Matthews v. Indus. Comm’n of Ariz. – 11/23/2022

December 20, 2022

The Arizona Supreme Court holds that A.R.S. § 23-1043.01(B), which limits workers’ compensation claims for mental illnesses to those that arise from an “unexpected, unusual or extraordinary stress” situation, does not violate article 18, section 8 or article 2, section 13 of the Arizona Constitution.

A city police officer filed a workers’ compensation claim to recover for the exacerbation of his preexisting work-induced mental injuries caused by a suspect’s suicide during the officer’s shift. The city’s insurer denied the officer’s claim. An administrative law judge affirmed that the officer’s mental injuries were non-compensable, because testimony indicated the incident and its accompanying trauma was a known and expected danger of the job rather than an “unexpected, unusual or extraordinary stress” situation, as required to recover for mental injuries under A.R.S. § 23-1043.01(B). The ALJ affirmed the initial decision after agency review. The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of benefits on a special action petition in which the officer challenged the constitutionality of § 23-1043.01(B). The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ denial of benefits, holding that § 23-1043.01(B) violates neither of the Arizona constitutional provisions raised.

First, the Court held that § 23-1043.01(B)’s requirement that compensable mental illness claims stem from an “unexpected, unusual or extraordinary stress” was not unconstitutional under Article 18, section 8 of the Arizona Constitution. Article 18, section 8, established in 1912, provides coverage for an “injury. . . from any accident” arising from “a necessary risk or danger” of the employment.” The Court determined that the 1912 plain meaning of the term “injury” contemplates physical damages only, and the term “accident” refers only to singular, unexpected events. Consequently, the Court concluded that Article 18, section 8, itself, does not provide coverage for mental injuries developed over time. Rather, when passed, § 23-1043.01(B) expanded the scope of the workers’ compensation framework beyond that required in Article 18, section 8, recognizing mental trauma as a compensable injury under discrete circumstances for the first time. Second, the Court held that § 23-1043.01(B) does not violate equal protection principles under article 2, section 13 of the Arizona Constitution. The Court explained that, even if § 23-1043.01(B) subjects workers suffering from mental injuries to different standards than workers with physical injuries, such differential treatment is not unconstitutionally discriminatory because the increased difficulty in proving a causal connection between mental illness and the workplace justifies a more stringent standard.

Justice Bolick authored the opinion; Chief Justice Brutinel and Justices Lopez, Beene, Montgomery, and King Joined; Vice Chief Justice Timmer concurred in part and dissented in part.

Posted by: BriAnne Illich Meeds