CP# 98-007416 Dinielli v. County of Monmouth
State of New Jersey
DEPARTMENT OF LABOR
CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN, Governor
MEL GELADE, Commissioner
May 18, 1999
Raymond P. Shebell, Esq.
Shebell & Shebell Dowd & Reilly
Oakhurst N. J. 07755
John T. Lane, Jr., Esq.
P. O. Box 550 90 Maple Avenue
Red Bank, N. J. 07701
re: Dinielli v. County of Monmouth - C.P. 98-007416
The claim petition in this matter alleges that the petitioner has suffered mental depression as a result of the manner in which she was treated while an active employee of the respondent. Petitioner now seeks medical treatment for such condition as well as temporary disability benefits during the period commencing when petitioner left her employment through to the date that she is able to return to work or is discharged by her treating physician, whichever is earlier.
Petitioner was initially employed by respondent during April 1996. From that time until February 2, 1998 she was employed as a member of the civilian administrative staff serving the Monmouth County Jail. At the commencement of her employment her duties were somewhat clerical in nature and related in large part to providing a written record of the money (I) surrendered by inmates upon their assignment to the County Jail, or otherwise received by the County Jail staff for the account of inmates, as well as (ii) the manner in which such funds were spent by the inmates.
Mr. Jeffrey Sauter was appointed as business manager for the County Jail during October 1996. Among the initial assignments that he undertook in this position was the selection and installation of a revised system of accounting for the handling and related record-keeping of money held for inmates of the county jail. Under the new system, which was installed during the latter part of 1997, the petitioner's duties changed. She testified that she did not receive sufficient training in the new system, that other jail personnel received more training than she did and that she felt that she was being "left out" of the training sessions for reasons that she did not understand. Petitioner stated that she felt someone wanted her to fail in her job performance and that she became very depressed. Petitioner also stated that when she asked for assistance from the other staff members that were being trained, she did not receive their full cooperation, i.e. they either performed a specific task without explaining it or provided a hurried, and not instructive, explanation.
Petitioner's problems apparently came to a head in early February 1998 after she had been given a manual for the new accounting system and instructed to review her participation in same so that she would be ready to use the system the following week. On Monday of the next week petitioner sought help from one of the other staff members who advised petitioner that she was busy and was unable to spare the time to assist petitioner. Petitioner then went to her personal physician, Dr. Denoy, who took her out of work for a two week period and gave her medication. In the petitioner's words this physician found her to be "stressed", that her anxiety was "up", and told her that she needed to rest. Petitioner has continued to visit Dr. Denoy on a regular basis since that time. She has also been referred to a psychiatrist but had not received an appointment when she testified in this matter. In the meanwhile Dr. Denoy has continued to hold petitioner out of work.
Petitioner testified that she still feels depressed, has trouble sleeping, is worried about many things including her financial affairs, and finds herself crying on a frequent basis. She stated that she has lost all motivation and procrastinates her household duties.
As part of its defense in this matter respondent presented the lay testimony of three of petitioner's co-workers, Jeffrey Sauter, Tara Ruddy and Diane Faynor. Ms. Ruddy and Ms. Faynor hold civilian clerical positions on the administrative staff at the County Jail. I found the testimony of each of these witnesses to be credible. Based upon the testimony of the petitioner and these lay witnesses I make the following findings of fact as relates to the working conditions affecting the petitioner during the period October 1996 through February 3, 1998 when petitioner was taken out of work by Dr. Denoy:
a) Prior to petitioner's employment with respondent a serious problem arose as regards the accounting records developed and/or maintained with respect to the handling of inmates' funds. This situation had grown to where the overall account was significantly (approx. $ 45,000) out-of-balance. b) At the time that Mr. Sauter was transferred to the County Jail administrative staff the problem(s) relating to the accounting for inmates' funds had not been resolved either as to causation or as regards the implementation of an accounting system that would prevent a continuation and/or repetition of the problem(s). One of the tasks facing Mr. Sauter was to resolve these matters, and he desired the petitioner to assist in the development and application of appropriate steps to that end.
c) From the date of her employment through early 1997 petitioner's duties with respect to handling the inmates' fund were largely of a clerical nature, and certainly nothing that would have required a college degree or an accounting background. (In fact, petitioner replaced a sheriff's officer who was then assigned to other duties). By mid-1997 Mr. Sauter was in the midst of overseeing the implementation of a new computer program which would include the handling and reconciliation of inmate fund accounts; he had also familiarized himself with petitioner's duties and had at least initiated discussions with her relating to the change in her duties which he desired to implement. In particular he wanted petitioner, who stated that she had 18 credits of college accounting, to assume duties in keeping with that background; her former duties of a clerical or messenger nature e.g. (collecting and depositing cash, assisting other clerks, acting as liaison with the ladies' auxiliary) would be handled by another employee.
d) During the period commencing prior to January 1997 and extending throughout the remainder of the petitioner's active employment with the County, Ms. Faynor was assigned to duties relating to the booking department at the County Jail. As a result her desk/office was located on a different floor than where the petitioner, Ms. Ruddy and Mr. Sauter worked. I find that her interaction with the petitioner was limited. Ms. Faynor testified that she received two (2) training sessions on the new computer system, one of which was held with/for the "booking" officers.
e) Prior to August 1997 Ms. Ruddy describes her duties at the County Jail as that of a "floater", i.e. filling in wherever she might be needed. After August 1997 she was assigned to work as a full-time commissary clerk. Her duties included several tasks directed at keeping a written record and control over the personal cash that was received for/from, or spent on behalf of, the inmates.
A portion of these duties had previously been performed by the petitioner. Under the new system, implemented by Mr. Sauter, Ms. Ruddy would perform the "clerical" functions and then deliver her daily report and cash receipts to the petitioner. This change in assignment(s) was clearly directed at using the petitioner's accounting knowledge and experience as part of an overall plan to remedy the out-of-balance problem that had been created in the prior method of handling inmates' funds. Ms. Ruddy testified that she had some prior computer experience and that she received a single afternoon's training on the "new" system; the petitioner also attended that training session.
f) By August 1997 Mr. Sauter had determined, at least at an initial stage, the nature and content of the duties that he wanted petitioner, Ms. Ruddy and Ms. Faynor to perform insofar as handling inmates' funds. He had also started to critique the petitioner's work product within the area of the revised duties that he had assigned to her. Ms. Ruddy, who worked in the same office/area as the petitioner testified that commencing with this change of duties the petitioner was not a "happy camper", that the latter expressed her anger or frustration with Mr. Sauter and made it clear that she didn't like Mr. Sauter. Ms. Ruddy also testified that on occasion the petitioner stated that she disliked working in the jail setting.
g) While Ms. Ruddy and the petitioner did not socialize in off-work hours, and in Ms. Ruddy's words "didn't do lunch", there is absolutely nothing in the record that leads me to believe that either Ms. Ruddy or Ms. Faynor, separately or together, engaged in any sort of discrimination or boycott, racial or otherwise, in their treatment or behavior towards the petitioner. The testimony of Ms. Ruddy and the petitioner conflicts to a degree insofar as whether the former provided all reasonable assistance to the petitioner in response to the petitioner's requests to master the duties assigned to her under the new computer system. On the record before me, however, I find that the behavior of Ms. Ruddy and Ms. Faynor toward the petitioner does not support any claim of harassment or other ground(s) which would give rise to a successful claim for psychiatric treatment or disability.
The testimony of Ms. Ruddy and the petitioner also differed on the extent that the petitioner was required to use the new computer system in performing her new assignment(s). The petitioner testified that she spent 3-4 hours a day on the computer in performing her duties.
Ms. Ruddy testified that petitioner (I) had trouble working with the "new" system, (ii) turned down Ms. Ruddy's offer(s) to assist in learning the "new" system, and (iii) had a reduced need of using the system so long as Ms. Ruddy and Ms. Faynor provided her with the reports she needed to perform her assignment(s). I would expect, however, that the petitioner might well have to spend 1-2 hours daily using the new computer system in performing her assignments.
h) On Friday, January 30, 1998, Mr. Sauter gave petitioner a newly revised operating manual relative to the handling of inmates' accounts and funds to the petitioner and advised her that she should review the portions of the manual that related to her duties over the weekend since the system would be in force on the following Monday, February 2nd. Ms. Ruddy testified that the changes being made in petitioner's function(s) related to the handling and/or issuance of checks and were covered in 3 pages or less of the revised manual. On the following Monday petitioner went to her family physician who took her out of work due to what he perceived to be an abnormally high anxiety level.
It is clear from Mr. Sauter's testimony that in seeking to fulfill the assignment(s) he had been given at the County Jail he had the responsibility to correct and improve the system for handling and accounting for inmates' funds which was seriously out-of-balance as of fourth quarter 1996. Ultimately this problem was presented to outside auditors for resolution and recommendations. It is obvious from the record that the petitioner was either unable or unwilling to learn the duties assigned to her under the new commissary computer system. In support of that conclusion I note for the record that there was no rebuttal or contradictory testimony offered to the following testimony presented by respondent's lay witnesses:
I) For a variety of reasons it appears that maintaining an accurate control on the issuance of checks by the jail's commissary system was deemed critical to balancing the inmate fund accounts.
As a result petitioner was assigned tasks intended to aid in both the control and identification of such checks. Notwithstanding her assumed educational and job experience credentials petitioner did not offer any meaningful input in response to Mr. Sauter's request that she provide suggestions or recommendations in the development of controls over the handling of inmates' funds. Based on the record before me I have serious doubts as to whether petitioner had the ability or work performance background to provide the input that Mr. Sauter sought. Further, notwithstanding petitioner's comments to Mr. Sauter that she was capable of handling the assignments he had given her, at the time of her departure from active employment at the jail it was found that she had failed to process a significant number of canceled checks she had received in accordance with the instructions pertaining thereto.
ii) At no time prior to her departure from active employment (2/3/98) did petitioner advise Mr. Sauter that she couldn't handle the work assignment(s) he was giving her or that she didn't understand the requests that were being made of her. Rather, Mr. Sauter testified that the petitioner welcomed the change in her job duties from a semi-clerical position to one requiring some basic accounting knowledge and practice. Notwithstanding this fact, however, it is clear that the petitioner never acquired sufficient skill or working knowledge of the new computer system to be able to perform the tasks that she was assigned post August 1997. The ability that Ms. Ruddy and Ms. Faynor displayed in learning the new system and being able to work with it daily, notwithstanding a lesser educational background, indicates that the system was not the problem.
Petitioner also complained that she was not given the same training time as Ms. Ruddy or Ms. Faynor. I find nothing in the record to support this allegation. I further note that both of the latter clerks contacted the system supplier by phone to assist in resolving problems and answering questions while I have no indication that the petitioner sought such assistance though it was available to her.
The simple fact is that petitioner was able to handle the clerical and minimal bookkeeper duties that she had been given at the time of her hiring at the County Jail. At some point thereafter she took a civil service test and qualified for the position of "accountant". For whatever reason she was unable or declined to progress in her job duties beyond her point of entry, regardless of her civil service qualification and the fact that she was a college graduate with 18 credits in accounting.
The petitioner was examined by Drs. Eisenstein (petitioner.) and Flicker (respondent) each of whom is an experienced and Board Certified psychiatrist. Both experts found the petitioner to have an anxiety reaction to her employment environment (Dr. Eisenstein also found a measure of depression).
Dr. Eisenstein suggested a course of psychological counseling with medication but did not provide a permanent psychiatric disability figure; Dr. Flicker recommended a permanent psychiatric figure (4-5 % partial/total). In his view treatment would be more decorative than corrective, whereas if petitioner was told that her employment was not threatened her anxiety would "melt away" within a day or two.
Both experts agreed that the petitioner's anxiety was due to her view that her inability to master her new job assignment(s) threatened her continued employment with the respondent. Further, it is clear that both experts based their post-examination recommendations on their respective findings that (I) the petitioner was the victim of racial discrimination, (ii) the petitioner was given less training in the new commissary computer system than were Ms. Ruddy or Ms. Faynor, (iii) Mr. Sauter had not been fair in his treatment of the petitioner in asking her to perform work for which she had no training or experience.
In reviewing the basis of the experts' opinions I find that their understanding of petitioner's work conditions, which was based solely upon the subjective complaints presented to them by the petitioner, departs significantly from the truth. I find absolutely no basis for the contention that (x) the petitioner was the victim of racial discrimination at the hands of Mr. Sauter, Ms.Ruddy or Ms. Faynor, or (y) she received less formal training on the new commissary system than did Ms. Ruddy or Ms. Faynor. I do find, however, that petitioner made little or no effort to use the additional support available to her from the supplier. I also find, on the basis of the record before me, that Mr. Sauter was well disposed to retaining the petitioner as an employee on his staff until it became apparent to him that she was unable or unwilling to perform the tasks that he assigned to her, all of which appear to me to be within the capability of a college graduate with a minor in accounting who claims to have worked in accounting-related positions for over 10 years prior to being employed at the County Jail. I further find nothing in the record which would evidence an intent to discharge the petitioner. I also note in this area that there is evidence that the petitioner recognized that she was in "water over her head" by January 1998 and that fact alone could produce anxiety concerning continued employment. see Dr. Flicker's testimony, T- 4/19/99, p. 10, 11.
Based upon the findings of fact (supra, pp. 2-4 incl.) and the mutual finding of Drs. Eisenstein and Flicker on the point, I find that the petitioner did incur increased anxiety as a result of her concern that her job security was threatened by her inability to successfully assume the duties assigned to her in connection with the installation and activation of a new commissary computer system at the County Jail. I find no other basis for the anxiety or depression diagnosed by either examining psychiatrist.
The next issue is whether the petitioner's mental or emotional condition is compensable. I find this issue subject to two (2) further areas of examination:
a) has petitioner met her burden of proof under the teaching of Goyden v. State Judiciary,
256 N.J. Super. 438, 445-456 (App. Div. 19910, aff'd. 128 N.J. 54 (1992) which requires that the successful claimant prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, the existence of reasonably objective, stressful working conditions peculiar to his/her particular job? As stated in Arafat v. City of Jersey City, A-6969-95T5 (App. Div. 1997) "It matters not that petitioner had a mistaken, but good faith, belief that his employment created the stressful condition. 'The key to the analysis is whether there was a reasonable and objective basis in the record to conclude that the employment condition was stressful.' (citation omitted). Without such a finding, there is no compensable event." In reviewing the record before me I find that the petitioner has not met her burden of proof under Goyden. Indeed, other than in establishing the fact that she and her co-workers had to meet the requirements of learning and introducing a new computer system to their commissary assignments the petitioner has not in any way established that her position, either before or after Mr. Sauter's arrival, was stressful.
b) I further find that the petitioner's case falls under the teaching of Cairns v. City of East Orange, 267 N.J. Super 395 (App. Div. 1993) and Scott v. Capital Cities/WABC, A-4369-93T2
(App. Div. 1995). In Cairns the Appellate Division denied recovery to a claimant who alleged psychiatric disability incurred as a result of being laid-off after an employment of 33 years on the grounds that the injury claimed did not "arise out of and in the course of employment". N.J.S.A. 34:15-30. The court noted that the receipt of a lay-off notice was not peculiar to any one work place and did not bear an essential relationship of any type to the claimant's work. In Scott the Appellate Division ruled that notwithstanding a trial judge's finding that worry about the loss of his anchor position in/on a television news program contributed to the claimant's depressed condition, such event, though it could be considered a demotion, was not a compensable event. The Appellate Court went on to say that "Any employee in any job may worry about job loss or a demotion" and that the trial judge was correct in finding that "a psychiatric disability resulting from fear of demotion was not compensable."
On the record before me I find that (I) the petitioner has failed to meet her burden of proof under Goyden, supra, in that she has not presented sufficient objectively verified stressful conditions supporting her claim that she either needs psychiatric help or that her psychiatric condition results from conditions that were peculiar to her employment, and (ii) the petition's claim for relief based upon her anxiety over losing her job, whether by way of treatment with temporary benefits or in the form of permanent disability, is not compensable under existing case-law. See Cairns and Scott, supra.
Accordingly, I will enter an order dismissing this claim petition. Respondent shall pay a stenographic fee of $ 300 to J. Trainor, Inc.
Neale F. Hooley
Judge of Compensation