LexisNexis Interview: Associate Chief Judge Ellen Flynn, California Division of Workers’ Compensation

 LexisNexis recently interviewed newly appointed southern region Associate Chief Judge Ellen Flynn on a warm summer day at her Anaheim Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board office. Judge Flynn had served as Presiding Judge there for 20 years, in addition to her work as a trial judge for another seven, giving her well over two decades of experience in the California workers’ compensation judicial system. She was interviewed by long-time LexisNexis editorial board member, retired Judge Kenneth Peterson, who held the northern California version of Judge Flynn’s new position for several years.

The Anaheim office is relatively luxurious, occupying the space of a former mortgage-banking firm that abruptly vacated the premises during the height of the real estate market collapse. The State happily accepted left behind office furnishings and other amenities, which are definitely a cut above standard issue. The office is ideally situated near a freeway exit, has a generous free parking lot, and is within an easy walk of a light rail station. Unsurprisingly, Judge Flynn has decided to stay put and supervise the newly constituted 11 office (as opposed to the former 14) Southern Region from centrally located Anaheim, rather than moving to the Van Nuys office, headquarters of her predecessor, Judge Mark Kahn. As the interview began, it was immediately apparent that Judge Flynn is very much at home in her new role and sees it as both an opportunity and a challenge:

Q: Why did you decide to apply for the Associate Chief Judge position?

A: I believe that I am well qualified for the position based upon my experience as a presiding judge for over 20 years in Anaheim. During that time the workers’ compensation community as a whole saw significant changes in the law. Of course, as the law changed, so did the ways in which the cases were processed, from beginning to end. In August 2008, EAMS [the Electronic Adjudication Management System] began. I got a lot of feedback from the legal community that the EAMS access established in the Anaheim office was user friendly and efficient. I thought that my many years of experience would be a benefit in this new position, and personally I was ready for a new challenge. I knew that managing 11 offices instead of just one would be a big challenge, and I thought it was the perfect point in my career to take it on.

Q: When did you first begin the job?

A: June 18th.

Q: What were your first priorities?

A: I had to appoint an Acting Presiding Judge in Anaheim to take my place, and I did appoint Jamie Spitzer to that position. As of August 1, she has now been appointed permanently to the position.

Then, as most everyone has heard, one of the biggest priorities has been dealing with the backlog of liens, and getting the liens scanned into EAMS. We also had a lot of DORS [Declarations of Readiness to Proceed], especially lien DORS, to deal with. Also, the new lien regulations are now in effect, and learning how to implement them was important.

Q: Have you been able to see any impact yet from the new regulations?

A: We have seen an increase in lien DOR filings after August 1, but it has not been the flood that we thought might occur. In any case, we are prepared to deal with them. We will be having a “Lien Intensive” in all the southern offices during the first and third weeks of October, when all of the judges will be focusing on liens and conducting lien conference. Then, starting in November, we will have a lien intensive day each week, when all judges in a given office will handle lien issues, either conferences or trials. We will still have provision for walk-through settlements and other urgent business.

Q: Returning to the backlogs…

A: We were able to divvy up the scanning backlogs for liens among all the offices, and have dramatically reduced them. Some offices had very little backlog, and others were immense. There is still a little backlog in a few offices, but it has been greatly reduced.

Q: I recall reading that lien backlog reduction was a top priority for the AD [former Administrative Director Rosa Moran].

A: Yes, it was, and the Lien Scanning Unit in Oakland was a big help in that regard. But, a big “shout out” has to go to all the offices statewide, because they all pitched in, and it was definitely a concerted statewide group effort, to reduce the lien backlog.

We have also been able to hire a lot of new judges and support staff in the southern offices, and now that they have been trained, increased staffing has made a big difference in staying current.

Q: Have you been able to visit all of your offices since you were appointed?

A: I have visited every office in my region at least once.

Q: How about longer-range goals?

A: I would like to make the calendars more manageable, with smaller calendars so judges can assist parties in reaching settlements more effectively on their conference calendars and so that they are able to try the cases that need to be heard on their trial calendars. I also want to improve consistency in calendaring practices among the southern offices.

Security is a very important issue to me and I would like to see improvements there. Some offices have a Highway Patrol officer present every day, and it would be nice to have that level of security in all of the southern offices. Some offices have key card or combination lock entries into the private areas, while others don’t. I would like all of the offices to have a secure means to control public access to the office staff, to ensure greater safety.

I would also like to participate in making EAMS easier to use for all of us in the workers’ compensation system. I would like to work on the forms to make them easier to use. We need more uniformity with respect to forms and procedures among the offices as well. Some areas I would like to look at for uniformity are setting expedited hearings and walk-through procedures.

Q: Many people might find following Mark Kahn a bit daunting, given his stature in the workers’ compensation community, and his more than 20 years of service in the position. Has that been an issue for you at all?

A: It hasn’t really been an issue for me. He has been a great boss, a great mentor, and a teacher. I definitely have big shoes to fill, and I feel that one of my challenges is to do as good a job and to be as effective as he has been. I hope to merit the admiration and respect he has been given and rightly deserved.

Q: In the past Judge Kahn sometimes had a reputation for devising creative and practical solutions to large-scale problems that may have somewhat loosely adhered to exact procedural rules. Do you have any thoughts about that going forward?

A: If you are referring to his consolidation hearings, two judges in Van Nuys will be handling those, Judges Kosta and Cole and Judge Kahn has trained them on how to handle the consolidations.

Q: How about case law updates for judge training? That was one of his specialties, and I recall looking forward to his “head scratcher” case of the year, the one that made the least sense in his opinion.

A: Fortunately, Judge Kahn has offered to continue to do the case law update, for our next training and Judge Paige Levy will also be involved with the case law update.

Q: Who is on your support team in your new position?

A: I am happy to have on my support team Teri Finchum, who is a senior legal supervisor [LSSII] in Van Nuys, and who worked with Judge Kahn for many years, and also Rebecca Soliman, who is a legal supervisor [LSSI] in Anaheim, and who has worked with me for many years

Q: Do you have any plans concerning a calendar for yourself?

A: I will continue to have a weekly conference calendar in Anaheim. I think it is important to stay in touch with the current legal issues that trial judges are seeing, and to allow the legal community to have direct and easy access to me.

Q: What do you like to do when you are not working?

A: I like to walk, and even do that at work during my lunch hour. I enjoy bicycling, and snow skiing. I like hanging out at the beach. I love to travel and wish I could do more of that. I will be going to Lake Tahoe for Thanksgiving, and hope to visit Spain next summer. I enjoy reading and belong to a book club. Finally, I really enjoy spending time with my family and my three great kids.

Q: Thanks for the interview.

A: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about my new position. I look forward to working with my DWC colleagues and the workers’ compensation community to make the Southern region efficiently meet the needs of the injured workers and employers who depend on us.

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