Calif.’s Top Comp Judge Urges Attorneys to be Civil

By Jim Sams | July 19, 2019

ANAHEIM, California — The Division of Workers’ Compensation has assigned a California Highway Patrol officer to each of the state’s 22 Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board offices after a handful of violent attacks against lawyers.

But sometimes it’s the lawyers themselves that need policing.

Paige Levy, chief judge for the DWC, said Thursday that in the past several years “there has been a degradation of civility” among the attorneys who practice before the board. It’s gotten to the point, she said, that she’s posted notices in some of the boards reminding attorneys to be civil to one another. She said eventually such notices may be posted at all of the board offices.

“Over the last few years we have seen an increase in bad behavior among lawyers including in their treatment of judges, their treatment of court personnel and their treatment of their adversaries,” Levy said during the California Coalition of Workers’ Compensation’s annual conference. “I have too many times needed to call an officer into the courtroom just to deal with the fighting between counsel. I know our hearings and our offices are less formal. Please do not let that fool you. What we do at the WCAB is extremely important to our community and our state, even though we are in informal settings let’s never forget that.”

Levy said workers’ compensation judges don’t enjoy being forced in the role of scolding kindergarten teachers but frequently have no other choice but to tell educated professionals how to behave.

“It’s unfortunate that sometimes attorneys act that way,” she said. “We have to remember who we are and what we represent.”

Levy’s comments came as she updated members of the employer advocacy group on happenings at the DWC and WCAB. During the presentation, she mentioned that a CHP officer is assigned to each of the 22 WCAB district offices. Security at the Los Angeles board became a concern in 2010, when an injured worker stabbed a defense attorney in the back.

Levy said when questioned after the presentation that she can’t offer any theories on why attorneys sometimes behave so badly that judges have to reprimand them. She said the lack of civility is not restricted to workers’ compensation; it’s been noted throughout the legal community.

In 2017, the California State Bar added a supplement to the oath that attorneys take when they enter the profession. Rule 9:4 requires attorneys to recite: “As an officer of the court, I will strive to conduct myself at all times with dignity, courtesy and integrity.”

So why has attorney dignity declined so badly that the state’s chief workers’ comp judge felt it necessary to issue a reminder?

“That’s just not an answer that I have,” Levy said. “I think we just don’t treat each other as well as I would like.”

Rachel Cox McMurty, a partner with the Allweis & McMurty law firm in Tarzana, said so far she has escaped the rude encounters described by Levy. Then again, McMurty said she practices mostly at the Oxnard and Santa Barbara boards; her experience might be different if she worked in Los Angeles.

McMurty said tension is inevitable in an adversarial profession, where the only reason there is any interaction is because of a disagreement.

“I have a thick skin, and people getting frustrated with each other doesn’t rise to a level of concern,” McMurty said.

Zachary Sacks, founding partner of the Sacks & Zolonz law firm in Culver City, also said he hasn’t noticed any especially bad behavior among fellow attorneys. He practices at the Los Angeles board, as well as in Van Nuys, Marina Del Rey, Anaheim and Santa Ana.

“That may be because I always treat other attorneys with utmost civility,” he said. “That is why we are who we are as a firm. I have not noticed uncivilly at least directed toward me.”

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