The Oklahoma State Workers' Compensation Commission has refused to hear appeals involving injured workers' claims for over two months, choosing to wait for the Attorney General's Office to issue an opinion on whether the commission can close its deliberations to the public. Apparently two commissioners believe state laws related to the matter are not well defined, even though the law states its hearings “shall be open to the public.” The three-member commission, created with Oklahoma's major workers' compensation reforms passed last year, has not apparently discussed closing the hearings in any public format, yet appeal action has failed to launch while they wait for clarification from the state AG.

Meanwhile, at least 18 cases – human lives – pile up and wait, some up to 4 months, while lawyers do their lawyer thing. And we wonder why workers' compensation gets a bad name.

The issue is that two Commissioners want to keep the hearings open for presentations, but then close them for deliberations and final decisions. Commissioner Bob Gilliland said “It just makes for better analysis of the case without distraction of an audience”. Critics, including injured workers' who are waiting the scheduling of their appeal, believe that such an action allows commissioners to overturn workers' cases “without looking them in the eye.”

Commissioner Denise Engle disagrees with Gilliland and the third commissioner, Troy Wilson. She said on the matter, “To the degree that the case can be properly heard in open meeting of the commission, then, in my opinion, we should move forward.” She expressed “disappointment that there have been delays”, and also indicated that “she had no input in decisions to request an AG opinion and to table appeals hearings because they weren't made in a public meeting”. According to the Tulsa World, Gilliland indicated that the decision to do so rests with Wilson.

I absolutely hate stories like this. It is the quintessential example of petty process interfering with quality outcome. People on all sides; employers, injured workers, and their families are placed in litigation limbo while bureaucrats bluster and bloviate.

After all, they are still getting their paychecks, whether they hold any hearings or not.

Since the new commission began operating Feb. 1, administrative law judges have decided 89 cases and set 390 others for trial. More than 2,000 requests for hearings are pending. And the commission has heard zero appeals, all on a technicality that some allege is a crisis of their own imagination. The law plainly states that “Hearings before the Commission shall be open to the public and shall be stenographically reported.” It says nothing about closed sessions for deliberations or any other reason. Critics call the notion that the Commission cannot decide cases in a public forum “absurd”, and accuse the commissioners of violating the state's Open Meeting Laws. A Tulsa World investigation last summer “found the commission discussed issues in violation of the Open Meeting Act in 11 out of 13 meetings since its first meeting in December”, although it was later revealed they were acting on inaccurate advice received from Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

For me the real issue here is not whether meetings must be open or can be closed, although I fail to see the necessity of closed meetings for people who are weighing decisions based solely on the law as it applies to a claim. The bigger issue for me is the abject failure to perform in the absence of a final determination. The question is whether these meetings CAN be closed, not MUST be closed. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that it would violate any law to conduct appeals fully in the open until a decision is rendered.

A spokesman for Attorney General Pruitt, Aaron Cooper, told the Tulsa World that Pruitt's office did not advise the commission to avoid hearing appeals. He also indicated that “the commission's request for an opinion is being reviewed”.  I am certain that is a great comfort to employers and injured workers' waiting in the wings.

Fortunately they don't have to wait so long for my opinion. Seek your AG opinion, but hold the damn hearings. There is nothing that indicates you can't. Serve the people of your state as the Governor who appointed you intended. To do otherwise, to backlog peoples lives, to create unnecessary expense for employers or potentially deny workers medical care and income, all based on a technicality of such shallow nature is irresponsible and incompetent.

Frankly, you are embarrassing us.

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