By John C. Schafer
Deputy Commissioner in Charge of Mediation
N.C. Industrial Commission
The Industrial Commission (IC), which is a division of the N.C. Department of Commerce, was established by the General Assembly in 1929 to administer the Workers' Compensation Act. The Industrial Commission also has jurisdiction over tort claims against the state, and claims by families of law enforcement officers, fire fighters, and rescue squad workers. However, most of the IC caseload is related to the administration of the Workers' Compensation Act, which is a very high volume operation. Last year the Industrial Commission handled 87,000 claims and supervised the payment of over $208 million in medical benefits, and almost $311 million in total compensation.
In workers' comp cases, the speed in which contested cases can be resolved is probably more important than the timeliness of the resolution of cases in any other forum. The IC mediation program has been an integral part of the Industrial Commission's efforts to administer its very large caseload in a timely manner, and additional adjustments are now being made to further expedite the IC dispute resolution process.
One of the primary purposes of the Workers' Compensation Act is to provide a "swift" remedy to injured workers. As Judge Sidney E. Eagles noted at the December 19, 1997 swearing in of the two new IC Commissioners, Renée C. Riggsbee and Christopher Scott, "[i]njured workers' families, of course, may well be entirely dependent on workers' compensation medical and indemnity benefits. Without these payments, injured workers' families might be unable to cope financially."
Just a few years ago the huge volume of contested cases unfortunately led to a huge backlog of cases waiting for a hearing. Judge Eagles complemented the Commission on its efforts to reduce the hearing backlog "from over 6000 cases down to fewer than 700", and he described as "particularly significant" the "remarkable success of [the IC] mediation program which in 1996-97 resulted in 67% of the cases referred to mediation being settled without a hearing."
Although he was very complementary of the above efforts to expedite the workers' compensation dispute resolution process, Judge Eagles asked all of the participants in the process to rededicate themselves to do even more. In this regard, plans and procedures were already being developed to further improve the IC mediation program. However, Judge Eagles' comments, like the very positive program evaluation published by the Institute of Government (IOG) last year, provide invaluable encouragement to rededicate ourselves toward this goal.
The IC Deputy Commissioners can now hear cases relatively quickly once they have been internally coded for hearing. On the other hand, a substantial number of cases have been "sitting" in mediation for unnecessarily lengthy periods of time. Some of the delays are the result of last-minute postponements of mediation conferences. This problem will be addressed in the upcoming revisions to the Industrial Commission Mediated Settlement Conference (ICMSC) rules, which should be adopted within the next two or three months. The revised rules will reiterate that mediation conferences may not be postponed without the approval of the mediator or the mediation coordinator. In addition, the proposed rules provide for postponement fees to be assessed in cases involving postponements within seven days of a scheduled conference. Other problems and causes of delay will also be addressed in the revised rules.
Despite the importance of the revisions to the ICMSC rules, the most significant step being taken to expedite the mediation process is to treat the period of time set aside for the completion of the conference as a limited window of opportunity that will not delay a hearing before a Deputy Commissioner regardless of how many extensions of time may be requested or allowed by the mediator or the mediation coordinator.
The standard time periods for contested cases ordered to mediation are as follows. Mediators are appointed approximately 60 days after the request for hearing has been filed. The Appointment of Mediator Orders provide that the parties have a completion deadline that is usually 60 to 90 days after the date of the Appointment. The Appointment of Mediator Orders further provides that:
" [the] completion deadline may be extended by the mediator if all parties consent to the extension. Notwithstanding any such extensions by the mediator or the mediation coordinator, however, if the mediation conference is not completed within 90 days after the date of [the] Order [the] case will be set for hearing at the next available calendar."
The Commission has already begun setting for hearing all unresolved cases in which a mediator has been appointed for over 120 days. Upon the adoption of the revised ICMSC rules, the Commission will begin implementing the 90-day deadline. For ease of reference, the Industrial Commission Home Page (http://www.comp.state.nc.us/) contains a list of all cases that have not yet been heard, but which have been coded for hearing. Cases are generally being heard by a Deputy Commissioner within two or three months after they are coded for hearing.
Pursuant to the ICMSC rules a mediation conference "shall not be cause for the delay of other proceedings in the case". Thus, under the policy of setting cases for hearing upon the expiration of the above-referenced 90- or 120-day time periods, it will be even more important for mediators to exercise their authority to schedule mediation conferences prior to any hearings that may be scheduled, if not prior to the initial conference deadlines set forth in the applicable Appointment of Mediator Orders. The fact that a case has been set for hearing does not relieve the mediator of his or her obligation to make every possible effort to schedule the mediation conference prior to the date of the hearing. If an attorney, carrier representative, or party contends that they are, for whatever reason, unable to attend a mediation conference within the appropriate time periods, that person should be referred to the IC mediation coordinator.
Judge Eagles' final words to the IC Commissioners and employees can, I think, also appropriately be directed to the IC mediators:
"Please remember that each day that you shorten the workers' compensation process means lower costs to employers and greater peace of mind for employees. Each of you is a vital part of getting cases handled properly and efficiently. Once again, thank you for the work you have done, are doing, and will do. Your work is very important to the people of North Carolina."
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N.C. Industrial Commission · Mediation Section · 4342 Mail Service Center · Raleigh, NC 27699-4342