Martinez Cruz v. Metro Transit Police, et al.

Martinez Cruz v. Metro Transit Police, et al. No. WC23-6523 (W.C.C.A. January 26, 2024).

Employee Emmanuel Martinez-Cruz, a peace officer with the Metro Transit Police Department since 2013, alleged having faced various stressful situations during his tenure. On two occasions, the employee encountered traumatic incidents involving deceased individuals during his work. The first incident was around 2014 or 2015 and the second incident was in 2017 or 2018.

The Employee also struggled with heavy alcohol use, leading to disciplinary actions by the employer. The first incident took place on July 5, 2020. The Employee was drinking and became argumentative with multiple Kandiyohi County sheriffs. This led to a suspension on November 6, 2020. The second incident occurred on February 26, 2021. The Employee was the passenger in a vehicle pulled over by Willmar police. Again, he was intoxicated and argumentative during the stop. The Willmar Police reported the incident to the employer and the employee was put on administrative leave on March 1, 2021, pending disciplinary review of the incident.

After being suspended, the employee sought help from the company’s therapy program. He first visited on March 10, 2021, citing leave due to a pending investigation and increased drinking from marital and law enforcement stress. He hinted at pursuing a PTSD claim and returned on March 16, 2021, discussing possible PTSD symptoms. Legal counsel was retained on March 21, 2021.

On March 29, 2021, the employee began counseling with Robert Hoppe, a psychologist at the Associated Clinic of Psychology. Dr. Hoppe identified a decline in mental health from 2017-2018 due to work stressors, initiating therapy and recommending a comprehensive evaluation, advising against police work temporarily. During a follow-up on April 6, 2021, the employee discussed ongoing alcohol issues, leading Dr. Hoppe to diagnose PTSD, persistent depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. Continued therapy from April 19, 2021, targeted anxiety related to an internal affairs incident. Subsequently, on April 23, 2021, the employee consulted psychiatrist Paul Ekberg.. Dr. Ekberg also noted that the Employee’s psychological problems tended to stem from some event that happened with the internal affairs division of his police department. He diagnosed moderate alcohol use disorder and prescribed medication in addition to PTSD treatment

On May 1, 2021, the employer notified the employee of its disciplinary findings and its intent to terminate him subject to a further hearing.  The employer terminated the employee on June 2, 2021.

On June 15, 2021, Dr. Slavik conducted a psychological evaluation of the employee at his attorney’s referral.  Diagnoses in her August 20, 2021, report included chronic PTSD and mild alcohol use disorder.

The employee filed a claim petition on March 4, 2022, seeking payment of temporary total and temporary partial disability benefits, and various medical benefits.

On May 16, 2022, Paul A. Arbisi, L.P., conducted an independent psychological evaluation of the employee on behalf of the employer, noting exaggerated symptoms on psychological testing and suggesting a pre-existing alcohol use disorder. Dr. Arbisi contested the PTSD diagnosis, citing inconsistencies and lack of support from the employee’s identified distressing incidents.

Dr. Hoppe provided treatment intermittently from June 2021 to the hearing date, diagnosing PTSD, persistent depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder based on law enforcement experiences. While noting improvement, Dr. Hoppe observed ongoing symptoms. However, it was stipulated that the employee no longer met the PTSD criteria by the time of Dr. Hoppe’s November 29, 2022, report.

Upon reviewing Dr. Hoppe’s report, Dr. Arbisi maintained his original opinions, stating that Dr. Hoppe’s documentation did not sufficiently tie PTSD symptoms to the employee’s time as a Metro Transit Police Officer.

A hearing on the employee’s claims was held before a compensation judge on April 12, 2023.  Following the hearing the compensation judge found that the employee met the requirements for application of the PTSD presumption under Minn. Stat. § 176.011, subd. 15(e).  The judge found that the self-insured employer had rebutted the presumption, that the employee’s problems stemmed from an event that happened with internal affairs, and that the employee had failed to prove a compensable mental impairment in the nature of PTSD.  The judge denied all of the employee’s claims.  The employee appeals.

The employee contends that the compensation judge erred in the application of Minn. Stat. § 176.011, subd. 15, regarding the presumption of a PTSD diagnosis for police officers, with respect to the employer’s rebuttal of the presumption, and the compensability of a PTSD claim in which the employee’s condition stems from disciplinary action.

Since October 2013, PTSD has been compensable under Minnesota workers’ compensation law if Minn. Stat. § 176.011, subd. 15, criteria are met. Subd. 15(d) requires diagnosis by a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist consistent with the most recently published edition of the DSM. Subd. 15(e) grants a presumption for certain groups, including licensed police officers, which can be rebutted by the employer citing substantial factors challenging the presumption and diagnosis. PTSD resulting from disciplinary action is explicitly non-compensable.

The employee contends that Dr. Arbisi’s opinion lacked foundation, and the compensation judge erred in adopting it. They argue that Dr. Arbisi didn’t assess PTSD on April 6, 2021, limited his review of significant events, and the judge erred in her analysis of the presumption and rebuttal criteria as per Juntunen v. Carlton Cnty, 982 N.W.2d 729 (Minn. 2022).

The compensation judge found that the subd. 15(e) presumption was met. She noted the employee, a police officer with no prior mental issues, was diagnosed with PTSD by a licensed psychologist using the DSM-5. However, the judge agreed with the employer’s rebuttal of work-related PTSD. The Judge cited the employer’s NOPLD, which noted that the First Report of Injury made no mention of PTSD, and Dr. Arbisi’s reports that the Employee did not meet the definition of PTSD under the DSM-5. Relying on Juntunen the judge concluded that where the employer rebuts the presumption, the burden shifts back to the employee to prove a work-related PTSD claim. Ultimately, the judge found the employee failed to meet the burden of proving a work-related PTSD claim.

The WCCA saw no foundational defect that would disqualify Dr. Arbisi’s opinion and they concluded that the judge did not err in adopting Dr. Arbisi’s opinion that the employee did not have PTSD. The Court further found that Dr. Arbisi’s opinion, unlike in Juntunen, was not limited to a 30-day period preceding the report. Instead, it indicates an opinion that at no time did the Employee’s work activities cause PTSD. The WCCA also highlighted the compensation judge’s adoption of Dr. Ekberg’s opinion, that the Employee’s [problems “seemed to stem from some event that happened with internal affairs division of his police department” and that Dr. Hoppe noted similarly. They also highlighted the compensation judge’s discussion of the timing of the Employee seeking treatment for PTSD, which only occurred for the first time after he was suspended and knew he could be terminated. Therefore the WCCA found there was substantial evidence in the record supporting the judge’s conclusion that the employee’s PTSD condition resulted from disciplinary action which renders the employee’s claim noncompensable under the Act. Affirmed.

Takeaways: If the PTSD presumption is met, the burden of proof shifts to the Employer and Insurer to rebut the PTSD presumption. If the Employer and Insurer successfully rebut the presumption, the burden of proof shifts back to the Employee to prove a work-related PTSD claim.