In Re: The Fourth Estate

By Judge Brian Addington, Kingsport, and Jane Salem, staff attorney

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, a Nineteenth Century French journalist, is credited with saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Change happens all the time. Some folks like it; some do not.
On July 1, 2014, the Workers’ Compensation Law changed in Tennessee. The idea behind the changes was to create a streamlined process with more predictable results. The changes were big news at the time. It seemed to us, however, that statements in the media back then focused all about the “change,” while few media reports discussed how things would “stay the same.” Further, some of the statements made about the new law were just plain incorrect. 
It’s not that we believe reporters, on the whole, are biased or are trying to mislead readers. (We love journalism. One of us used to deliver newspapers; the other worked as a reporter/editor for over a dozen years.) But we do think the news media sometimes exhibits a tendency to oversimply complex matters, perhaps in an effort to make it easier for the audience to understand, or to meet a wordcount or deadline. In the process, unfortunately, they make mistakes.
For example, a July 9, 2014 article in The Tennessean read, “Under the revised statute, employees will no longer have the right to appeal decisions in the state court system.”  
That sounds harsh. No appeal right whatsoever, for just employees but not employers?
The reality is, the revised statute created a whole new, specialized court system, which includes the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims at the trial court level, and the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, as the name applies, for appeals. Temporary issues tried in the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims are appealable by either side, but only to the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board. These are “interlocutory,” meaning they are not final adjudications. In contrast, with compensation hearings – the final adjudication of all issues, including permanency – either side may file an appeal with the Appeals Board or the Supreme Court of Tennessee. 
So, either party may appeal a temporary decision to the Appeals Board or a final adjudication all the way to the Supreme Court. In other words, employees did not lose any rights to appeal decisions under the new law.  
By means of background, prior to the new law taking effect, neither party could go to a state court without “exhausting the benefit review process.” This meant for the majority of the cases that a judge could not be involved with a case potentially for years. Under the new law, however, cases have appeared before the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims in months, not years. 
For fiscal year 2015-16, which just ended June 30, 2016, the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims handled 292 expedited and compensation hearings, and conducted over 1,900 hearings in total. Meanwhile, the Appeals Board issued 64 appellate opinions. And, four workers’ compensation new law cases are presently pending before the Supreme Court. 
So, while the new law did create some changes, many things stayed the same. Parties still enjoy their right to fair, impartial hearings in a timely manner, which are appealable all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court. 
For better or for worse, we live in the 24-hour news cycle. It’s vital to our democracy that our citizenry stays informed about current events. Just do so with an open mind and a critical eye. 

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