Tuesday, August 23, 2016

An Amazing Monday at WCI

Monday was an amazing day at the Workers' Compensation Institute in Orlando. There are multiple reasons for this conclusion, but a few are worthy of more than a mention. We kicked off the Eighth Annual NAWCJ Judiciary College. We kicked off the third Annual SAWCA Regulator College. I met with lawyers, spoke to a meeting of adjusters, witnessed the announcement of scholarships awarded by Friends of 440 and Kids' Chance of Florida. It was a great day. But my focus this morning is the moot court and an amazing regulator event.  

For 29 years, the WCI has sponsored an amazing competition for law students. Annually, the E. Earle Zehmer Moot Court competition brings students from around the country to debate a hypothetical workers' compensation case. It is a profound opportunity for these students to get a glimpse into the world of workers' compensation. Early in its history, there were some out-of-state victories, but because the program started with the "Florida" Workers' Compensation Institute (FWCI), the victors in recent years have consistently been from Florida law schools. 

The WCI has evolved in the last decade. It has become increasingly national in scope. The program has become increasingly diverse and dense. As Program Chair Steve Rissman said in the opening session on Monday, "If you cannot find something that interests you in this program, you just are not looking." General Chair Jim McConnaughhay noted that this year there are over 7,500 registered attendees from virtually every state, over 550 speakers, and over 800 volunteers. This is simply a gathering of almost unfathomable complexity and breadth. 

As this evolution from FWCI to WCI has progressed, we have seen the volume of out-of-state moot court teams increase. The competition has become more compelling than ever. And that is a profound compliment to all of these students. I have judged in the preliminary round for years. I have witnessed an incredible parade of unbelievably skilled and intelligent people arguing some very imaginative and complex problems. It has been a distinct honor to briefly meet these people and experience their intellect, poise, composure, and determination (if you want to believe in our future as a people, work with young people). But that history has been a parade of Florida law schools. 

I have enjoyed seeing the judges of the preliminary round over the years. In my early involvement, those judges were the Florida Judges of Compensation Claims, with the final round judged by the Florida First District Court of Appeal. From its early days, this competition became known for the distinction of all rounds being judged by sitting judges. In this characteristic the competition at FWCI was unique and special. 

And in 2009, the WCI, Jim McConnaughhay, Steve Rissman, Gerry Rosenthal, and David Parrish had the imagination and the foresight to support the establishment of the National Association of Workers' Compensation Judiciary. A small group was gathered, and the implications of such a group were discussed. Imagine, judges programming educational opportunities for judges. Adjudicators of workers' compensation claims gathering for the purpose of improving their knowledge, ability and perspective. 

A few years after that initial NAWCJ Judiciary College, Jim McConnaughhay spotted a symbiotic opportunity. WCI invited NAWCJ to become a partner in sponsoring the Zehmer Moot Court Competition. The preliminary rounds would be judged by sitting adjudicators from across the country, not just from Florida. It would evolve into a national competition in parallel to the FWCI evolving into the national conference that it has become today. And Sunday this week we had 41 volunteers from Florida, Georgia, Rhode Island, Maryland, South Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Maine, Virginia, Louisiana, Arizona and more judge those preliminary rounds. 

And it was historic!

Because of the volume of participating schools, the program had evolved in recent years. the format of Sunday prelims to Monday finals had evolved to include a Monday morning semifinal. And this Monday at lunchtime I got a wink and heads-up. Both of the finalist teams this year were from outside of Florida  I was not told from where they came, just that we would inevitably have an out-of-state champion for the first time in many years. I found the time in my Monday to attend the final round. 

I was flattered and shocked when one of the participants quoted me in her argument. She confidently noted that "chief justice deputy Langham" had commented on a legal issue "in his blog." It is flattering to know that someone read the blog. The presiding judge quickly, politely, yet firmly told this advocate that you cannot really cite to a blog for authority. In a world where appellate courts cite to Wikipedia as if they do not realize it is written by anonymous contributors, I am not sure why. But then no one ever argued that I am the sharpest bulb in the drawer (or is it the brightest knife in the box?). I am sure there is some distinction there, between Wikipedia and a blog, that I fail to grasp with in my pedestrian ways. 

After the judges retired to deliberate, I went to shake the hands of the winners. I did not know who it would be, but two of these four amazing people would walk away with the prize, and I was compelled to congratulate them all. They were amazing. I am sometimes accused of overuse of adjectives in my prose, and so will spare you more. These were simply incredible people and they gave incredible performances. I thanked this particular young lady and told her I was flattered by her quoting me. 

At the conclusion, Presiding Judge Kelsey and associate judges Winokur and Thomas complimented the participants. They were impressed by their poise, their knowledge, their presence, their skill, and their conversational advocacy. I have to say that I predict stellar careers for all four of these advocates. They were inspiring. Judge Kelsey announced the case for the appellee (defending the trial judge's order). And then Jaqueline Steele stepped to the podium to announce that the winning team, the appellees, was from Mississippi College School of Law. 

For most in the audience, this was notable because it was not a Florida school. But 25 years ago, I walked across a stage in Jackson, Mississippi and received my Juris Doctor from Mississippi College School of Law. A little-known institution back when I attended, it has grown and evolved. And here stood the best, the 2016 Zehmer Moot Court champions. It was a proud moment; a proud moment for students and coaches; a proud moment for the NAWCJ, and a proud moment for WCI. 

I rushed from this competition to the Regulator Roundtable, sponsored and produced by the Southern Association of Workers' Compensation Administrators (SAWCA). An amazing assortment of 27 regulators sat around a circular table and prepared to discuss the hot topics of workers' compensation. At the beginning, Steve Rissman and Jim McConnaughhay were introduced. 

Jim complimented SAWCA and the regulators. Then he mentioned that Louisiana has suffered a great tragedy, and presented a $5,000.00 check from WCI to the LWC Employee Trust. Director Sheral Kellar then took the podium and explained that this workers' compensation agency has over 100 employees profoundly affected by the recent flooding. It was a touching moment, and it is heartwarming to see an organization like WCI support people in need. 

Melodie Belcher, Georgia ALJ and former SAWCA President, asked the participants to introduce themselves and mention something of interest about their states. There was much mention of football championships, luminaries and distinctions. But two-thirds of the way through the circle Senior Worker's Compensation Judge Deneise Lott of Mississippi introduced herself. She then proudly noted for the assemblage that Mississippi is "the home of the 2016 Moot Court champions," and there was a well-deserved round of applause. 

Then the Roundtable proceeded to discuss marijuana, medical marijuana, air ambulance billing disputes, attorney fee regulation and disputes, state processes and challenges, formularies, non-subscription and opt-out, and more. This Rountable is the embodiment of workers' compensation perspective and analysis. Only at the annual SAWCA Roundtable does this breadth of regulatory talent gather in a single location to discuss this amazing flow of issues and ideas. As an audience of 100 looks on from the bleachers (literally), this free-flowing conversation epitomizes the national character of the WCI. 

And thus a day ends. A day of information and introspection. A day of flattery and pride. A day of history and achievement. Congratulations NAWCJ, WCI, Mississippi College, and SAWCA! 

And Tuesday there will be more. Much, much more. Thanks to the 800 of you that make all this possible. See you in Orlando. 

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