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Shock not responsible for officer’s mental disability: Appeals court

Posted On: Aug. 19, 2019 1:17 PM CST

mental disability

A corrections officer for Prince Georges County, Maryland, who was shocked by an electrical switch while inspecting a jail cell and claims to have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder failed to prove the incident — and not something else — caused her to be unable to work, an appeals court in Maryland ruled Friday.

The officer, who suffered an injury to her hand as a result of the shock, subsequently had nightmares about the 2014 incident and had been unable to activate light switches out of fear, according to documents in case No. 929, September Term, 2018, filed in the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland in Annapolis, Maryland.

Three doctors who had examined her — one hired by the county’s pension fund — found that she had suffered a list of mental health problems but disagreed on whether her depression and post-traumatic stress disorder was caused by the incident itself, according to documents.

One doctor testified that her “behavioral health problems did not begin until the accident” and that she “had been confronted with tremendous stressors before the accident, and had dealt with them very well, never requiring psychological care. (She) graduated from the police academy while going through a divorce, and then was hired as a correctional officer. She took care of her four children as a single mother. (She) ‘handled all these situations,’ and attended her children's ‘wrestling, track, (and) other school things’” and had “no problems dealing with this. She was able to function well on her job,’” documents state.

Meanwhile, another examining physician had testified that she seemed "depressed" and "dysphoric,” and explained that “at first (the doctor) diagnosed the officer with depressive disorder not otherwise specified because she was concerned she was not ‘getting the full picture. . . (and) wasn't sure about some of the reporting’ on the officer’s part, because of her ‘guardedness.’” At a later visit, that doctor re-diagnosed her with “major depressive disorder, but determined that it was not directly related to the accident,” documents state.

Two doctors disagreed whether a shock from an electrical light switch could cause PTSD, which can be diagnosed after a life-threatening event, according to documents. 

Meanwhile, the state’s Disability Review Board in 2017 adopted a hearing examiner's findings affirming the Prince George's County Government Correctional Officers' Pension Plan for Employees’ rejection of the correctional officer’s application for service-connected disability retirement benefits because “her disability was not service-connected.” She was offered benefits under a lesser retirement plan for disabled officers, according to documents.

On appeal, a state Circuit Court ruled that the officer established that she was disabled, “but failed to meet the burden of proof establishing a direct and substantial causation between the… 2014 accident and her disability,” writing that the state’s Medical Advisory Board had found that she was "disabled by her major depressive disorder, which (was) unrelated to the accident,” according to documents.

The appellate board affirmed this, writing that the original hearing officer’s assessment of the case was correct and that other factors — age and family history, for example — could have caused the correctional officer’s mental illness: “Faced with competing psychological diagnoses, it was the hearing examiner's prerogative to decide which he found more convincing.”

The parties and attorneys involved could not be reached for comment.