Minnesota Supreme Court rules on PTSD presumption

By John Hollick, Chief Defense Counsel with Lynn, Scharfenberg and Hollick

The Minnesota Supreme Court addressed the statutory presumption of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Juntunen v. Carlton County in December 2022, significantly impacting the criteria for compensability of certain workers’ compensation claims.

Generally, an injured employee has the burden to prove the elements of a workers’ compensation claim, including that the employee has an occupational disease. However, the state’s PTSD presumption under Minnesota Statute Section 176.011, Subdivision 15(d)(e) and effective January 1, 2019, relieves certain employees of at least part of the burden of proving that they suffer from a compensable occupational disease. Law enforcement employees are among the professions specifically included in the presumption.

In this case the employee, Doug Juntunen, worked as a deputy sheriff for Carlton County, during which time he claims he experienced several traumatic events, both professionally and personally. He was diagnosed with PTSD by a licensed psychologist in September 2019. The day after he received his diagnosis, the deputy informed his supervisors and was placed on leave. The employer and insurer later denied liability of Juntunen’s workers’ compensation claim, and the case went to litigation.

At a subsequent hearing, both sides presented differing medical opinions concerning Juntunen’s diagnosis. The treating provider felt that he did qualify for PTSD benefits, while the psychologist brought in by the insurer for an Independent Medical Evaluation (IME) felt that he did not meet all the requirements of PTSD, but rather suffered from severe depression.

The facts revealed that Juntunen had experienced several potentially traumatic experiences during his career, including events both at work and in his personal life. The IME doctor admitted that he was only relying on the employee's symptoms for 30 days prior to the IME examination, however the compensation judge accepted the IME's medical opinion and denied the claim for benefits based on a PTSD diagnosis.

The case was appealed, and the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals (WCCA) reversed the opinion. In December 2022, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the reversal by the WCCA and awarded benefits for the PTSD diagnosis.

The PTSD presumption in Minnesota Statute 176.011, Subdivision 15(d)(e) states that an employee (1) must be employed in one of the enumerated occupations, (2) be diagnosed with PTSD by a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist, and (3) must not have been diagnosed with PTSD previously.

Once Juntunen offered a diagnosis of PTSD from a licensed psychologist, the PTSD presumption applied. This fact, along with the unchallenged findings of the compensation judge that Juntunen was a deputy sheriff and had no previous PTSD diagnosis, triggers the presumption that Juntunen had a compensable occupational disease.

Interestingly, in the opinion, the Minnesota Supreme Court stated that "ultimately, the PTSD presumption represents a balancing between two competing policies: prompt payment of employee's medical expenses for PTSD treatment and stewardship of public monies. The legislature determined that employees suffering from PTSD need timely access to medical care, and the PTSD presumption puts the onus on employers to quickly resolve such claims." As the IME did not evaluate Juntunen until 10 months after he notified Carlton County of his diagnosis, the Minnesota Supreme Court stated, "that is too long to leave employees’ benefits claims unresolved."

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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