Wednesday, August 10, 2011

CA Case Demonstrates Illogical Application of Procedure Over Substance

An interesting case that is being taken up by the California 2nd District Court of Appeals demonstrates the complexity that has grown into the workers' compensation system, and how procedural complexity is needlessly, and illogically, trumping substantive rights.

In Contreras v. WCAB (M&C Farm Labor), Contreras, the injured worker, had a stipulated award for a work injury. The case was venued at the Oxnard District Office. Three years later, he filed a petition to reopen the claim for new and further disability at the Los Angeles Workers' Compensation Appeals Board, without representation from an attorney.

The workers' compensation judge determined that Contreras did not file a timely petition to reopen, because although he did file it within the five-year statute of limitations set out by Labor Code Sections 5410 and 5804, he did not file it at the correct WCAB venue. A WCAB panel affirmed that ruling in a split 2-1 panel decision, with Commissioner Ronnie Caplane as the dissenter.

The majority reasoned that procedure trumped substantive rights, even though the injured worker was in pro per.

Caplane argued in her dissent that the injured worker, a fruit picker, had not litigated the case for three years and could not be expected to know or comply with procedural technicalities - that there are rules providing the flexibility of the administrative review process to ensure that a workers' substantive rights are not impaired by procedural flaws. 

Obviously the majority was not convinced.

I often hear complaints about too much attorney participation in workers' compensation - a system that originally was intended to be essentially self-service, with an adjudication process intentionally made administrative in nature to alleviate the procedural burden of the civil courts.

This case is a clear example that the adjudication process in workers' compensation litigation is clearly out of control.

Contreras should have his day in court, regardless of the applicable venue. His petition was otherwise timely. There is no issue with availability of evidence - the evidence is all on paper consisting of medical reports.

Why is it so difficult, if the case actually belonged in the Oxnard venue, for the WCAB to just transfer venue sua sponte? Why didn't the defense/carrier move to change venue if that was such a concern?

The fact that this case has gotten this far on a procedural issue is just plain wrong.

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