Minnesota Supreme Court maintains status quo for PTSD claims

By Kathy Bray, Esq.

In a decision filed on March 5, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals and compensation judge’s findings that an employee’s post-traumatic stress disorder was a non-compensable mental injury under the law in effect at the time of employee’s injury. The Supreme Court’s decision in Schuette vs. City of Hutchinson effectively maintains the status quo for compensability of Minnesota’s PTSD injuries, declining to recognize so-called “mental mental” injuries for pre-Oct. 1, 2013, injury dates. The Minnesota Legislature changed this analysis effective Oct. 1, 2013, with its amendment to the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act.

A full discussion of the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals’ and compensation judge’s decisions can be found in this earlier blog post. The employee asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the lower court’s analysis, arguing that the findings were contrary to the evidence and also asking the Court to overrule the case that established Minnesota’s longstanding pre-Oct. 1, 2013, analysis for mental-mental injuries. The Court declined to take up the employee on either argument.

In the original hearing, the employee’s medical experts opined that the employee suffered a physical injury that should support compensability of the accompanying PTSD injury, because the brain is physically damaged as part of the PTSD condition. The expert opinions submitted by the employer and insurer disagreed with this analysis. Minnesota law recognizes the discretion of the compensation judge in adopting competing medical opinions, which is what happened in the Schuette case—the judge adopted the medical opinions submitted by the employer and insurer, finding there was no physical injury sustained by the employee, and therefore, finding the independent PTSD injury not compensable under the pre-Oct. 1, 2013, Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act.

The Minnesota Supreme Court also declined to overturn the longstanding Lockwood decision, decided by the Court in 1981. Lockwood confirmed that mental injuries caused by mental stimulus, without physical injury, were not compensable work injuries under Minnesota law. The Court deferred to the Legislature in 1981, and again deferred to the Legislature in its 2014 decision.

The last argument put forth by the employee in the Schuette appeal was a constitutional challenge, claiming that the law on mental injuries violated his equal protection rights. The Court quickly dismissed the constitutional challenge, and declined to disturb three decades of case law.

What does this mean for employers in Minnesota? While significant, the Supreme Court’s Schuette decision does not change the law or analysis applicable to pre-Oct. 1, 2013, mental injuries, and the new law enacted by the Legislature effective Oct. 1, 2013, has only recently provided the opportunity for employees to receive compensation for PTSD injuries from work-related events. How this new law will affect the landscape of Minnesota workers’ compensation law remains to be seen.

This is not intended to serve as legal advice for individual fact-specific legal cases or as a legal basis for your employment practices.

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