Within the next few months, California’s Division of Workers’ Compensation (DWC) will substantially change the adjudication of California workers’ compensation claims via the implementation of the Electronic Adjudication Management System (EAMS). While EAMS is primarily the DWC’s new case management system, it will change the handling of workers compensation claims in several ways. This post concerns one of them; the electronic imposition of State-wide uniform procedures.
Equal Justice under Law is one of the primary objectives of American jurisprudence. We believe that similarly situated parties ought to be treated in substantially similar ways, particularly with respect to purely procedural requirements of general application. While some degree of uncertainty is an irreducible part of litigation, uniform procedural requirements reduce this uncertainty and create a sense of stability and predictability in the probable application of the rules of law. This sense of stability and predictability facilitates the setting of appropriate reserves, the voluntary furnishing of benefits, and meaningful settlement negotiations. Of course, absolute uniformity is impractical and, in many situations, undesirable. Within general procedural requirements, sound discretion exercised by magistrates enjoying judicial independence is needed to tailor the application of rules of law to particular factual situations and, we hope, render substantial justice.
In California workers’ compensation, the requirement of uniform proceedings is found at Labor Code Section 5500.3. Previously, the statute called upon the WCAB to establish uniform procedures, forms, and times of settings with local offices prohibited from requiring non-standard forms or procedures. (Voluntary use of non-standard procedures and forms appears to be permissible). However, not withstanding the statutory requirement of uniformity, procedural requirements and forms vary between, and even within the District Offices.
This variation actually has a surprisingly honorable history. Prior to the stabilization of resources for the California workers compensation system via “user-funding” (the levying and collection of special assessments on insurance carriers and self-insured employers) the California workers’ compensation system was chronically under-staffed and under-funded. The personnel and resources needed to operate a stable and uniform system were simply not available. Workers’ Compensation Administrative Law Judges (WCALJ’s) and their supporting professionals were instructed to do the best that they could with the resources that they had. And they did. Often operating at the ragged edge of systemic collapse, heroines and heroes of public service supplied the devotion and creativity necessary to hold the California workers’ compensation adjudicative process together until a sound financial system and appropriate staffing could be established. But the price of this honorable achievement was an individualization of procedures. The best that could be done with available resources by one group of people in one place was different from the best that could be done by a different group of people elsewhere. The consequences of individualized procedures vary. But inconsistency carries an inherent potential for injustice insofar as participants who “know the rules” can gain undeserved advantages over those who do not.
Section 5500.3 was amended in 2002. The present statute requires the Court Administrator to establish uniform procedures and authorizes him to enforce the requirement. EAMS will enable the DWC to ensure that there is compliance with the amendments to Section 5500.3 because EAMS will specify many procedural options within its programming. Likewise, the programmed range of options will define and limit the available forms and the available setting times. In a sense, the internal operating requirements of EAMS will make the statutory requirement of uniform proceedings somewhat self-enforcing. Ideally, this will have the effect of focusing attention and litigation resources away from procedural eccentricities and toward the substantive merits of disputes. If so, EAMS has the potential to not only make the adjudication of California workers’ compensation claims more efficient, but also more just.
This blog has been approved by the California Division of Workers' Compensation.
Will one result of EAMS be the eventual downsizing of DWC staff? It seems that with uniform procedures and electronic data, less people will be needed overall.
Probably not, at least not in the short to medium term. Even if EAMS succeeds beyond the DWC's fondest dreams of cyber-efficiency, there will still be a need for a full staff of talented professionals at the District Offices. This is not to say that there will not be important changes in work duties. A surprisingly large percentage of the DWC's time and resources are now devoted to the operation of a paper-based system. The person-hours currently devoted to the opening files, finding misplaced files, receiving and sorting documents in a useful order in the correct file, physically moving paper files to the appropriate work station, and (eventually) processing and storing resolved and inactive files can be better used in other ways. 1CBetter used 1D does not mean 1Cdiscarded 1D. Critical to the potential success of EAMS is the fundamental assumption that the very same public servants now engaged in operating the paper-based system have the talent, intelligence, and flexibility to prosper under significantly changed working conditions.
Does the DWC plan to outsource any of this work offshore?
To the best of my knowledge, no. In fact, as indicated above, the present effort is to utilize DWC's internal resources as much as possible.