Lawyer Says North Dakota Teller Deserves Workers’ Comp Benefits

A bank teller from a small North Dakota town says she’s scared and can no longer work after she was held up at gunpoint and left handcuffed on the floor. Now she’s getting robbed by the state workers’ compensation agency, her lawyer says.

Workers Safety and Insurance denied the claim for Edith Johnson, 56, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after the May 26 robbery in Gilby, Bismarck attorney Tom Dickson said. It was the third time the bank had been robbed in Johnson’s tenure and the second time while she was working.

“She is stressed out by all this. Those guys who robbed the bank were just horrible, horrible men,” said Dickson, a Gilby native. “I’m just astonished that WSI would fight this, but they are.”

The letter of denial, which became public record after Dickson sued the agency to allow an appeal, said state law does not cover a “mental injury arising from a mental stimulus.” Dickson said that exclusion is meant to apply to normal stress from performing everyday tasks at work.

“To say that being handcuffed, placed face down on the floor and have your life threatened by an armed robber is everyday stress at a bank … that is absurd,” he said.

Workers’ comp officials say state law prohibits them from discussing a specific claim without the applicant’s approval. Asked to speak generally, WSI director Bryan Klipfel said the law provides benefits only as the result of a physical injury that occurred at work.

“A post-traumatic stress disorder that is directly related to a physical workplace injury may be compensable if it can be shown that it was primarily caused by the physical work injury, as opposed to all other contributing causes,” Klipfel said.

William Collins of Nashville, Tenn., and Clifton Patterson of Grand Forks have been charged in federal court with the bank robbery. Authorities said one of the men held a sawed-off shotgun to Johnson while the other man took cash from the bank vault and teller drawer. The robbers then handcuffed her hands behind her back and left her face down on the floor.

“Because of the events of that day, it being my second and most awful bank robbery, I have been scared and extremely stressed to go to work,” Johnson said in court documents.

Dickson sued the state agency after it said Johnson did not file an appeal within 30 days. Dickson said his client missed the deadline because she never received the letter of denial. Northeast Central District Judge Joel Medd ordered the agency to reconsider the claim. A hearing date has not been set.

Six years ago the Legislature debated changing the workers comp bill to cover mental health issues for first responders involved in so-called “critical incidents.” The House defeated the measure 48-46.

Rep. Lois Delmore, D-Grand Forks, one of the sponsors of the 2003 bill, said the law should be changed to cover cases like Johnson’s.

“Mental health is something that is hard to pin down sometimes, but it is a very important issue,” Delmore said. “When you have depression or whatever that is documented medically by a physician, I think it should be covered. I certainly will look into this before next session.”