By Judge Dale Tipps, Murfreesboro
During the sixties (that’s the 1960s–yes, I was alive then), Rod Serling hosted the T.V show “The Twlight Zone.” The show revolved around strange plots with an ironic twist and a life-lesson conclusion. After telling us at the beginning that the main character had just entered the Twilight Zone, Rod would conclude with the moral by saying, “submitted for your approval.”
Since a major portion of the Court’s time involves you submitting matters for our approval, and since during our recent “Coffee with the Court” meetings the subject of settlement approvals came up often, we thought a brief blog post might answer some questions.
Several people asked us to update the settlement schedules on our website and to include more information about what documentation they should submit in advance. As you can see here, we’ve done both.
We also heard more existential questions: “Why do only some offices require submission of the settlement documents in advance? Why can’t the process be uniform?”
The short answer is that each judge has analyzed which process in his or her particular situation is most likely to provide the best possible customer service. That is, we’re fulfilling our statutory duty of ensuring each employee actually receives the correct benefits while still trying to minimize the parties’ inconvenience.
It would take too long, nor would it be very interesting, for me to provide an explanation of why each office established its particular procedures. Instead, allow me to explain my rationale for the way we do it in Murfreesboro, and maybe you’ll understand why other judges have adopted different procedures.
First, and most important, some folks drive to Murfreesboro from as far away as 100 miles. I want to minimize any chance that problems with the settlement will send an employee home empty-handed, only to have to make a return trip after the issues are resolved.
I estimate I identify problems in about 20 percent of the settlement documents I review each month. These may be anything from incorrect compensation rate calculations to missing medical documentation. Admittedly, many of these are minor and could be corrected while the parties are here. However, at least a couple of times per month, the parties will either re-work the agreement to correct the amount of benefits the employee is receiving or withdraw it until they can get clarification from the doctors regarding the likelihood or value of future medical benefits. These are the settlements that I don’t have to deny because we identified the issues in advance.
I’ve only rejected seven settlements in the last twelve months (and in each one, the parties received advance warning that a rejection was possible). That number would be higher if I didn’t review the documents beforehand.
Second, our space in Murfreesboro is limited. To hear as many approvals as possible on the scheduled days, I need to minimize the time taken for each settlement so that that we don’t get backed up and have a bunch of folks with no place to sit or meet with the attorneys. Reviewing the documents in advance allows me to focus on the employee and his/her understanding of the agreement instead of checking wage calculations and disability benefits while they sit and watch me do math. This has the added benefit of taking up less of the parties’ time.
Third, I’m more thorough and accurate when I can review it in advance. I often feel rushed when I review settlement documents while the parties wait on me. I’m concerned I might be less effective at identifying or analyzing issues in this situation.
Fourth, each office has different levels of administrative staffing, and this method works well for my situation. Once I review the documents, Patsy Bumbalough can then research the claim in WCS, find the state file number, and assign a docket number ahead of time. This allows her to enter the state file number and docket number on the PBD/RSA forms before the hearing. That way, parties don’t have to wait for her to do all this after I’ve approved their settlements. Instead, she simply makes them a copy (or emails them if they prefer), and they’re on their way. This approach has the added benefit of claimants actually having those numbers on their copies of the settlement documents, which can be helpful if they have issues down the road.
As I stated earlier, the settlement approval process in Murfreesboro is just my best attempt at a process that addresses all these concerns. Other judges have made different choices, based on their own abilities and office situations. None of the judges seriously believes his or her particular method is perfect (although we regularly try to convince each other that this is so). However, we hope you’ll understand that we’ve given this considerable thought, and that we continually adjust our procedures to try to make them as effective and efficient as possible.
“Submitted for your approval: a conscientious workers’ compensation judge doing as much as he can with you in mind.”
Next week: A few words about dispute certification notices and amendments.