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Teacher’s stroke not compensable

 

Few among us enjoy work meetings, especially when we’re the subject of said meeting and the topic du jour is poor performance. Then the room becomes a pressure cooker. And that kind of stress can do bad things to a person.

Take, for instance, the case of a 68-year-old Franklin County high school math teacher named Alina Cohen, who said a performance evaluation meeting she had with a principal and another supervisor caused her to have a stroke.

Cohen later asserted, unsuccessfully, that the meeting was an unusual interruption of her work routine and therefore constituted a compensable accident under the state Workers’ Compensation Act.

Cohen’s attorneys, Benjamin Cochran and J. Carter Whittington of Hardison & Cochran in Raleigh, argued in a brief that “a compensable injury by accident may hinge on whether or not the event was unexpected or unusual conditions were present as it relates to the person who suffered the injury.”

Cochran and Whittington, who did not respond to interview requests, zeroed in on the fact that the principal asked the school’s director of curriculum and instruction to sit in on the meeting with Cohen, because he expected that things would get tense.

The principal “testified that in his 10 years as either principal or assistant principal, this was the first time he had had another staff member present during an evaluation,” Cochran and Whittington wrote in the brief.

They also noted that Cohen had been walking to her car after wrapping up the school day when the principal chased after her and told her she needed to follow him back inside for the meeting, apparently blindsiding her. When she entered the principal’s office, she saw the director sitting in a chair.

Cohen later testified that she felt “horrible head pain” and thought “her head was going to blow up” as the principal tried to talk with her about problems with her teaching and asked get her to sign a professional development plan, which she refused to do.

In denying Cohen’s workers’ comp claim, a deputy commissioner with the North Carolina Industrial Commission and, later, the full commission held that Cohen’s meeting was neither unexpected nor unusual, meaning that her stroke was not a compensable accident.

The state Court of Appeals affirmed the commission’s decision April 18, further extending a line of decisions denying benefits for meeting-related injuries, which have included depression, heart attacks, hives and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“There have been cases where people were treated worse … and that have been stronger than this [case] and they have been shut down,” said Jay Gervasi, a workers’ comp lawyer in Greensboro who reviewed the Cohen decision at Lawyers Weekly’s request.

Judge Mark Davis noted that Cohen knew other teachers had gone through similar meetings after being observed teaching, which happened to her before she was asked to sit down with the principal and director.

Davis also found that the back-and-forth between Cohen, the principal and the director during the meeting was relatively tame. The workers’ comp commission had rejected the suggestion that anyone yelled at Cohen or spoke to her inappropriately.

“At most, Cohen received critical feedback that was unwelcome to her — an occurrence

that is not unusual for an employee at any job,” Davis wrote.

Gervasi said Cohen’s case highlights a “strange, weird little corner of the law” dealing with stress-related workplace injuries.

“It’s also an unfortunate area of the law,” he said. “I don’t like the way some of these cases come down. There ought to be a situation in which a supervisor’s behavior is sufficiently unusual.”

He suggested that the courts might be reluctant to award benefits in these types of cases out of a fear that “it would extend workers’ comp too far.”

But Gervasi and Kevin Bunn, a Cary attorney who handles workers’ comp cases, said the facts were stacked against Cohen, which led the court to find that what happened in the principal’s office was too predictable to have been an accident.

“Let’s say she’s in this meeting and a light bulb pops and startles her and causes her stroke,” Bunn said. “That’s probably compensable because it’s unexpected and unusual.”

While the court rejected Cohen’s comp claim, Davis ended the unanimous opinion by noting that it was not shutting the door on the “possibility that the existence of unusual circumstances could cause a meeting between an employee and her supervisor to constitute an accident under the Workers’ Compensation Act.”

The 19-page decision is Cohen v. Franklin County Schools (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-126-18). An opinion digest is available at nclawyersweekly.com.

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