Thursday, October 01, 2009

Pedrosa v. BRB (9th Cir. - Oct. 1, 2009)

It's pretty fun to sit by designation on the Ninth Circuit. For many judges, it's a nice distraction from their typical day-to-day workload on the district court. It's also a chance to approach things at a more doctrinal and policy-based level than the usual trial level stuff.

But one of the downsides about sitting by designation is that, often, you don't get assigned to write the opinion in any of the big-ticket, high profile cases. Or sometimes even the medium-ticket, sort of interesting cases. Instead, since your expertise, after all, is in individualized determinations at a particularized level, you occasionally get a disproportionate share of assignments on the "not-very-fun" dispositions.

Judge Collins, sitting by designation from Arizona, basically has to deal with whether a dude has (alleged) anxiety as a result of an actual workplace injury (in which case he's eligible for workers compensation) or whether he's just really mad at his supervisor (in which case he's not). There's no doubt he was injured, at least temporarily, at work. But whether that injury was permanent and/or related to the injuries he's now claiming is the real question.

My personal reaction was that this was a pretty good case of a guy playing the system. Maybe I'm wrong, of course. Especially since I'm just looking at a cold record. But I started out fairly sympathetically to the guy. He's from San Diego, my current residence. He was at the Naval Base here loading and unloading materials from the USS Boxer when he struck a 440 volt cable line, which in turn caused an explosion. Ouch. I'm sure that was no fun. At all. So I can totally see a guy being injured as a result and thus entitled to workers comp.

But the guy doesn't seek any medical attention at the time. Now, maybe he just doesn't like hospitals. Or is a tough guy. So that's not necessarily dispositive. He says he suffered anxiety at the time but just didn't tell anyone about it. That's definitely possible.

But then the timing of things just doesn't smell right to me. A year after the accident, a higher-up guy at his employer writes Pedrosa a letter that blames him for the accident. At which point Pedrosa immediately goes to Kaiser to seek treatment for his injuries, and also writes back and says that his employer's being a jerk for writing the letter and ignoring his twenty-five years of good service (and also for not blaming the other guy who was with Pedrosa). Within a year, the guy (Pedrosa) starts having problems at work, and gets told that his work ethic is bad and that he needs to change his attitude. Pedrosa picks it up for a while, but then returns to his alleged old habits, which results in four memos from his supervisors about his poor worth ethic. So he then takes three months off, during which time he starts hitting the hospital. He then comes back and allegedly returns to his crappy ways, gets demoted (and avoids getting fired only due to his long history with the company), and then has a doctor write him a note and takes medical leave for five months. At which point he then files for workers compensation benefits. Saying the whole experience has made him nervous and anxious and unable to work. With, of course, expert doctors saying he has PTSD and that all this is due to the accident.

Which, again, maybe is true. But given the totality of the evidence, I don't buy it. Neither did the ALJ, which denied the claim, both originally as well as after a remand by the BRB.

The Ninth Circuit, per Judge Collins, ultimately affirms. Which seemed right to be both as a matter of doctrine -- the rules used and applied below seem entirely proper -- as well as in light of my particularized reaction to the case. Could I be wrong? Sure. But it just seemed to me as I read everything that this is not a case of a guy who can't work, but rather a case of a guy who doesn't want to work because he's so angry -- potentially legitimately, mind you -- at the place that's employed him for a quarter century. That's natural, of course. But it doesn't entitle you to benefits.

So that was my personal take, anyway. See if you agree.