Phoning it in

By Judge Robert Durham, Cookeville

In this new world we have to share with COVID-19, many of our traditional ways of doing things have been challenged or even eliminated.

One of those is in-person settlement approvals, which simply aren’t feasible while social-distancing. However, the Court’s duty remains to see that injured workers understand what their rights are and that they are substantially receiving the benefits to which they are entitled.

Fortunately, necessity is the mother of invention, and the Court was able to quickly revise its procedures to allow telephone approvals. We appreciate your assistance in making this transition work as smoothly as possible.

However, while telephone approvals have worked well for the most part, I’ve seen a few ways where the process might be improved with just a little help. Please note that the following concerns are based only on my own observations; I’m not speaking for the Court as a whole.

The most common problem with telephone approvals is that one or more of the parties simply fails to appear at the scheduled time. This didn’t seem to happen as often with in-person approvals. It’s essential that everyone call in on-time, particularly in those courts where approvals are scheduled every fifteen minutes. Interestingly, it’s not just employees who fail to call in, but attorneys are sometimes absent as well. The most common reason is that they got busy working on something else and forgot.

Please make sure employees know the time they are to call in and the numbers they are to use, and explain that no one will answer if they call several minutes before the approval. As for not minding the time, please use the alarms on your computers or cell phones to help you remember.

About the use of cell phones: While they’re great devices, they have their limitations, especially out here in the country. Please remind employees that they need to be somewhere with reliable service when they call, and they should be sitting still once the call is connected.

Often, I have attorneys who attempt to connect employees to my conference line through their own phones. The sound quality is almost always degraded when they do. It’s better for the employees to simply call the conference line directly. I also have employee’s attorneys who have their clients in their offices and who call using a speakerphone. I usually have to ask one or both to speak louder at some point in the settlement.

Two other suggestions about using your cell phone: (1) Don’t attempt a settlement approval while you’re driving your car; and (2) make sure your phone is charged before making the call.

Finally, I’ve had some approvals where it doesn’t seem that the defense attorney talked with the employee beforehand. For instance, the documents state the employee returned to work, but when I ask about it at the approval, it turns out this wasn’t the case. Please discuss the settlement with the employee before presenting it to ensure its terms are correct. Otherwise, it only leads to additional delay and expense for everyone.

I must admit there are times I miss doing in-person settlements. Sometimes, I feel I’d be better able to determine an employee’s understanding of the settlement and her willingness to enter into it if I could see her face-to-face.

However, until the COVID-19 threat has passed, telephone approvals are an acceptable alternative, so long as we all do our part to make it work.

The view from Judge Durham’s deck yesterday was spectacular.

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