into the legitimate personnel decisions.

However, this Court found that the BRB’s interpretation of Board precedent is a reasonable interpretation of the LHWCA and an accurate reflection of its underlying policies.

Accordingly, this Court affirmed the BRB’s denial of Pedroza’s compensation claim for his psychological injuries.

Underlying the BRB’s decision here was something called the [I]Marino-Sewell [/I]doctrine. In [I]Marino, (20 B.R.B.S. 166(1998)) [/I]The BRB held, under an interpretation of the LHWCA, that an employee’s psychological reaction to a legitimate, good faith personnel action, were not compensable. [/B]

[B]On the other hand, in [I]Sewell (32 B.R.B.S. 127 (1997)) [/I]The Board held that a claimant must demonstrate that his psychological disability was caused by stressful working conditions regardless of disciplinary and termination proceedings and were therefore compensable. [/B]

[B]Arising from these BRB decisions is something called the [I]Marino-Sewell [/I]doctrine in recognizing compensable claims under LHWCA for psychological injuries. These two decisions represent a balance, for the employee who has suffered psychological damage and the employee who has exercised its right to rightfully terminate/layoff an employee. [/B]

[B]Steve Gordon [/B]