The Division of Workers’ Compensation has proven again that it is one of the busiest court systems in the state. Since the onset of the COVID pandemic in March of 2020, the court has never closed: 22 venues across the court continued only a relative few days of hearings and judges quickly pivoted to the telework program mandated by the State. Since March of 2020, the DWC has conducted up to 20,000 hearings and trials per month via teleconference and video platform. Despite the unprecedented pandemic conditions, four new judges were sworn in at the Los Angeles DWC. Judge Edgar Medina and Judge Kristina Woo were sworn in on August 21, 2020, followed by Judge Elisha Landman’s swearing in on September 11, 2020. Judge Lois Owensby started at DWC L.A. just before shelter in place began in March, and feels fortunate to have worked for two weeks in person at the L.A. Board.
Judge Medina, a Los Angeles native and Cal Berkeley graduate, worked as a law clerk and attorney for State Fund in Santa Ana and Riverside. He also worked as an in-house attorney for Zenith under retired Workers’ Compensation Judge Pamela Foust. Judge Woo is a graduate from UCLA and University of San Diego. She worked for 20-plus years as a defense attorney, most recently with Perlman, Brown & Wax in Glendale. Judge Landman started out as an applicant’s attorney when she fell in love with the workers’ compensation practice but, switched sides after the law changed in 2005. Most recently, she worked for Tobin Lucks and before that for Patrico, Hermanson & Guzman where she opened their Los Angeles and Oxnard offices. Judge Owensby spent 17 years as a defense attorney for Laughlin, Falbo, Levy & Moresi and also worked in-house at Zurich.
You had to jump into telephone conferences as new judges. How has it worked out?
Judge Owensby: I had one week of in-person appearances before COVID hit. The judges in the L.A. office traditionally have lunch together every day and share information. We use group texts now. I look forward to talking in-person again. One good thing about COVID and telephone conferences is the ability to control your calendar. There is no more wandering in and out of the court room and no coming in 10 minutes before noon or 5 p.m. The judge can decide what needs to be done, who needs to talk, and when to come back. I hope we can keep the conference calendar on phone because it is efficient. I handle one case at a time and I review the DOR’s beforehand. I set a time for lien claimants, usually to have them call back in an hour. I ask who wants to go OTOC. If someone is behaving badly or there is a potentially embarrassing situation, I can hold that case until the end.
Judge Landman: But today I had a challenging calendar. There was a pro per with a breathing machine that kept beeping nosily, and I asked that the beeping be turned off. His daughter came on and said he cannot turn off a breathing machine. I was surprised and of course immediately handled the C&R which was suspended for an attorney lien. It was resolved.
Judge Woo: I take the agreed dispositions right away during roll call. The parties who have not talked together beforehand are asked to talk with one another and to call back at a later time, with an assigned time slot. Lien claimants are asked to call the defense attorney to resolve their lien and call back later. Telephonic conferences are far more efficient than in-person hearings because before parties had to stand and wait in line. Now, they are given a specific time to call in to have their case heard. Before you could be stuck in line for hours.
Judge Medina: For liens, telephone conferences aremore efficient. I initially instruct all lien representatives to provide their lien information to the defense attorney, and I provide the parties with a designated call back time. The parties negotiate off line and once they call back I have the defense attorney spell each representative’s appearance and note whether the lien is resolved. Once I confirm all parties have signed in I can focus on the few remaining unresolved liens.
Judge Woo: In person, lien reps could sign in and disappear. Everyone needs to pay better attention now.
Judge Landman: I like our ability to spend more time with the parties and really work out what is going on and fix it and make it right instead of continuing a case because some asks for it to be continued.
Judge Medina: Yes, I try to put the parties on the right path moving forward and assist the parties with identifying the key threshold issues.
Judge Owensby: I believe teleconferences are good for the parties too. There is no travel and I know they are working while waiting on a call and so the attorneys are more productive.
Judge Landman: Teleconferences force more people to actually communicate before the hearing. I ask the parties have you talked to each other, and if the answer is no then you get to call each other and can come back later. There are certain people only negotiate at hearing, and they may go to the end of the line.
What advice do you have for the parties who appear before you?
Judge Landman: Please answer the question that is asked. Don’t do a narrative, don’t offer an answer for something that was not asked.
Judge Owensby: Get me a proposed order if you want me to issue an order.
Judge Medina: I would like parties to know they need to be on top of their email. If an OAC&R is served via email to a particular person and that person leaves the law firm, the firm remains responsible for timely compliance with the Order.
Judge Woo: You must be prepared for hearings and especially trials. Attorneys often say, I was just handed this case, but that is no excuse, you’ve got to own it. As a defense attorney, I was dropped files on a Friday before a Monday trial and, guess what, you have to be ready and own it.
Judge Medina: Yes, I agree.
What is the best part about being a judge?
Judge Landman: Everyone is awesome! I feel that everyone is here to help me and in turn, we can be here to help the parties.
Judge Woo: Our group in LA is such an excellent group to work with. As a new judge, I can reach out with any question—and I ask a lot of questions–and this group always gives me a lot of helpful feedback. I feel lucky to have come into this group. Don’t you all agree?
Judge Landman: Oh yes!
Judge Owensby: For example, we got the order from the Governor and Judge Tolman did research and sent us all part of the enabling statute from code which enables the Governor to make the order.
Judge Woo: We share a lot of jokes and stories about things going on with our lives as well. For example, a stray cat showed up at my door for days and I asked the judges what to do! (Laughs.)
Judge Medina: Yes, we talk to each other, so if it happens at hearing, we’re all going to know about it.
Woo: Yes, watch out because we judges back each other up!