Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mastagni Attorneys Score a Victory for Common Sense and Fairness

In a recent decision, Daniel Young v. Workers' Compensation Appeals Board and County of Butte, the Third District Court of Appeals ("Court") held that an injury sustained by an employee as part of a regimen to satisfy employer physical fitness expectations constitutes a compensable industrial injury under California Labor Code section 3600(a)(9). Mastagni attorney Craig Johnsen argued the appeal before the Court. Mr. Johnsen and Matthew Peng collaborated on the appellate brief. Richard Weyuker of Cuneo, Ward, Black, & Missler argued on behalf of the employer. The case has been certified for publication.


Sergeant Daniel Young began his employment with the Butte County Sheriff's Department in 1995. In 1999, he was promoted to correctional sergeant. In 2004, the Department issued an order requiring all correctional officers, including correctional sergeants, to "maintain themselves in good physical condition so that they can handle the strenuous physical contacts often required of a law enforcement officer."

Sergeant Young took the requirement seriously, and he engaged in a regular physical fitness regimen during his off-duty hours. On January 9, 2012, Sergeant Young was performing his customary warm-up routine prior to his workout, which included jumping jacks. During one of the jumping jacks, Sergeant Young came down and experienced an extreme stabbing pain in his left knee. When Sergeant Young reported the injury, the Department took the position that the injury was not compensable under workers' compensation because it did not occur while Sergeant Young was engaged in his usual duties as a correctional sergeant.

At the trial court level, the workers' compensation judge disagreed with the Departments' position, concluding that Sergeant Young's injury was compensable under the circumstances. The Department requested reconsideration by the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board ("WCAB"). The WCAB sided with the Department and found Sergeant Young's injury was not compensable. Our appeal to the Court followed the WCAB ruling.

District Court of Appeal Analysis and Holding

In analyzing the facts of the case, the court relied upon the two-pronged Ezzy test. Under that test, the "reasonable expectancy" of employment is satisfied where: (1) the employee subjectively believes participation in the injury-producing event is expected by the employer; and, (2) the employee's belief is objectively reasonable.

The Court recognized that the first prong of the test is easily satisfied. Typically, subjective belief is established simply through the credible testimony of the injured employee. Since Sergeant Young had competently testified at trial as to his subjective belief, the Court placed no focus on that element, finding Sergeant Young's testimony "more than sufficient to satisfy that prong."

In asserting that Sergeant Young's case failed to satisfy the objective prong of the Ezzy test, the Department primarily relied on the argument that Sergeant Young's subjective belief that engaging in jumping jacks as part of a home exercise routine was not objectively reasonable because the belief was merely based upon a "general obligation" to maintain good physical fitness. The Court was not persuaded by the argument.

In dismissing the Department's argument, the Court pointed to the departmental order requiring correctional sergeants to maintain a state of good physical conditioning. The Court noted that the Department did not provide exercise opportunities during work hours, nor did the Department's directive offer any guidance as to what types of exercises and/or other physical activities would be considered appropriate in the furtherance of maintaining good physical condition. Further, the Court found it objectively reasonable that the Department would have expected Sergeant Young to perform a warm-up routine as part of his exercise program. Consequently, as the injury at issue satisfied both prongs of the Ezzy test, and there was substantial nexus between the Department's physical fitness requirement and Sergeant Young's specific off-duty activity which resulted in his knee injury, the Court ruled that the injury was compensable as an industrial injury.

Import of Court's Ruling

Although the Young decision applies specifically to a law enforcement employee, there are many other types of jobs that require workers to maintain an adequate level of physical fitness in order to satisfactorily perform necessary job functions. So, the ruling should have broad application in appropriate contexts. It is clearly in the employer's best interest for employees in any type of occupation or profession to make healthy life choices, which includes adequate exercise.

It should be noted that the Court's ruling may have been different had Sergeant Young been engaging in a more high risk activity, such as playing basketball, rollerblading, or kayaking when he was injured. But, since the Court observed that jumping jacks are generally considered to be a "traditional, low-risk and widely performed warm-up calisthenic", it had no difficulty finding the Young decision should not be interpreted to suggest that "anything goes" as long as the activity promotes fitness. In the end, common sense must prevail.