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August 5, 1993


Petition for Review of a Decision of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services

Before Terry, Steadman, and Schwelb, Associate Judges. Opinion of the court by Associate Judge Terry. Concurring opinion by Associate Judge Schwelb.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry

TERRY, Associate Judge : Petitioner seeks review of a decision by the Director of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services (DOES) denying her claim for workers' compensation. Petitioner sought benefits for emotional injuries which she allegedly sustained while she was employed by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in a program in which she was assigned to work at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). At the administrative hearing on her claim, petitioner asserted that stressful working conditions at the EPA had caused her severe physical and emotional problems, including depression, anxiety, headaches, and diarrhea, and had aggravated the hypertension from she was previously suffering. The DOES hearing examiner concluded that there was "nothing unusual" about petitioner's employment at the EPA which would have caused these ailments (or aggravated the existing hypertension) in an average person, that petitioner was "predisposed" to depression, and that only a person so predisposed would have been adversely affected by the work environment at the EPA. Consequently, the hearing examiner denied petitioner's claim for benefits, and the Director of DOES affirmed that denial. Before this court petitioner contends that the hearing examiner and the Director misapplied the legal standard governing the compensability of employment-related emotional injuries, made inadequate factual findings, and misapplied the presumption of compensability contained in our workers' compensation statute. Finding these contentions to be without merit, we affirm.


In April 1989 Aquilla Sturgis was hired by AARP to work at the EPA as a technical administrative assistant, under a program run by AARP in which persons over the age of fifty-five are placed in jobs at the EPA. Ms. Sturgis was assigned to the Chemical Screening Branch of the EPA's Office of Toxic Substances. At the hearing below she testified that, from her first day on the job, the conditions of her employment at the EPA caused her to experience significant stress, which she attributed to a variety of sources. It stemmed, in part, from the fact that she was inadequately trained for her duties and was given work which she felt was demeaning. For example, she testified that on the day she began work the office secretary started a two-week vacation. As a result, Ms. Sturgis was left alone in the office with no guidance as to office procedures and was given responsibility for work ordinarily done by the secretary. Her stress also resulted, in part, from the fact that she was criticized for poor work performance. On this point she testified that the branch chief of her office frequently left notes on her desk which were unfairly critical of her work, spoke to her in a condescending fashion, and refused to give her work assignments commensurate with her job description and professional skills.

Ms. Sturgis testified that her health began to deteriorate after she had worked about six weeks at the EPA. In her view, the stressful circumstances of her employment caused a variety of emotional problems, such as depression, memory loss, exhaustion, "anxiety attacks," and a general inability to "cope with anything." This stress, she said, had physical symptoms as well, including headaches and diarrhea, and aggravated her existing hypertension. She attributed these problems entirely to the stress she felt while working at the EPA. She testified that, because of these problems, she has been unable to work since her separation from employment at the EPA.

After approximately three months on the job, Ms. Sturgis was fired at the request of the EPA office branch chief for "performance deficiencies, unprofessional behavior, and personally threatening behavior toward individuals at ." Thereafter she sought medical treatment for her emotional and physical problems from an internist, two psychiatrists, and a psychologist-in-training. Written reports from all four of these persons were introduced into evidence at the administrative hearing.

Dr. Thomas Gaitor, an internist with the Howard University Family Health Center, opined that Ms. Sturgis' "major problem" was anxiety and depression. Dr. Gaitor did not express any opinion, however, as to whether there was any causal relationship between her condition and her employment at the EPA; indeed, he gave no opinion at all concerning the cause of her condition. Dr. Judith Nowak, a psychiatrist, concluded that Ms. Sturgis was suffering from a "major depressive disorder," but concluded that this disorder did not arise out of her employment at the EPA. Another psychiatrist, Dr. Jose Marco T. Antonio, was of the view that Ms. Sturgis suffered from "anxiety-depressive reaction with poor coping mechanism," coupled with "essential hypertension." The hypertension, he said, "may have been aggravated by stress at work," but that stress was "not the cause of her elevated blood pressure reading." Finally, Craig Uchiyama, a psychology intern at Howard University Hospital, opined that Ms. Sturgis exhibited symptoms of both depression and a delusional disorder, and concluded that she required "long-term ego-supportive psychotherapy." Mr. Uchiyama, like Dr. Gaitor, did not express an opinion as to whether there was any causal relationship between her condition and her employment at the EPA.

The employer (AARP) and its insurance carrier (Home Insurance Company) have contested Ms. Sturgis' entitlement to workers' compensation at all stages of this litigation. Jack Everett, the field coordinator for the employment program at AARP through which Ms. Sturgis was placed at the EPA, testified about her performance problems at the EPA and the events surrounding her eventual termination. Also testifying on the employer's behalf was Dr. Brian Schulman, a psychiatrist who examined Ms. Sturgis in July 1990 at the employer's request. Dr. Schulman concluded that Ms. Sturgis was not clinically depressed, that she did not have any cognitive or mental deficiency, and that she was not "functionally or organically impaired," i.e., that she did not suffer from an "active, acute psychiatric illness." He did conclude, however, that Ms. Sturgis had "a volatile temper" and that she might have a "borderline personality disorder with paranoid features," causing her to have "difficulty modulating her internal aggression and [to become] very angry and enraged with perhaps little provocation." He testified further that "most of intense visceral or behavioral, emotional reactions were generated out of her personality" and were triggered by normal everyday events of office life, "things that might happen in a busy office." *fn1 On the basis of these findings, he concluded that Ms. Sturgis' work at the EPA did not, from a medical standpoint, cause the emotional problems about which she had testified. *fn2

In her compensation order the hearing examiner found Ms. Sturgis' testimony credible, but nevertheless concluded that her injuries were not compensable. Citing an earlier DOES case, Dailey v. 3M Co., H&AS No. 85-259 (May 19, 1988), the examiner said that for an emotional injury to be compensable, whether it is a new injury or an aggravation of a pre-existing condition, "the claimant must show that the actual conditions of employment as determined by an objective standard, and not merely the claimant's subjective perception of her working conditions, were the cause of her emotional injury." After briefly summarizing the medical evidence, the examiner concluded that this evidence established that Ms. Sturgis "was predisposed to depression" and that "there was nothing unusual or uncommon about work conditions which would cause a person not predisposed to become stressed." Thus the hearing examiner held that Ms. Sturgis' claim was not compensable because "her current condition did not arise out of and in the course of employment."

Following an administrative appeal, the Director of DOES affirmed the decision of the hearing examiner. The Director specifically concurred in the examiner's Conclusion that Ms. Sturgis' problems at the EPA stemmed entirely from "ordinary employment tasks such as answering the telephone, performance evaluations, conversations with co-employees, and xeroxing" and that there was "no actual evidence of an uncommon or unusual stimulus at work which would cause an emotional injury under the objective standard [adopted by DOES in Dailey ]."


Ms. Sturgis contends that the hearing examiner erred in three respects in concluding that her injuries were not compensable under the District's workers' compensation act, D.C. Code §§ 36-301 to 36-345 (1988). *fn3 She argues that the hearing examiner (1) failed to apply the correct legal standard for assessing the compensability of stress-related injuries, and erred further in failing to determine "whether working conditions aggravated her pre-existing disorder," (2) failed to make adequate factual findings based ...

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