Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A More Efficient Process Advocated

Some lessons and reminders from a recent New Jersey decision.

On April 14, 2014, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, decided Roderick v, Taxi & Limousine Three, LLC, Docket number A-3789-1314. It is an interesting decision because it provides an insight on the process of adjudicating workers' compensation disputes. 

This workers' compensation appeal resulted from a March 11, 2014 order. The adjudicator denied a motion to reinstate Mr. Roderick's claim petition. The motion was filed "nearly four years earlier."  

The appellate court was able to "derive the following facts from the sparse record on appeal" (emphasis added). A petition was filed in October 2008 seeking compensation. The employer/carrier responded two months later with a motion to dismiss the petition, alleging it was vague. Another eight months passed and the trial judge granted the motion on August 26, 2009, "even though petitioner had by then amended his claim petition and cured the deficiency."

One of the specific record deficiencies noted in the appellate opinion was the absence of both the petition and response from the record. 

Curiously, at that August 2009 hearing, "petitioner's attorney did not appear."  The employer/carrier's attorney reportedly represented to the trial judge that there was a dispute regarding disclosure of certain information about a pension the petitioner might be receiving and that petitioner's counsel "had indicated that he had no opposition to the case being dismissed at this time for failure to prosecute the claim."  The trial judge dismissed the petition on the record, explaining her/his logic "for those foregoing reasons, I will dismiss this matter without prejudice." 

The appellate court noted that this "statement is ambiguous." It held that "one cannot discern whether the JOC was referring to that part of the colloquy concerning petitioner's initial petition, the discussion concerning the railroad pension, the discussion concerning petitioner's attorney not caring about the dismissal, or all three." 

About six months later, the petitioner provided proof regarding the pension question and sought to have the petition reinstated. The Employer/Carrier "wrote to the court" and stated there was no opposition to "Petitioner's Motion to Reinstate the Case." Despite the lack of opposition, the trial judge did not reinstate the petition. The Court noted that "once again, the JOC made no record of her reasoning."

On February 2, 2011, "the JOC finally indicated to [petitioner's counsel], in chambers, that she did not trust the [p]etitioner to comply with his other obligations in the case," and declined to reinstate the petition. 

The hearing ultimately came three years later when "a different JOC finally denied it, for reasons unrelated to the initial deficit in the claim petition." The case was complicated by a subsequent vehicle accident that left the petitioner incompetent and dependent on a guardian. Settlement discussions were frustrated by a child support lien. The petitioner later passed away. Then the case finally came to the appellate court.

In the appellate action, documents were submitted to the court. They were apparently not part of the record, but were nonetheless provided. The Court noted that "it is difficult to discern which of the letters exchanged between counsel, if any, were ever before the trial court, and thus properly before us."

The Court concluded that  "in short, the competent evidence in this record demonstrates that petitioner's motion, which had been filed on March 17, 2010, was denied nearly four years later, on March 11, 2014, after petitioner had sustained fatal injuries in an accident."

The Court said that "during the four years petitioner's reinstatement motion was pending, someone lost sight of the policies underpinning the Workers' Compensation Act (WCA)."  It was critical of the failure to "make a clear record when ruling on motions, and the reason for granting respondent's initial motion." 

Reminding everyone that workers' compensation is "important social legislation," the Court cited thirty-year-old precedent holding "the need for expeditious handling of workers' compensation cases to be in the public interest[,]" and that "[l]ong delays create an appearance of injustice as well as real injustice many times." 

Recognizing that each party may have borne some responsibility for delay in this case, the Court held that "we cannot conclude on the record before us that petitioner was responsible for the four-year delay in deciding his motion."  The Court also noted that the motion to dismiss was for vagueness, and that the ambiguities had been cured by the time the petition was dismissed. 

The Court was critical that the trial judge nonetheless dismissed the petition, but seems more disturbed that the record does not describe the "why" behind the trial judge's decisions. The Court conceded that trial judges have busy dockets, and that "it may be that the JOCs involved in the case before us had ample reasons for either taking action or refraining from taking action on petitioner's reinstatement motion."

Concluding, however, that on the record presented, the trial judge's decisions were "manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with competent relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice." the Court reversed the dismissal.

The lessons are reasonably simple. Delay can be destructive. That does not mean that delay cannot or is not justified, it certainly can be. Judicial decisions affect real people in profound ways. Timeliness is important. When that cannot be accomplished, the reasons therefore should be clearly documented.

A couple of points. 

First, all of the parties deserve some fundamentals from the adjudication process. The adjudicator must be available, ready and willing to serve the parties. When there is a need for a hearing one should be offered.  

Second, when there are hearings there should be a record of the proceedings. If there is no hearing then the adjudication(s) should be made based upon a sound written record. 

Finally, either on a recording or in the order, the evidence or facts relied upon and the reason for the decision should be clear. Judges should explain their decisions clearly. That may not require a law review article in each order, but the appellate court should not have to attempt mind-reading to determine the logic that led to a decision. 

A court should never struggle with trying to discern what was in the record, what was seen as relevant or persuasive. Many of the failures in this case seem to come down to communication and procedure.

As a side note on delay, it may be that when cases are delayed it makes sense for the trial judge to make specific findings that justify the decision. Perhaps the order should clearly state why there is delay, whether any party has voiced an objection to delay or continuance and whether there are or are not demonstrated circumstances beyond the moving party's control. It might not hurt to note whether there is or is not prejudice resulting from the delay.

I agree with the Court wholeheartedly in their conclusion that workers' compensation is important legislation. Both parties to the social contract have foregone substantial rights in exchange for the substantial benefits and obligations they have accepted in return. The worker and employer are entitled to a system that respects them, affords them a prompt and meaningful opportunity to be heard, and provides decisions that are complete, clear, and accompanied by a record that affords an opportunity for meaningful appellate review. 

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