In the intricate realm of workers’ compensation law, where fairness and due process are paramount, a recent case before the California Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB) has illuminated crucial principles regarding the consideration of evidence, particularly vocational evidence, in determining permanent disability: Sandra Ja’Chim Scheuing v. Livermore National Laboratory, permissibly self-insured, administered by Gallagher Bassett (ADJ8655364; ADJ14830172) (Significant Panel Decision).

At the heart of the case was an applicant who contested a decision made by a workers’ compensation administrative law judge (WCJ). The WCJ had concluded that the applicant had a permanent disability of 28%, a determination vehemently disputed by the applicant, who claimed 100% permanent and total disability. The crux of the applicant’s argument lay in the contention that the WCJ had failed to adequately weigh all pertinent medical and vocational evidence.

Under California law, parties aggrieved by final decisions in workers’ compensation cases have the right to petition for reconsideration. However, adherence to statutory timelines is critical, as any delay in action can raise substantial due process concerns. In this instance, administrative error, specifically, failure of the district office to transmit the Petition for Reconsideration to the Appeals Board within the 60-day time limit for it to act on a petition pursuant to Labor Code (LC) section 5909, led to a delay by the WCAB in addressing the applicant’s petition. This administrative error leading to the WCAB’s late consideration of the Petition for Reconsideration prompted a reevaluation of procedural requirements in light of fundamental fairness.

Here, the WCAB agreed to review the Petition for Reconsideration, citing Shipley v. WCAB (1992) 7 Cal.App.4th 1104, 1108 [57 Cal.Comp.Cases 493], wherein the Court of Appeal held that the time to act on the applicant’s Petition for Reconsideration was tolled during the time the Appeals Board had misplaced the file, through no fault of the parties.  Here, the Appeals Board noted that, if a timely filed petition is never acted upon and considered by the Appeals Board because it is “deemed denied” due to an administrative irregularity and not through the fault of the parties, the petitioning party is deprived of their right to a decision on the merits of the petition.

Further, in this case, the applicant’s attorney filed supplemental pleadings without seeking permission of the Board as required by Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, section 10964. Despite the applicant’s attorney’s error, the Board exercised its discretion to consider the applicant’s supplemental pleadings which were submitted to demonstrate that the Petition for Reconsideration had been timely filed.

The Appeals Board also considered recent en banc opinions (Nunes I and II), which have brought clarity to the role of vocational evidence in such proceedings. The WCAB reiterated that vocational evidence can significantly impact determinations of permanent disability. Nevertheless, it stressed the importance of ensuring that such evidence does not unduly influence apportionment decisions. This nuanced legal landscape necessitated a closer examination of vocational evidence in the case under review. Specifically, remand appears to have been allowed for further development of the record to include review of vocational evidence by the AME.

Ultimately, the WCAB opted to grant the applicant’s Petition for Reconsideration, recognizing the imperative of due process and the necessity for a comprehensive review of all evidence. By overturning the prior decision and remanding the matter to the WCJ for further proceedings, the WCAB underscored its commitment to procedural equity and the equitable resolution of workers’ compensation disputes.

This case serves as a poignant reminder of the multifaceted legal issues inherent in workers’ compensation cases and the pivotal role that vocational evidence plays in shaping disability determinations. It underscores the WCAB’s unwavering dedication to upholding due process and ensuring that all parties have an equitable opportunity to present their case. As workers’ compensation law continues to evolve, striking a balance between procedural rigor and substantive justice remains imperative for safeguarding the rights of all stakeholders involved.

By Kendra A. Garcia, Esq., Associate Attorney, San Francisco Office, April 2024

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