Spotlight On The Judiciary

Donning The Robe Senior Trial Judge Geoffrey H. Sims Of The Dwc Fresno District Office Provides A Glimpse Into A Career As A Workers’ Compensation Judge Interviewed By Therese Da Silva, Workers’ Compensation Judge Dwc Oakland District Office

For more than eleven years, Judge Geoffrey H. Sims has served as a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) and is the senior trial judge for the Division of Workers’ Compensation (DWC) Fresno.  Geographically, DWC Fresno covers litigated claims for most of California’s Central Valley, ranging from Merced County to the north, south to Kings County, and east into several Sierra Nevada counties stretching to the eastern border of the state.  From 2011 until now, Judge Sims has taken part in the expansion of DWC Fresno, a virtual doubling in size and cases.  A decade ago, DWC Fresno staffed five judges including the Presiding Judge and now there are eight trial judges plus the Presiding Judge.  DWC Fresno is routinely the second or third busiest Board in Northern California, and despite its growth, the local bar remains a “collegial group which values professionalism, communication, and courtesy,” according to Judge Sims.

What would you say to someone who is interested in applying for WCJ?

Quite simply, this is the best job I’ve ever had.  On a daily basis, I feel as if I am doing something that benefits a person immediately.  As a judge, the impact from rulings made at hearings and your decisions are more immediate than when you’re a lawyer.  The decisions of the WCJ impact the injured worker’s life now as the judge is often able to fix problems that have plagued the worker. 

It is important to recognize the big perspective:  the worker becomes involved in a system as result of a work injury that they did not ask for and it has changed their life.  There are plenty of cases with terrible, tragic facts but you, as the judge, can help.  It’s a public service job where you must be present and accounted for, to perform an important and meaningful role.  And, since a judge is not hamstrung with recording time or billing, to me it translates into a better life balance.

What are some desirable skills for prospective WCJ’s?

To apply to become a WCJ, an attorney must have five years of practice as a licensed attorney, in the state of California. This is required by statute.  (Lab. C. § 123.5.)   Most good applicants will be active workers’ compensation lawyers.  This five-year licensing requirement is unique to WCJ’s and is not a requirement for any other administrative law position in the state.  So, WCJ’s come to the bench with a fair amount of experience and the ability to apply that experience to the job.  A good candidate will already have a reputation for knowing the law, as well as having professional demeanor. 

Still, writing quality decisions, citing substantial evidence and interpreting the law can be challenging.  Issuing decisions and orders is vital because parties need resolution one way or another. As the judge, you have all the evidence and you are the one making the ultimate call. 

With our heavy volume of petitions and settlements, processing tasks requires tenacity and consistency. It calls for a judge to always be on his or her toes and be cognizant of the consequences arising down the line from that decision. A judge must contemplate how to say everything in the decision or order in just the right tone.  There is no doubt that this is a time-sensitive job.  Managing your work flow is mission-critical. 

Additionally, a good candidate must be willing to learn.  The COVID pandemic showed us that we cannot sit back and think “We’ve got this.”   What we learned in the last three years is that we must adapt to better use the tools we have and we must constantly evaluate – and improve – the way we do things. 

As we seem to be coming out of COVID, statewide, I think we adapted well to changes, recognizing that expeditious delivery of benefits is what we are all about, as mandated by the State constitution.  A new judge must be willing to adapt and be open to new ideas about how to get the job done – and get it done right.   It is not an easy job, but it is a great job. 

In your opinion, what is the best adjustment that DWC made as the result of the COVID pandemic?

Before COVID, we were pretty shorthanded in Fresno and judges were handling 35 to 40 hearings a day evenly split between morning and afternoon.    Judges had to manage 30 people hovering around the courtroom at 8:30 a.m. The attorneys would check in and then some would vanish.  Sometimes, I had to chase down attorneys who would not re-materialize in my courtroom until close to noon or 5:00 p.m. 

Although I am a believer that face-to-face time is valuable in getting “pen to paper” or to provide time for parties to talk about issues down the road, it was not always the most efficient way to operate from a judge’s perspective. 

Since the onset of the pandemic through today, attorneys in our venue have shown that they are more prepared coming into hearings. I must commend them for that level of preparedness for telephonic conferences.   By and large, we have a collegial group of attorneys who understand it all works best when parties keep the lines of communication open.  As a result, we are setting most hearing requests within three or four weeks after the filing of a Declaration of Readiness, and we also can offer trial dates in about the same timeframe.    

On the downside, when the parties are on phone lines, we lose the opportunity to use visual cues.  Quite frankly, when injured workers or witnesses call in, it helps immensely if the practitioners prepare them about virtual hearing protocols.  Someone who is not familiar with what we do needs to know that they will be on a call with dozens of other parties and that the phone lines are public. 

From the outset, I give an admonition on calls that “this is an open line conference call forum and I cannot control who listens in. If this is a matter of a sensitive nature, you need to let me know and we can make other arrangements.” 

It is vital that parties not create disruptions or interrupt the process.  Callers still forget to mute their lines, subjecting all of us to their side conversations.  It can be very difficult for a judge to handle extra noise over the phone and control the proceedings.  Despite any challenges, changes, and distractions, I may remind parties we cannot forget about the most important person in the process:  the injured worker. To the injured worker, this is their life, their health, and their future.  They are coming to the judge for advice.  My role is daunting and humbling at the same time:  judges have the ability to make a decision on something that has a great impact on an injured worker’s life.  I always keep this front and foremost in my mind.