Employees who formerly suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but do not do so now, are not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. On March 8, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals on this issue in Chrz v. Mower County.
The Workers’ Compensation Act requires employers to pay workers’ compensation benefits if the employee has disablement resulting from occupation disease. In 2013, the Legislature amended the act by including “mental impairment” in the definition of “occupational disease,” thereby allowing benefits for PTSD.
Ryan Chrz served as a Mower County sheriff’s deputy starting in 2007. During that time, Chrz experienced trauma, witnessing violence and death. In 2019, Chrz allegedly punched a handcuffed teen in the face. Chrz was charged with two counts of misconduct by a police officer and two counts of fifth-degree assault. Those charged were ultimately dismissed.
At the request of his attorney, Chrz was evaluated by a licensed psychologist. She determined that Chrz had PTSD, which was in partial remission, as a result of exposure to traumatic events experienced while serving as sheriff’s deputy. The psychologist submitted a Report of Work Ability, stating that Chrz would be unable to work effective September 2019 to an undetermined date.
Chrz retired from his position in March 2020. He alleged entitlement to workers’ compensation benefits starting in April 2020. Mower County requested that Chrz be evaluated by a different psychologist. This psychologist suggested that Chrz instead suffered from adjustment disorder, a short-term condition in which an individual struggles to cope after a stressful event. Additionally, the psychologist who originally diagnosed Chrz agreed that Chrz no longer suffered from PTSD, as he no longer met the DSM-5 criteria. She said that Chrz reached maximum medical improvement and assigned a 20% permanent partial disability rating of the whole body.
At a hearing in 2021, the compensation judge agreed with the psychologist’s original diagnosis of PTSD. Chrz was awarded temporary total disability, rehabilitation, PPD, mileage expenses and medical care benefits from April 1, 2020, to the present.
Mower County and the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust appealed, arguing that Chrz should not receive workers’ compensation benefits after March 30, 2021, the day that Chrz’s original psychologist determined that Chrz no longer suffered from PTSD. The Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals reversed in part, concluding that Chrz was no longer eligible for workers’ compensation benefits because other stress-related disorders were not compensable occupational diseases.
Jennifer Yackley, attorney at Meuser, Yackley & Rowland, represented Chrz.
“The ongoing PTSD symptoms and trauma symptoms that he continued to experience warranted a different diagnostic label, notwithstanding that they were still the same symptoms that required a diagnosis of PTSD in the first instance,” Yackley said. “They continued to be the same symptoms, they just qualified for a different diagnostic label.”
Timothy Jung, shareholder at Lend, Jensen, Sullivan & Peterson, represented Mower County.
“We do not contest that he historically had PTSD,” Jung said. “As of March 30, 2021, the compensation judge concluded that his diagnosis changed. He no longer had PTSD.”
Yackley explained, “Once that occupational disease has been established, we do not need to assess repeatedly throughout the case as far as whether or not he continues to meet that diagnostic label. This is a continuation of the same PTSD symptoms. We’re just putting a different label on it at that snapshot in time.”
“It’s not a label. It’s a diagnosis,” Jung stated. “It’s a condition that the person has. The label is the condition. If the label is PTSD, then you have PTSD. If the label isn’t PTSD, then you don’t have PTSD.”
The court, while sympathetic to mental health conditions affecting Minnesota workers, sided with Mower County.
“The bottom line is that the only ‘mental impairment’ covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act is PTSD,” the court concluded. “The only mental impairment that is an ‘occupational disease’ eligible for workers’ compensation benefits is PTSD, and only when that PTSD is diagnosed by a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist using the most recently published edition of the DSM.”
“Holding otherwise would allow an employee’s diagnosis of PTSD to remain effectively perpetual,” the court declared. It affirmed the decision of the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals.