The Workers’ Compensation bar received some welcome news on February 14, 2022, when Director and Chief Judge of Compensation, the Honorable Russell Wojtenko, Jr. issued a Notice to the Bar that the Court facilities will be opened to all concerned as of March 7, 2022.
The announcement of the court's reopening is certainly good news as it represents a sign the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is losing its grip on legal affairs. The thought of going back to business as usual should also bring some comfort to many who have become wary of conducting their affairs while closed remotely at home, or in their individual offices in a virtual setting.
The reopening of the court facilities may be considered a soft reopening in that workers’ compensation judges will still be able to “continue to conduct routine proceedings virtually, either telephonically or via Microsoft TEAMS.” Some examples of what constitutes routine proceedings are “daily list markings, pre-trial conferences, uncontested motions, and approval of settlement agreements.” One important caveat to the continuation of such “virtual” routine proceedings is that it is done “with the consent of the litigants”, according to the notice.
That is, if one side or the other does not consent to a particular matter being addressed virtually, the parties will have to appear in person to address such issues.
From a health safety standpoint, the reopening notice outlines what precautions should be taken if an in-person proceeding takes place, including wearing masks and social distancing. Proof of vaccination will not be required to gain entry, however, anyone who has any symptoms of illness such as fever, chills, runny nose, headaches, etc. are advised not to come to any facility. Those who do appear in person may also be required to have their temperature taken.
While the notice of reopening has been a long time coming, the practice of workers’ compensation law in New Jersey has weathered the pandemic storm well over the past close to two years should not be forgotten. In fact, with the advent of what is often referred to as the “virtual” practice of law, we have learned how to keep the system of adjudicating and providing workers' compensation benefits going while maintaining a cordial and professional adversarial process. Using media such as Microsoft TEAMS, telephonic conferencing, and emails, we have been able to conduct the business of workers’ compensation, quite effectively, efficiently, and safely in most cases before the court. We have learned that practicing law this way saves the energy expended on travel time and thus less harmful to the environment, while providing a healthy and safe forum to conduct business. It has also benefited the injured worker in those routine cases, by not having to travel to court, sit in a crowded waiting room until their claim is reached, and lose a day’s pay to have the Judge approve a settlement on the court’s record.
New Jersey is not unique in its positive experience in practicing workers’ compensation law in a virtual setting. Our neighboring states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware have found the use of video proceedings simply makes the most sense and are implementing ways to make it a permanent part of the practice.
Comment: Since the announcement of the court’s reopening, we are learning the option and method of in-person and virtual procedures are being determined at the discretion of the individual judges throughout the state. This has caused those of us who regularly handle claims in different parts of the state to keep a scorecard as to what specific protocol is expected to be followed, depending upon where the claim is listed, and before what judge it is assigned. We hope that the Division of Workers’ Compensation’s notice of the reopening of the court’s facilities is a work in progress and in time a more permanent and uniform virtual practice of law is adopted statewide.
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