Consolidation, mediation and remuneration
- Judge David Langham
The rumor mill is an active and intriguing place. A few rumors come back to me periodically. This article discusses some that seem relevant and popular recently.
A lot is changing in the world of workers’ compensation disputes in Florida. Through a combination of legislative actions and regulatory efforts, there is much to report now and the potential exists for additional changes in the future. There is some truth to rumors that some district offices will soon be consolidated. There is some truth to the rumors of a major salary increase for judges. There is some truth in the rumors of a change in the mediation process. Read on for more details.
When the OJCC was transferred to the Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) in 2001, there was great angst about how this marriage might work. In retrospect, this union was very effective and many economies of scale benefited this community, lawyers, injured workers, employers, etc. One concern was centralization. Since DOAH’s ALJs were all based in Tallahassee, there were premonitions and anxiety about the possibility of an effort to centralize JCCs in the same way. Twenty years later, that has not happened.
In this 2001 legislative session, language was added to section 440.44 to prevent such centralization. In 2022, this language was removed by SB (Senate Bill) 2516:
“The Office of 22 Claims Judges will maintain the 23 17 District Offices, 31 Claims Judges and 31 24 Mediators as they exist as of June 30, 2001.”
This bill was ordered absorbed and entered on March 14, 2022 and will be presented to the governor in the coming days. There is no plan, or even sentiment, to centralize all OJCC judges or operations in Tallahassee.
However, DOAH has launched a plan to consolidate several district offices. Currently, plans are underway to consolidate four district offices: Gainesville, Lakeland, Melbourne and Port St. Lucie. Details regarding the alignment of counties in these districts are displayed on the announcement blog. Judge Stanton will continue to preside over the claims, but will be seated in Jacksonville. Judge Arthur will continue to preside, but will be seated in Tampa.
Mediation will change, and this change can be more widespread. The OJCC will move to a single schedule for mediations. This means that each mediator will be on the same schedule for mediations. This will allow for faster coverage by other mediators as needed. They will be allowed to work remotely, but will conduct mediations using Zoom rather than over the phone. This is a critical point: “allowed”. It is likely that many live mediations will remain the norm, but a portion of various mediators’ schedules will shift to this remote paradigm at their individual discretion.
This Zoom paradigm will provide the parties to every case the ability to see and be seen. Of course, the mediator can allow the parties to phone into the Zoom conference, but the mediator will strictly use the video system. Along with the consolidation effort, mediators Martinez (LKL), Schmidt (GNS), Hauber (MEL), and Hayes (PSL) will remain valued and valued members of the OJCC team and will continue to serve as mediators, but using the Zoom platform.
Parties to any case may prefer live mediation. If mediation is found for Zoom, any party may request that it be replaced with an in-person meeting. Additionally, any party may request that live mediation be replaced by Zoom. These decisions will be up to each mediator. Live mediations will continue in the various remaining district offices. In this process of consolidation, the OJCC is currently looking to add two mediators to the team. These will be based at southeast florida and central florida. These links refer to the People First system which provides more information and facilitates the application process. Applicants should be aware of the Zoom paradigm and be ready and willing to learn how to adapt and embrace this process.
Finally, it is hoped that the JCCs will receive a significant salary increase in 2022. This was announced in the Florida Bar News on March 18, 2022: Judges of the Administrative Hearings Division benefit from a salary increase. The Law Society notes that these judges are the “unsung heroes”, thinking it also incorrectly identifies them as part of the “justice system”. Our judges are indeed a large group of professionals. Throughout this recent pandemic, it has been their efforts as leaders that have ensured the uninterrupted and persistent delivery of services.
The mediators and staff also deserve great appreciation and respect for their perseverance and dedication through this. What could have been a crisis (and in many states was actually a crisis of canceled procedures and stalled processes), was largely just another day in the office for these amazing team members at the ‘OJCC. The judges, mediators and staff did not falter, stumble or fail. The process meant that disputes between workers and employers were resolved or adjudicated, the practice of law continued, and the business of the people continued. I can’t overstate how proud I am of each of them.
The proposed judicial increase is 24% and will adjust to the significant inflation of recent years. For several years, the OJCC’s annual reports have highlighted the impact of inflation and our difficulties in recruiting judicial candidates. The article notes Director Antonacci’s acknowledgment of the legislative team that accomplished this effort:
. . . Senate Budget Chair Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and House Budget Chair Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, and their lieutenants, Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Bartow, and Rep. Cyndy Stevenson, R-St. Augustine, for championing the division’s request during budget negotiations this year.
This, of course, is a budget item. We are very grateful and hope that this part of the budget receives the Governor’s approval.
By Judge David Langham
Courtesy of Florida Workers Comp
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