RAND Researchers Recommend Reform Of California's Workers' Compensation Courts; Many Recommendations Being Adopted

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Wednesday
April 2, 2003


The system that resolves workers' compensation disputes in California is failing to provide the swift justice required by law and needs to be reformed, according to a study by RAND's Institute for Civil Justice.

The report found that the state's workers' compensation courts suffer from a shortage of funding and staffing, along with outmoded procedural rules and an outdated computer system. As a result, these courts fail to resolve most cases in the amount of time specified by California law.

The RAND report identified key areas needing reform in the judicial services jointly offered by the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board and the Division of Workers' Compensation. The report recommended actions both entities should take to improve and streamline operations.

Worker's compensation claims involve job-related accidents and illnesses.

The study was funded by the California Commission on Health and Safety and Workers' Compensation.

California officials already are implementing many of the recommendations, based upon earlier versions of the report previously shared with decision makers. Significant changes are currently being considered in procedural and operational rules of the trial-level courts. Also, Gov. Gray Davis' budget plan calls for an $8 million increase to correct some of the problem areas identified by the report.

"We believe that this will be money well spent, though there is clearly much that still needs to be done," said Nicholas Pace, a senior RAND analyst and lead author of the report. "Injured workers and their employers deserve nothing less than a modern and efficient system for delivering sure and swift compensation."

The California Workers' Compensation Appeals Board was designed to deliver a distinctive type of justice, according to researchers. With about 180 trial judges in 25 offices across the state, this system is a fully functioning trial court with the sole responsibility for resolving disputes involving workers' compensation claims. The Division of Workers' Compensation, a unit of the state's Department of Industrial Relations, provides critical support and supervision to the local trial courts of the Appeals Board.

While most of the 1 million workers' compensation claims filed annually are settled without problems, about 200,000 end up before the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board. The trial-level courts are supposed to resolve disputes quickly, fairly, and with the lowest transactional costs possible. The Appeals Board is mandated to hold an initial conference within 30 days of receiving a request for a trial, and the final hearing itself is to be held within 75 days of that same request.

In reality, it often takes 30 days just to process the request and schedule the initial conference for a future date, extending the time it takes to see a judge and to eventually resolve the dispute, according to the RAND report. Much of that delay is due to a chronic lack of clerks to handle the necessary paperwork. Under funding for clerical personnel and a high turnover rate for these vital staff members has slowed the delivery of judicial services for workers' compensation disputes throughout the state, the report found.

Also hampering speedy resolution of these cases is an outdated computer system that is not able to manage the caseload efficiently, researchers said. In addition, a lack of coordination among the various entities that administer trial-court operations has allowed outdated rules and procedures to remain on the books, and those rules often are applied inconsistently or ignored because of their lack of relevance with current realities.

The RAND report recommended that judges, who often lack the organizational and time-management skills necessary for issuing speedy decisions following trial, should receive more formal training in the specifics of case management and other important judicial chores. Moreover, presiding judges at each local office should spend more time monitoring the judges in their courts and focus more effort on cutting delays, the report recommended.

In addition to a large number of recommendations on specific system policies and procedures, the RAND team made three main recommendations to address chronic problems facing California's workers' compensation courts:

    Rather than simply adding new positions only on paper, the state needs to provide adequate and realistic funding to fill every position authorized in 2001 (as long as demand remains at 2001 levels). The state has traditionally provided just 79 percent of the funds needed to fill all authorized positions, thus resulting in a number of vacant desks at many of the local offices. In addition to filling positions, salaries need to be high enough to attract and retain qualified people, especially clerks.

    The court's technological infrastructure must be overhauled at the same time that staffing levels are filled. The current computer system is outdated and inefficiently handles the considerable needs of the court. A modern system will provide streamlined case management and calendaring capabilities to better focus scarce judicial resources.

    A comprehensive review, refinement and coordination of all procedural rules is necessary to bring courts across the state into alignment. In order to minimize variation in the interpretation of rules, procedures and other directives, a committee of judges, Appeals Board commissioners, Division of Workers' Compensation administrators, and other members of the workers' compensation community including lawyers and litigants should be formed to update and make procedural rules consistent. Currently there is a lack of uniformity from court to court regarding pre-trial processes.

A summary of these recommendations is available in the executive summary of "Improving Dispute Resolution for California's Injured Workers." The complete details of these as well as other specific recommendations are contained in the full report. Both reports are available at www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1425z1/. A hard copy of the executive summary, accompanied by a CD containing an electronic version of the full report is available from RAND's customer service department (order@rand.org or toll free at 877-584-8642).

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