Friday, June 13, 2008, 8:44 AM

NC Supreme Court upholds ruling that teacher cannot get workers' compensation for "generalized anxiety disorder"

Yesterday, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that "generalized anxiety disorder" is not an occupational disease under the Workers' Compensation Act, at least under the facts as presented by the plaintiff, a middle school teacher. The case is Hassell v. Onslow Board of Education.

Hassell was a middle school teacher in Onslow County. She had grave difficulty controlling the classroom, dreaded going to work, and generally received poor performance reviews. After she resigned following her refusal to sign a letter warning her about poor performance, a doctor diagnosed her with "generalized anxiety disorder," stating that Hassell's "job was driving her crazy" and was a major stressor in her life. Hassell sought workers' compensation, arguing to the Industrial Commission that a hostile and abusive classroom caused her disease and that her disease, pursuant to the statute, was "characteristic of and peculiar to her employment" - i.e., that it increased her risk for the disease and was a partial cause of it. The Commission disagreed, finding among other things that Hassell's anxiety "centered around her principal" and that the harsh work/classroom environment was caused by Hassell's poor performance. Hassell appealed, arguing that the record did not support some of the Commission's findings, including the two just noted. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Judge Wynn dissented, urging that the Commission was "apportioning blame," in contravention of the statute, and that the two findings noted above were unsupported.

The Supreme Court affirmed. First, acknowledging that the workers' compensation scheme renders fault irrelevant except in a few circumstances not at issue in the case, the Court disavowed any indication in the prior opinions that Hassell's "fault" in creating a debilitating classroom environment was relevant. Second, acknowledging that the Commission cannot wholly disregard any witness and that Hassell's doctor was the only expert witness, the Court held that the Commission simply gave the doctor's testimony little or no weight. The Court then affirmed the conclusion that Hassell had failed her burden to prove that the classroom environment increased her risk for the disease or caused her problems, affirming the finding that her anxiety was caused by her relationship with the principal, not by the classroom. Justice Timmons-Goodson dissented, asserting that the majority's attempt to disavow any reliance on "fault" failed because the lower opinions were infected by improper analysis of "fault" or "contributory negligence," an infection the majority neglected to consider.

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