Following the Covid-19 outbreak that has closed businesses throughout California, the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board ("Board") has had to change the way business is conducted for thousands of injured employees. The Board which is operated by the Department of Industrial Relations has set up new guidelines for how to file pleadings and how to conduct hearings. It is critical in this time to have a working system in place.
The traditional approach to business at the Board has been to request a hearing before a workers' compensation administrative law judge. Before meeting the judge, the two parties must meet and confer, in person to discuss the issues. The two parties must work to settle all disputes and if they cannot settle all disputes, then they go talk to a judge and discuss the issue with him or her. The judge may provide legal guidance to help bring the parties together. If the parties cannot be brought together, the judge determines if the matter should be set for a trial and then the issues for that trial are narrowed and written on a Pre-Trial Statement. The parties come back a few weeks later, in person and present evidence to the judge.
Due to concerns over the spread of Covid-19, all non-essential services have been ordered closed. The workers' compensation system is an essential function of the state. Workers' Compensation benefits are guaranteed by the California Constitution. Therefore, the Board has had to stay open, but it has dramatically changed the way business is conducted. These changes can have a major impact on cases if they are not followed. First, almost all in-person hearings have either been continued (moved to a later date) or turned into telephone hearings. In the last few years, a company called Court Call has made it possible for out of town lawyers to appear by phone for some hearings. This Court Call system is now being used for almost all hearings. When a case is set for a hearing in court, the judge may appear by Zoom or Skype, sitting in their home, but appearing through a video monitor sitting where the judge would normally be sitting in person.
The Board is also encouraging practictioners to use email instead of using regular mail. The legal system has relied heavily on snail mail and often documents are legally required to be mailed and not sent by electronic means. The Board has relaxed those rules and is now encouraging use of electronic transmission of documents. This is one change that will hopefully survive this crisis. For now, the Board continues to work with lawyers and injured employees to help keep cases moving and make it easier for those within the system to use it electronically. We will keep you posted on new developments as we learn about them.