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Workers' Compensation

California: Irregularities in Pleadings Before the WCAB: Are Defective Pleadings Always Fatal?

The Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board’s (WCAB) Rules of Practice and Procedure (see Cal. Code Reg., tit. 8, § 10300 et seq.) specify the process and manner for filing a claim asserting a work-related injury. WCAB rule 10450 states that the jurisdiction of the WCAB may be invoked by the filing of an Application for Adjudication of Claim (application), and rule 10455 requires the filing of an application for each separate injury for which benefits are claimed. What happens when a party’s pleading fails to comply with the WCAB’s rules? Are defective pleadings fatal? Not necessarily says the panel in Jamerson (Dec’d) v. Commerce Metals Company, 2022 Cal. Wrk. Comp. P.D. LEXIS -- (March 9, 2022, ADJ11011618, ADJ1011740, ADJ8129185). The panel’s thoughtful, scholarly opinion succinctly sets out a four-part framework to provide guidance in answering that pivotal question.

The Facts

The facts in Jamerson are straightforward. Patrick Jamerson (decedent) filed three applications claiming industrial injuries. In ADJ8129185, decedent claimed a cumulative injury during the period December 1, 1986 to December 1, 2011. The claim resolved by a Stipulated Award on September 8, 2014, and decedent did not seek to reopen the claim for new and further disability. Next, decedent filed two other applications: ADJ11011618, alleging a specific injury on May 4, 2016 to the neck and shoulder; and ADJ1011740, alleging a cumulative injury between May 31, 1983 to June 10, 2016 to the neck, back, lower extremities and other body parts.

Decedent died by suicide on September 25, 2018. On September 6, 2019, decedent’s spouse and children (applicant) filed an application for death benefits. The application lists the case numbers of each of decedent’s three inter vivos claims but only specifies one date of injury—December 1, 1986-December 1, 2011, the cumulative trauma claim previously resolved by a Stipulated Award (ADJ8129185). On April 17, 2020, applicant amended the application to include the dates of injury associated with the May 4, 2016 specific injury claim (ADJ11011618) and the cumulative trauma claim from May 31, 1983 to June 10, 2016 (ADJ10117140).

Defendant raised the statute of limitations (Lab. Code §§ 5406(b) and 5410) as a bar to applicant’s death claim. Additionally, defendant argued that applicant’s initial application for death benefits was procedurally defective and in violation of the WCAB’s rules because it listed each of decedent’s three inter vivos claim numbers, but only alleged a single date of injury. Defendant further asserted that applicant’s failure to file a petition to reopen in the previously resolved CT claim (ADJ8129185) was fatal as to all three claims of injury.

Following trial, a WCJ issued a joint Findings of Fact (FOF). The FOF found that applicant’s claim for death benefits in ADJ8129185 (CT claim from 12/1/86-12/1/11) is barred by Labor Code section 5406(b), but that defendant failed to meet its burden of proof that death benefits were similarly barred in ADJ11011618 and ADJ10117140. Finally, the WCJ found that Labor Code section 5410 did not bar applicant’s claim for death benefits.

Defendant sought reconsideration, contending that the death claim in ADJ8129185 (CT from 12/1/86 to 12/1/11) is barred by Labor Code section 5406(b) because it was filed more than 240 weeks from the date of injury. Next, defendant argued that ADJ1101618 and ADJ10117140 are also barred by Labor Code section 5406(b) because applicant did not file separate applications for death benefits in each case, as required by WCAB rule 10455. Finally, defendant argued that the WCAB lacks jurisdiction to consider any of the three claims because applicant did not file a petition to reopen ADJ8129185.

The unanimous panel affirmed each of the WCJ’s findings.

The Opinion

The opinion first addresses defective pleadings and defendant’s claim that pleadings that fail to comply with the WCAB’s rules are fatally flawed and cannot be construed as valid filings. Over several pages, the opinion chronicles the 150-year history of “liberal pleading” embodied in California statutes and followed through the years by case precedent. It begins the discussion with Code of Civil Procedure section 452, enacted in 1872, which provides that the allegations in a pleading must be liberally construed with a view toward substantial justice as between the parties. Next, it reviews Code of Civil Procedure section 473, also enacted in 1872, which allows a court “upon any terms that may be just, (to) relieve a party or his or her legal representative from a judgment, dismissal, order, or other proceeding taken against him or her through his or her mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect.” The opinion then turns to Code of Civil Procedure section 576, enacted in 1963, which gives authority to any judge, at any time before or after commencement of trial, in the furtherance of justice and upon such terms as may be proper, to allow amendment of any pleading or pretrial conference order. These statutory pronouncements, the opinion states, emphasize the public policy preference favoring adjudication on the merits rather than on procedural deficiencies. This important policy, however, does not override the due process rights of opposing parties. The opinion then acknowledges that when a court is asked to exercise its discretion, the critical consideration is whether or not to do so will prejudice the opposing party. (See, Dunzweiler v. Superior Court of Alameda County (1968) 267 Cal. App. 2d 569 [73 Cal. Rptr. 331].)

The opinion declares these policies and considerations to be especially true in workers’ compensation proceedings, which are guided by the Constitutional mandate to “accomplish substantial justice in all cases expeditiously, inexpensively, and without incumbrance of any character.” (Cal. Const., art. XIV § 4.) It then pronounces the following principles as well-settled law and a guide to follow in workers’ compensation proceedings when there is a dispute as to the adequacy of pleadings:

  1. Pleadings may be informal.
  2. Claims should be adjudicated based on substance rather than form.
  3. Pleadings should be liberally construed so as not to defeat or undermine an injured employee’s right to make a claim.
  4. Technically deficient pleadings, if they give notice and are timely normally do not deprive the WCAB of jurisdiction.

The opinion then explains that these principles are embodied in WCAB rules as well as Labor Code section 5506. WCAB rule 10617 states that an application, petition or other document that is subject to reconsideration, a petition to reopen or any other petition or document that is subject to a statute of limitations or a jurisdictional time limitation shall not be rejected for filing solely on the basis that the document has been submitted without the proper form, or it has been submitted with a form that is either incomplete or contains inaccurate information. Thus, the rule gives the WCAB great latitude to accept a deficient pleading so long as it contains sufficient information to establish a case and/or to open a new case file. Next, rule 10517 provides that pleadings are deemed amended to conform to the stipulations agreed to by the parties on the record or may be amended by the WCAB to conform to proof. As the opinion observes, these rules serve the interests of the WCAB and the litigants and are intended to facilitate proceedings. They do not deprive the WCAB of authority to dispense with technical compliance when justice requires it, the violation is formal and there is no substantial prejudice to the opposing party (citing Beaida v. Workmen’s Comp. Appeals Bd. (1968) 263 Cal. App. 2d 204, 210 [35 Cal. Comp. Cases 245]). And, the opinion observes, if a party is disadvantaged by deficiencies in a pleading, the remedy is to allow a reasonable continuance to permit the party to prepare its case or defense (citing Blanchard v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (1975) 53 Cal. App. 3d 590, 595 [40 Cal. Comp. Cases 784]). Labor Code section 5506 empowers the WCAB to relieve a party from dismissal or default due to mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect.

In its applications of these principles to the underlying facts, the opinion observes that there is no indication of prejudice to defendant by inclusion of all three of decedent’s inter vivos claims on the application for death benefits. Two of the inter vivos claims remained pending and defendant had filed answers to each. The third claim had been previously resolved by a Stipulated Award with open medical treatment. Thus, defendant was put on notice that applicant was asserting a cause of action for death benefits in each of the three cases. Under these circumstances, the unanimous panel concludes that the interests of justice are better served by adjudication on the merits of each of the three cases rather than “dismissal by administrative fiat for technical noncompliance in pleadings.”

Though technically deficient under WCAB rule 10455, applicant’s September 6, 2019 application for death benefits was validly filed in each of decedent’s three cases. A petition to reopen ADJ8129185 was not a prerequisite to the filing of an application for death benefits in the three cases. As to the two unresolved CT claims (ADJ1101618 and ADJ10117140), the application was timely filed within one year of the date of death and 240 weeks of the date of injury. However, even though decedent’s previously resolved CT claim was filed within one year of the date of death, it was not filed within 240 weeks of the date of injury and, therefore, is barred by the statute of limitations set forth in Labor Code section 5406(b).

Takeaway

Admittedly the Jamerson panel opinion does not have the stature of an en banc or significant panel decision, but that is no reason to minimize its value. It provides a succinct, clear, well-reasoned four-part framework that will surely facilitate the evaluation and resolution of challenges to the adequacy of pleadings.

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