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Workers comp only for distressed nurse after accidental HIV needle stick

Workers comp only for distressed nurse after accidental HIV needle stick

Workers compensation is the exclusive remedy for a health care worker who said her employer subjected her to emotional distress by inquiring about work absences after she was injured on the job, a federal judge has ruled.

Elsa Roberts worked as a part-time lab assistant for Permanente Medical Group, a division of Oakland, California, Kaiser Permanente. She accidently stuck herself with a medical needle while drawing a patient's blood in December 2009, and the patient told her that he had HIV and hepatitis C.

Ms. Roberts began suffering nightmares, anxiety and other emotional distress following the incident, although she was later determined to not have contracted HIV or hepatitis, according to court filings. She returned to work two weeks after the needle-stick accident, for which she received workers comp, but being on the job caused her emotional state to worsen.

Ms. Roberts filed for leave under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, and her request initially was approved until Jan. 5, 2010, filings show. She continued to receive extensions for her FMLA leave until October 2010, and she worked continuously from that time until August 2011.

In August 2011, a Permanente supervisor conducted an investigatory interview with Ms. Roberts about recent work absences, records show.

Ms. Roberts told the supervisor that an absence in July 2011 was for a doctor's appointment and that other absences were covered as FMLA leave.

The supervisor followed up with Ms. Roberts' workers comp claim administrator and found that her doctor's appointment was one day prior to the one Ms. Roberts missed at work, according to filings. The supervisor informed Ms. Roberts that she could be terminated for any similar absences in the future; however, the absences were later found to be protected absences under FMLA law.

Ms. Roberts filed an injury report saying that the meeting with her supervisor caused her a great deal of anxiety, filings show. In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, California, Ms. Roberts said she was violated because the supervisor's inquiry allowed the supervisor to find out that she was receiving mental health care.

Her treating psychologist issued a status report to Permanente saying that Ms. Roberts was cleared to return to work as long as she could be relocated to another worksite or “restricted from visual/verbal contact and from being directly supervised by current supervisor.” If those conditions could not be met, the supervisor said Ms. Roberts would be unable to return to work until October 2011.

Absences continue

Ms. Roberts continued to receive similar doctor-recommended work restrictions through December 2011, according to records. That month, a disability case manager for Permanente sent Ms. Roberts a letter stating that Permanente had a return-to-work program that could accommodate her while she recovered from emotional distress.

Ms. Roberts' medical providers sent a series of letters to Permanente throughout 2012 that stated she would be unable to return to work through February 2013, filings show. She later contacted a disability case manager at Permanente to say that she was permanently disabled and was in the process of applying for Social Security disability benefits.

After a series of attempts to engage Ms. Roberts in the return-to-work process fell through, Permanente ultimately terminated Ms. Roberts' employment in January 2013, records show. Ms. Roberts sued Permanente and several Permanente employees in federal court in February 2013, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and California's Fair Employment and Housing Act for failure to accommodate her disability. She also accused Permanente and its employees of intentional infliction of emotional distress and wrongful termination.

District Court Magistrate Judge Carolyn K. Delaney in Sacramento granted summary judgment in favor of Permanente and other defendants in the case on Wednesday. The judge found that Ms. Roberts' request to be kept away from her former supervisor or to transfer to a new worksite was not a reasonable request for accommodation under ADA rules.

Judge Delaney also found that workers comp is the exclusive remedy for Ms. Roberts' claims of emotional distress after her supervisor inquired about her work absences.

Conduct or misconduct “relating to criticism of work practices is usually considered a normal part of the employment environment and thus barred by the exclusivity provisions of California's worker's compensation law,” the court's decision reads.

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