By Judge Lisa A. Lowe, Knoxville
The Big Ears Festival is a concert held in Knoxville each spring that, according to The New Yorker, “combines elements of jazz, rock, folk, classic, and electronica.” The New York Times called it “one of the world’s greatest music bashes,” and the Wall Street Journal said it offers “music liberated from the confines of category and overt commercialism.”
While The Big Ears Festival is cancelled for 2021, the Tennessee Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims Listening Tour was not! Our ears are plenty BIG!
Chief Judge Kenneth Switzer recently held two virtual listening tour sessions to provide information and receive feedback from attorneys across the state. Below is a summary of the topics discussed.
The Chief advised that the Court made some housekeeping tweaks to the Rules of the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims and Alternative Dispute Resolution. Approval and implementation of the revised rules takes approximately six to nine months. Once the rules are filed with the Secretary of State’s office, the Court will publish an announcement on this blog with a link for comments.
The Chief also relayed the news that the Bureau’s Cookeville office is closing. But he assured that Judge Robert Durham will still be conducting in-person hearings in the “old courthouse on the square” every Tuesday, beginning in August.
In addition, due to some auditing requirements, the Bureau and Court are unable to hold settlement approval filing fee checks for longer than seven days. For questions about this, contact Court staff at your local office.
Ideas from practitioners
Next, a few lawyers suggested the Court might consider moving from forms-based pleadings, most notably with the petition for benefit determination, to the complaint and answer format in other civil cases.
It’s an intriguing idea that would be helpful in complex cases, with multiple parties, and where all are represented by counsel. However, no plan is in place currently to adopt this change. It would require revisions to the statute, and the time to suggest amendments this year has passed. However, feel free to reach out to your legislators if you’d like to see this change.
An attorney also raised the question of how to move a case along after a petition for benefit determination has been filed.
The Chief reminded of a common misperception about when the Court has jurisdiction. Many think that the Court doesn’t have jurisdiction until a dispute certification notice is filed. However, any time after the filing of a petition, a party may file motions, and the Court can issue orders to address any issues other than medical and temporary benefits.
By far, the settlement approval process was the biggest topic of interest.
The Court has always entertained specific requests to conduct approvals by phone, if, for example, the employee has moved out of state, is elderly and unable to drive, undergoing cancer treatment, etc.
When COVID hit, we made the change to conduct all approvals by phone. Now that people are getting vaccinated, businesses are opening again, and mask mandates are lifted, do we continue conducting approvals by phone or return to in-person hearings?
The answer (at least temporarily) is a resounding YES!
Starting after Labor Day, we’ll move to a hybrid system, where we will hold both in-person and telephone approvals. Each office will have a protocol for its hybrid system. Closer to September, look for a blog post with details, and of course check our website for updated information.
The goal is to return to all in-person settlement approval hearings in January 2022. This presumes that by then, we will have achieved a safe degree of herd immunity, we won’t all be needing booster vaccinations, and COVID-19 and its variants are under control, etc. This is an aspirational goal for now.
Of course, we’ll still entertain requests for telephone hearings in cases with extenuating circumstances.
Some attorneys would like the Court to continue doing telephone settlements indefinitely, while others would like to return to in-person hearings as soon as possible. As with many things in life, there are pros and cons to each, and we can’t make everyone happy.
From the perspective of a judge, it’s beneficial to have the employee in front of you to make sure they fully understand all the terms of the settlement and all their questions have been answered. Plus, believe it or not, we miss seeing attorneys and employees.
That about sums it up, folks. Our festival didn’t draw quite the same media coverage as Big Ears, but we’re still hailing it as a success. Thanks to all who attended the sessions.
We really do welcome your feedback and consider your suggestions. If you have any concerns, questions, comments, you don’t have to wait for the 2022 Listening Tour. Feel free to reach out any time.