The Utah Labor Commission is busy trying to fix problems that surfaced while investigating violations including shredding of documents by two administrative law judges who handle workers compensation cases.
Fixes include ousting one of those judges as the director of the commission's adjudication division. He and another administrative judge were found to have ordered medical panels to change their reports, while the judges destroyed original documents without notifying parties in the cases.
The commission also has enacted new policies to outline proper behavior by such judges, and is seeking to improve training for medical panels. It also expects a deeper review of the entire medical-panel system that provides guidance in cases where treating doctors disagree with insurance providers about diagnoses and treatment.
A separate Legislative Auditor General review is also looking at why it sometimes takes three to four years to resolve workers compensation cases "when it should take no more than a year or 14 months in the worst case," said Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, who requested that review. Such long delays, he said, sometimes force injured workers to "lose homes and not pay bills" because they are out of work.
"The integrity of the workers compensation system is very important to us," Labor Commissioner Sherrie Hayashi said Friday about the fixes it is pursuing.
"I hope that we are headed in [the] right direction, but we have a lot of work to do," she said. "We are working hard to change the culture and the way in which we do businesses."
Problems started to come to light last month, when Hayashi said she was informed about the allegations against two of the seven administrative law judges who hear worker compensation cases. She placed them on paid administrative leave, and asked the Governor's Office to organize an outside investigation into what happened. The resulting report verified that the judges had ordered reports changed and shredded originals. It said that was "contrary to statute and commission policy," and made several recommendations.
After the investigation, one of the judges, Richard LaJeunesse, was ousted as director of the commission's adjudication division. He was replaced by Heather Gunnarson, who since 2006 has headed the Utah Anti-Discrimination and Labor Division.
Hayashi said LaJeunesse remains on paid administrative leave. While she said he will not return as division director, "We are working out the details of what his status will be," adding she could not comment beyond that.
Hayashi said the other administrative law judge involved, Debbie Hann, has returned to her duties. Hayashi said she could not discuss whether Hann had faced other disciplinary action.
LaJeunesse's salary last year was slightly more than $91,000 and Hann's about $86,000, according to the state's transparency website.
The commission also reassigned the cases involved to other judges. It notified attorneys about the situation and provided, where possible, copies of original reports that were later changed.
At the recommendation of the audit, the commission enacted policy to clearly ban questionable communications between the administrative judges and medical panels.
In its response to the audit, the commission said it agrees with a finding that there exists "a systemic insufficiency of training for medical panelists," and will work on improving it. The audit said the judges who ordered changes in reports did not appear to try to change the position of panels, but tried to clarify their findings Â and said better training on what is needed may have prevented the situation. The commission also noted in written documents that the episode raised questions about larger aspects of the medical panel system. It said it found some stakeholders expressed concerns about the impartiality of members of medical panels and the administrative law judges.
"Some of these concerns are being addressed through changes to division management, and greater attention to administrative law judge survey results," where attorneys involved annually rank the professionalism and impartiality of individual judges, the commission wrote.
Also, Gunnarson, the new adjudication division director, said in a news release that her division "will be adopting its own Code of Judicial Conduct. â¦ I will also be meeting with stakeholders to listen to and appropriately address concerns with the adjudicative process."