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Evolving Psychological Injury Standards in the District of Columbia

August 5, 2020

Over the last five years, the legal landscape for claims of psychological injury has changed dramatically.  In 2008,the long-standing “objective standard” of gauging whether a putative “ordinary employee” would have experienced the same consequences was abandoned in favor of direct link to the actual injury.  Where the injury is psychological, the claim is reviewed as either a “physical-mental” case, McCamey v. District of Columbia Dep’t of Employment Servs., 947 A.2d 1191 (D.C. 2008) (en banc), or a “mental-mental” case, Ramey v. District of Columbia Dep’t of Employment Servs., 997 A.2d 694 (D.C. 2010).  Also in 2008, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals held that an injury sustained as a result of required vocational rehabilitation may be considered as a “quasi-course of employment injury.”  Nixon v.District of Columbia Dep’t of Employment Servs., 954 A.2d 1016 (D.C. 2008).

This case brought both issues to a head:  In 2002, Petitioner severely injured his lower back while working in the course of his employment, and after three-years receiving temporary disability, was reinstituted in a vocational rehabilitation program.  After a year of unsuccessful efforts, Petitioner was diagnosed with the mental disturbance predicating his claim.  After issuing three different remand orders in light of the aforementioned changes, the Compensation Review Board finally approved of a “strictly personal reaction” standard that denied benefits in light of Ramey and Nixon.

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals promptly rejected this analysis as an erroneous application of the objective standard that had recently been abandoned.  The Court suggested two other proper modes of analysis:  (1) Under the McCamey analysis, vocational rehabilitation could be viewed as a link in the causal chain leading back to the original physical injury and thus a subsequent injury – whether an aggravated form of the injury or a new distinct injury – is compensable if it is the direct and natural result of a compensable primary injury; or (2) under the Nixon-Ramey analysis, the “quasi-course of employment” rational could have resulted in compensation based on the same vocational rehabilitation rubric.         

Arguably, the decision only muddles the issue further, but because the Compensation Review Board has not yet adopted the quasi-course of employment theory set forth in Nixon, the Court remanded the case for further consideration.  Muhammad v. D.C. Dep’t of Employment Servs., et al.