Sunday, April 15, 2018

2018 Forum Recap and Professionalism

The 2018 Workers Compensation Section Forum was held April 12 and 13, 2018. It was a diverse spectrum of speakers, covering a wide variety of topics. I am persistently impressed by not only the different perspectives, but the thoughtful interaction I have with various attendees at these programs.

I was honored to speak on the premier panel with Richard Chait, Robert Rodriguez, and the Honorable Margaret Kerr. It was a significant opportunity to discuss what is happening and changing in Worker's Compensation. There are harbingers of change in the air, and much discussion of what character or pattern reform might take. I see an interest in changes to the indemnity statute, and have been told that permanent partial disability, our impairment benefits, are a particular focus. However, at the Forum I heard desires for change regarding temporary indemnity benefits as well. 

Two years ago, there was discussion of bringing a qualified medical expert or QME to Florida. This has been part of California's statute for several years. California touts that this process results in quicker medical authorization decisions, rendered by medical experts rather than judges, and that it has saved over $1 billion. Critics complain such a process would severely restrict the due process opportunities in the present system. They reference the "confrontation" of witnesses who decide on their expertise. But, in our system, there is no confrontation of judges who are choosing between experts.

Thursday, there was an energetic and informative exchange regarding good faith and specificity in pleading. Mr. Rodriguez noted that petitions are filed seeking benefits, in hopes that evidence will be established to support those claims. He conceded that the attachment of medical records to petitions has changed this some. Mr. Chait replied that he believes too often carriers similarly deny claimed benefits without such specificity or proof in-hand. Mr. Chait related that he feels sometimes that he's walking the "yellow brick road" with defense counsel, who is "in search of a defense." Mr. Rodriguez retorted "we are not in Kansas anymore."

As happens with most panels, we concluded by running out of time rather than topics, wits, or retorts. The one reminder I would have delivered, had there been more time, is that judicial independence is your absolute right to have the judge disagree with your position or contention. Judicial independence is not the converse, a right to have the judge agree with you. If we believe in independence, it must be true even when the judge disagrees with us. 

There was expression of frustration by some regarding the lack of consistency throughout the state. I was asked, in the absence of local rules, why there is such inconsistency. My perspective is simple. There are rules and statutes, but each is up to the individual and independent interpretation of each judge. Each must decide what she/he believes a rule says, and must be true to that interpretation. I see the benefit of consistency, but admit some rules and statutes are capable of various interpretations. But there is a value in sticking to the rules and statutes, particularly when they are clear. If the clear rules are followed, there will be far more consistency, and that benefits the Bar, the employees, and the employers. 

My visit to the Forum was capped by the lunchtime presentation of the 2018 Frierson/Colling Professionalism Award. The workers compensation section has she driven to recognize professionalism that is worthy of both praise and imitation. According to lore, a professionalism award, named in honor of Bud Adams, was historically presented by the Workers' Compensation Institute. When the Institute ceased presenting, the Section decided to begin presenting a professionalism award. In 2008 it presented its first, to the award's original namesake Albert Frierson. In 2009, the name was changed to also include its second recipient. The recipients have been:

2008 Albert Frierson (Ft. Myers, FL)
2009 Stewart Colling (Orlando, FL)
2010 Richard Sicking (Miami, FL)
2011 Jacob Schickel (Jacksonville, FL)
2012 Herbert Langston (Orlando, FL)
2013 Ramon Malca (Miami, FL)
2014 Richard Thompson (Sarasota, FL)
2015 Richard Chait (Miami, FL)
2016 Thomas Conroy (Hollywood, FL/Las Vegas)
2017 Dawn Traverso (Miami, FL)
2018 Hon. Neal Pitts (Orlando, FL)

For the first time in the history of the Frierson/Colling award, it was presented last week to a sitting judge. Accepting the plaque, the Honorable Neal Pitts delivered some brief comments. His thoughts included thanks to the Section, an endorsement of the Inns of Court movement, and a reminder that tone and temperament matter to opponents and to others around us. Coincidentally, the Orlando workers' compensation inn, the Weiland Inn of Court, presented its inaugural David Hammond Professionalism Award to Judge Pitts in 2017. 

I was particularly proud of the Section's selection. Judge Pitts is a fine exemplar of professionalism, and the Bar recognition of this is heartwarming. It is worthy also to note some history here. 

There was a time when friction was the norm in workers' compensation Bench and Bar relations. Over the last dozen years, a great deal of effort has been invested in overcoming those perceptions. Invested, coincidentally, by many of those on the list above. I could recite how each has contributed, but that would take pages. Those efforts have been big and small, singular and ongoing, but all have improved professionalism and the Bench/Bar relationship. The point is, that each has been a part of the continuous improvement. 

The section and OJCC have worked together to deploy the annual judicial survey (ongoing today, you should have gotten  a link). There was a joint educational program for judges and section leadership. The OJCC second Fridays educational seminar has included multiple instances of "the view from the other side," bringing feedback to the Bench provided by various exceptional members of the Bar. There have been conversations, criticisms, and congratulations. There remains room for improvement (always), but the progress has been palpable. The interactions have been increasingly professional and consistently focused on the good of the practice. 

In short, I feel encouraged that this significant effort by so many has brought such fruit. That the Workers' Compensation Section would bestow its pinnacle professionalism award on a sitting Judge of Compensation Claims, to me illustrates and exemplifies the spirit of mutual respect and cooperation that exists today, because of the efforts of so many. I am grateful for the spirit, determination, and efforts of each, whether an award recipient or not. As I compiled the list above, so many other names came to mind. 

I note as an aside, that in ten years of presenting this award, but a single woman attorney has been recognized. That is a bit curious to me. There are a great many professional and accomplished women attorneys in this practice. A fair few of the names that came to my mind were women.  

In conclusion, I am so proud of Judge Pitts and this recognition of his effort, demeanor, and leadership. And, I am just as proud of the Workers Compensation Section for its recognition of an adjudicator like Judge Pitts in that number.

If I were asked to comment on the state of relations between the Florida workers' compensation Bench and Bar, I would candidly, and gratefully, say they are great! Not because that is easy, but because so many have worked so hard to make it so. 

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