Workers Comp Zone


Would you like to be a California workers’ comp judge?

That was a question posed to me at a recent party by an acquaintance who has no experience with the workers’ comp field.

The answer is no. But it got me thinking.

It was a subject I recently discussed with one of the judges and several attorneys. In Oakland there is a need to replace some judge slots, and apparently a new “list” of potential applicants was formed, including some who were judges requesting transfers.

Several of us were talking about the process.

For years I’ve been one of a number of experienced attorneys who served as a “pro tem” judge, filling in when the board is short of judges because of vacations or illnesses.

So I’ve sat in the chair, so to speak, though pro tems don’t actually conduct trials.

Why did pursuing appointment as a judge hold little interest for me?

Partly, it was the pay. For many attorneys (defense and applicant) it would be a substantial pay cut.

Then there’s the sense that judges are under appreciated by the system. The judicial corps has not always received a great deal of encouragement and support from the DWC powers that be. Sometimes even the best judges have run afoul of technical rules.

They were formerly called “referees”. The system no longer trusts them to help make sound medical decisions.

But in truth there’s more to my lack of interest.

I think I’ve always been too much “of a cowboy” to be willing to be tied down like judges are.

Workers’ comp lawyers spend a lot of time”at the board”.

There’s usually a lot of waiting around. To my knowledge no California district office of the WCAB has WiFi, so on any given day there will be hallways and courtrooms of attorneys waiting for something: a call re settlement authority, an appearance by a lien claimant, or for opposing counsel to finish talking to a witness or client.

Attorneys will be sitting fiddling with their Kindles or PDAs during a break in the action if they don’t have remote access JetPacks.

The boredom for lawyers can be substantial if opposing counsel has multiple matters or the judge is stacked up with cases. A ten minute matter may stretch into a half day appearance.

Some boards see substantial business transacted at nearby coffee shops which is convenient for the lawyers.

But judges are tied down.

Given the volume of cases, most judges will end up spending a significant amount of their day in the courtroom holding conferences and signing orders and settlement approvals.

The surroundings are usually rather Spartan, and it can mean mornings and afternoons pinned to chair in a crowded, windowless room.

Before the EAMS paperless system, judges at least had a paper  file. Now, mind you, that file may not have contained much. A case may have been litigated for years yet the judge had only a few treating and QME reports in the file.

After EAMS, paper files disappeared for the most part. The judge is largely dealing with a case that is in the aether.

The claimant may not even be at the board, but if he or she is they may be down the hall in the waiting room so that the judge will not necessarily see them.

There may be intellectual rewards for some judges, but it can be quite abstract, as the judge helps move the pieces round the chessboard.

None of this is meant to disparage the work that California’s dedicated corps of workers’ compensation judges do. On the contrary, I admire most of them and the dedication they bring to their work.

But I couldn’t do it full time.

Julius Young