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No Worker’s Comp in Forensic Worker’s Suicide

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) - The Workers' Compensation Board does not owe death benefits after a police forensic scientist committed suicide, a New York appeals court ruled.

After 31 years with the New York State Police Department, Gary Veeder faced an April 2008 investigation over his inconsistent performance of fiber proficiency tests.

He became depressed, stopped going to work and committed suicide some weeks later.

Donna Veeder, his widow, blamed his death on the police probe, but an administrative law judge with the Workers' Compensation Board shot down her application for death benefits.

It found that state law barred the claim since the police department conducted its personnel investigation in good faith.

Donna Veeder then challenged the workers' compensation regulation, which defines the terms "injury" and "personal injury."

The rule excludes an injury based on work-related stress "if such a mental injury is a direct consequence of a lawful personnel decision involving a disciplinary action, work evaluation, job transfer, demotion or termination taken in good faith by the employer."

Veeder contended that her late husband's injuries could not be classified as "solely mental" since he committed suicide, making the rule inapplicable.

The Appellate Division's Third Judicial Department reversed in 2011.

"Inasmuch as there is no evidence that any formal disciplinary charges had been initiated or contemplated against decedent during the relevant time, substantial evidence does not support the board's finding that decedent's work-related stress was a direct consequence of a personnel decision involving a disciplinary action," that ruling stated.

The court disagreed, however, with Veeder's characterization of her late husband's injuries as not "solely mental."

"The unrefuted psychiatric evidence contained in the record, as well as the suicide letters make clear that decedent's suicide was predominantly the product of the depression and stress he experienced from the employer's inquiry into the inconsistencies in his fiber analysis tests," the ruling stated. "Thus, if claimant's work-related stress is not compensable under Workers' Compensation Law § 2 (7), it necessarily follows that any physical injury that resulted therefrom cannot be compensable either."

On remand, the Workers' Compensation Board considered whether the police probe constituted a work evaluation for purposes of Workers' Compensation Law § 2 (7) or if the late Veeder had been exposed only to normal workplace levels of stress.

Answering yes to both questions, the board again rejected the death benefits application.

Last week, the Albany-based appellate panel affirmed.

"While a psychiatrist causally linked decedent's suicide to workplace stress, he had no firsthand knowledge of the investigation and did not opine that it caused abnormal levels of stress," Justice Karen Peters wrote for a four-member panel. "Indeed, numerous individuals involved in investigating the testing irregularities testified that they followed standard procedure in doing so, and that their interactions with decedent were uniformly collegial and cordial.

"The board was free to credit that testimony and determine that the stress created by the investigation was not 'greater than that which other similarly situated workers experienced in the normal work environment' as required and, thus, reject claimant's application."

Brendan Quinn, of counsel to Buckley, Mendleson, Criscione & Quinn, argued for Donna Veeder. State Insurance Fund attorney Michael Miliano represented the police.

Albany-area newspaper reports from 2008 indicate that prosecutors were warned after the police probe about the potential unreliability of any evidence handled by Gary Veeder.

In 2011, the irregularities tanked the conviction of Katherine Seeber who had pleaded guilty in 2001 to helping strangle her 91-year-old step-great-grandmother.

Veeder had tested the duct tape on the victim's mouth and found fiber evidence matching gloves worn by the 18-year-old Seeber.

Concluding that misrepresentation of the fiber evidence had induced Seeber's plea, a Saratoga County judge vacated the conviction and ordered a new trial.

Seeber ultimately pleaded guilty the second time around to manslaughter, carrying a sentence of 14 1/2 years in prison. She was released with time served in July 2012.

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