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Aug 08

Widow of suicidal police scientist might get workers’ comp

Aug. 5 (Westlaw Journals) – The widow of a New York State Police forensic scientist who committed suicide after his employer launched an investigation into the accuracy of his test results may be entitled to collect workers’ compensation death benefits, a state appeals court has ruled.

The Supreme Court Appellate Division reversed a Workers’ Compensation Board finding that Gary Veeder’s death did not occur in the course of his employment.

The board barred the widow’s claim because the police department’s decision to investigate Veeder’s work was “a lawful personnel decision involving an investigation, and potential disciplinary action” and was taken in good faith, the panel said.

Veeder was at the center of a 2008 scandal involving inaccurate or undocumented test results at the New York State Police Forensic Investigation Center, where his job involved analyzing fibers in connection with criminal cases.

According to the opinion, an April 2008 reaccreditation process turned up inconsistencies in proficiency tests that Veeder performed.  After the police department met with him and his supervisors to discuss the inconsistencies, Veeder eventually admitted he had been skipping a step in the test analysis procedure, the opinion said.

After the police department subsequently launched a “nonconforming work inquiry,” Veeder stopped coming to work and killed himself several weeks later, in May 2008.

A New York State Inspector General’s report issued after Veeder’s death found problems with nearly a third of the 322 cases he had worked on between 1993 and 2008.

The report also faulted the police department for conducting a “flawed internal inquiry.”

Investigators had “summarily dismissed” Veeder’s claims that his misconduct was the result of inadequate training and supervision, the report noted.

WORK-RELATED STRESS

Veeder’s wife, Donna, filed for workers’ compensation death benefits, claiming that her husband’s depression and suicide were the direct result of “improper actions” taken by the police department during its investigation.

The workers’ compensation judge disallowed the claim, and the Workers’ Compensation Board affirmed.

Donna turned to the Appellate Division, which reversed and remanded.

Section 2(7) of the New York Workers’ Compensation Law does not recognize an “injury” that is purely mental and based on work-related stress caused by a disciplinary action, the appeals court said.

The evidence was insufficient to support the board’s finding that the police department’s actions were part of a “disciplinary action,” the panel said.

In addition one of Gary Veeder’s supervisors testified that no disciplinary action had been underway during the police department investigation and that the meetings with Veeder were “strictly a part of the police department’s quality review process.”

On remand, the board must also address the police department’s alternative argument that its actions amounted to an evaluation of Veeder’s work under the compensation law and that the stress he experienced was no greater than that ordinarily found in the work environment.

Veeder v. New York State Police Department et al., No. 511128, 2011 WL 2713850 (N.Y. App. Div., 3d Dep’t July 14, 2011).

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