California: Does the WCAB’s Application of Equitable Principles Preclude a Predictable Outcome?

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Almost 100 years ago, our Legislature was directed to “create and enforce a liability on the part of all employers to compensate their employees for any injury incurred by the said employees in the course of their employment irrespective of the fault of either party.” (Cal. Const., former art. XX, § 21, added Oct. 10, 1911.) This language was modified by an amendment adopted on November 5, 1918, which is in the current state Constitution, as renumbered, without substantive change. (Cal. Const., art. XIV, § 4.)

The Legislature complied with this directive by the enactment of the Labor Code. This statutory scheme “rest[s] on the underlying notion that the common-law remedy [for industrial injuries to workers], with the requirements of proof incident to that remedy, involves intolerable delay and great economic waste, gives inadequate relief for loss and suffering, operates unequally as between different individuals in like circumstances, and that, whether viewed from the standpoint of the employer or that of the employee, it is inequitable and unsuited to the conditions of modern industry.” (Western Indemnity Co. v. Pillsbury (1915) 170 Cal. 686, 693 [151 P. 398]).

It is for this reason that Workers’ Compensation is often described as a “statutory scheme”. It is also for this reason that the WCAB is described as a tribunal of limited jurisdiction and is supposed to have no power beyond that given it by the California Constitution as implemented by the workers' compensation laws. (State Comp. Ins. Fund v. Ind. Acc. Com., 20 Cal.2d 264, 266 [125 P.2d 42]; Gerson v. Industrial Acc. Com., 188 Cal.App.2d 735, 738 [11 Cal.Rptr. 1]).

It is with this backdrop that numerous recent decisions of the WCAB must be carefully examined. It seems recently that the commissioners may be increasingly relying on equitable principles in resolving disputes as opposed to the statutes upon which the system is supposed to rest.

For example, in Godbolt v. Wherehouse Entertainment and Ace Insurance Company 2012 Cal. Wrk. Comp. P.D. LEXIS 69, a panel of commissioners addressed a case where the applicant had suffered a 1988 injury. This injury was settled via Compromise and Release in 1994. The C&R reserved jurisdiction over liens. The lien claimant in question contacted the defendant in 1996, 2000, 2006, and 2007. In 2009, lien claimant sent the defendant a notice of representation. Defendant asserted the defense of laches asserting that it had been prejudiced by the passage of time.

In analyzing the question before it, the panel noted first noted that the equitable doctrine of laches may apply in workers’ compensation proceedings (Kaiser Foundation Hospitals v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (Martin) (1985) 50 Cal. Comp. Cases 411). The panel then proceeded to discuss the essential elements of the doctrine of laches. After examining the relevant elements, the panel concluded by noting:

In the present case, the WCJ improperly presumed the defendant was prejudiced. Defendant purged its file without adequately examining the file to ensure that all liens were resolved. However, defendant has not made a showing that any of the evidence in that file cannot be obtained from another source or reconstructed. We find defendant has not met its burden of showing prejudice, and, therefore, the doctrine of laches does not apply.

The point of this article is not to suggest that the panel’s analysis was either correct or incorrect. Rather, the point is that the workers’ compensation practitioner, at least those that are fully prepared, will examine the issues in a given case from both a legal perspective, meaning from a perspective of what the Labor Code or regulations specifically provide, and also from an equitable perspective, meaning from a perspective of how equitable principles may impact the given issue.

Indeed, though the WCAB may be said to be a creature of the Legislature and that the WCAB only has those powers specifically conferred upon it, it is a mistake to limit the analysis to what the statute does or does not say. A perfect example of this is a failure to object to a medical report pursuant to Labor Code sections 4062 and 4062.2. Recent panel decisions have indicated that where the party waits until the report is received, any objections that that party may have had to the report have been waived. Again, though there is not a single mention of the doctrines of “invited error” or “waiver” anywhere in the applicable Labor Code sections, these doctrines appear central to the commissioners’ analysis in these cases.

In conclusion, a workers’ compensation practitioner is well advised to be familiar with principles of equity if that practitioner is going to be prepared to anticipate the possible outcomes while litigating an issue before the WCAB.

© Copyright 2012 LexisNexis. All rights reserved. This article will appear in a forthcoming issue of the California WCAB Noteworthy Panel Decisions Reporter (LexisNexis).

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