A federal police worker who alleged she was sexually harassed, bullied and intimidated by her Canberra-based colleagues has had a compensation win overturned after a successful appeal from the federal government's workplace insurer.
The unsworn Australian Federal Police employee, who worked with the crime-fighting agency for more than 20 years, first lodged a claim for psychiatric injury compensation in November 2013.
The claim appeared to focus on an acrimonious meeting that took place the month before, but also described a spate of incidents since 2010 said to involve harassment at the hands of colleagues.
In 2012, she said a male AFP agent sexually harassed her and made "derogatory, suggestive and sexually explicit and inappropriate comments" to her.
"[He] would often find a way to touch you; he would stand behind me and breathe quite heavily," she said.
The man was alleged to have made sexually suggestive comments to her during a trip to a "forensic showcase" in Sydney.
Another colleague, a crime-scene investigations team leader, was alleged to have bullied and harassed her for 12 months beginning in 2010, including, she said, "speaking behind my back" and "regularly talking about my conduct and behaviour in the office".
"I experienced on a daily basis sweating, trembling, shaking, palpitations, panic attacks all caused by the thought of her calling me, coming into my workspace, unwelcomed behaviour and my integrity questioned," she said.
A third co-worker was also accused of bullying and harassment, and was said to have falsely accused the woman of corporate credit-card misuse, making "unfounded and denigrating comments" to other staff members, and making it clear to others that "she hated me and made comment that she displayed a great dissatisfaction at having to work with me".
But it was a meeting in October 2013 that was said to have tipped her "over the edge". A colleague had been left distressed by a conversation with her, and asked for a meeting between the pair and their supervisor to resolve their issues.
The claimant left the meeting distressed and upset, saying she felt trapped, and that lies were being spread about her.
The woman went home and was later certified unfit to return to work.
A claim was lodged with Comcare, the federal government's workplace insurer. She claimed for compensation for psychiatric injury.
Doctors found she was suffering from recurrent anxiety and depressive symptoms, which the woman attributed to her problems at work. One doctor diagnosed her with a "personality related adjustment disorder on the background of high interpersonal sensitivity".
Comcare knocked her claim for compensation back, a decision that was affirmed on review.
She appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, where deputy president Gary Humphries found in her favour last year.
But Comcare launched its own appeal in the Federal Court, which handed down its decision last week. The appeal argued that the tribunal made an error by dealing with a claim for injury that was "fundamentally different" to the claim originally lodged with Comcare.
Comcare argued the worker had originally claimed compensation for an injury only stemming from the October meeting, and none of the earlier incidents.
The insurer argued the tribunal member had erred by finding it liable to pay compensation for the incidents before the 2013 meeting, when they were not technically the subject of the woman's original claim.
Comcare was not found liable to pay compensation for that meeting, because it was a reasonable administrative action which was "tolerable and fair".
The federal court agreed that the original claim focussed on the 2013 meeting.
"Even though a claim may be generally expressed, it must nevertheless properly and adequately inform Comcare such that Comcare can make an informed decision on whether the claim as made should be met," Justice Geoffrey Flick found.
"Nor does it promote good administration and the proper resolution of claims for compensation to encourage a course whereby claimants may opportunistically (for example) seek to re-characterise a claim as one other than that in fact made."
The woman is able to make a new claim for the incidents that took place between 2010 and 2012 if she wishes.