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Tenn. high court denies comp to secretary who claimed PTSD after confrontation

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A Tennessee secretary whose former supervisor allegedly threatened to “shave her dog, sugar her gas tank and burn her house down” isn't entitled to workers compensation benefits despite her post-traumatic stress disorder, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

Jo Dean Nuchols began working as the personal secretary for Blount County, Tennessee, Sheriff James Berrong in 1990, according to court records. Ms. Nuchols was terminated in November 2002 after exhausting her sick leave benefits. The last day she worked was May 30, 2002, records show.

On that day, Ms. Nuchols met with Sheriff Berrong, as well as the chief deputy and budget director, to discuss a conversation she had with Sheriff Berrong's wife the day prior about an “inappropriate relationship” he allegedly had with a female employee, according to records. Sheriff Berrong told Ms. Nuchols that if she spoke to his wife again, he would “shave her dog, sugar her gas tank and burn her house down,” records show.

Ms. Nuchols contacted an attorney following the meeting. Records show she called in sick the next day and visited her primary care physician. She was hospitalized for three days and treated by a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder. She has not been able to work any job since, according to records.

In May 2003, Ms. Nuchols sued Sheriff Berrong, Chief Deputy Tony Crisp, who was present during the meeting on May 30, 2002 that led to her PTSD, and Blount County, alleging seven causes of action and a claim for workers compensation benefits, records show.

The case moved to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee in June 2003, according to the record, which dismissed the claimant's federal claims and remanded the remaining claims, including the workers comp claim, Blount County court. In June 2011, the court dismissed all claims against Mr. Crisp (as mentioned above in bold) and denied Sheriff Berrong's motion for summary judgment.

Ms. Nuchols filed a notice of voluntary nonsuit in July 2012, leading the Blount County court to dismiss all claims except for her workers comp claim, according to records. In an August 2012 trial, Ms. Nuchols testified that she had received treatment for depression and anxiety beginning in 1991, but that she wasn't treated by a psychiatrist or psychologist prior to her meeting with Sheriff Berrong in May 2002.

Ms. Nuchols' husband, David Nuchols, testified that he called the county's risk management office up to six times attempting to initiate a workers comp claim but was unsuccessful, records show.

Since Ms. Nuchols' complaint, filed one year after the event in May 2003, was the first notice of a workers comp claim, she did not provide the immediate notice of an injury that's required under Tennessee law, the Circuit Court of Blount County said. Under the law, notice must be given to the employer within 30 days after the occurrence of the accident “unless reasonable excuse for failure to give the notice is made to the satisfaction of the tribunal to which the claim for compensation may be presented.”

Finding that Ms. Nuchols did fail to provide notice of her injury as required by Tennessee law, the state Supreme Court on Friday affirmed the trial court's judgment and dismissed her claim.

“In order for a communication to constitute either written notice or actual knowledge on the part of the employer, it must be calculated to reasonably convey the idea to the employer that the employee claims to have suffered an injury arising out of and in the course of her employment,” the ruling states.

When Ms. Nuchols called in sick on May 31, 2002, she conveyed that she was unable to work, but “that reference fell well short of claiming that she had suffered a mental or physical injury as a result of the meeting on the previous afternoon,” according to the ruling.

In the trial court's alternative findings, had Ms. Nuchols complied with the notice statute, “she was permanently and totally disabled as a result of the work-related injury,” meaning, she would have had a claim for “100% total disability,” according to records.