By Kristine L. Prati, Wilson Ratledge, PLLC
After announcing a return to in-person hearings, the Industrial Commission notified practitioners that Full Commission and Deputy Commissioner hearings will continue to be held by videoconference until further notice. While the Industrial Commission has been hosting virtual hearings for over a year now, here are some tips and reminders to consider, should you participate in a virtual procedure.
For hearings at the Deputy Commissioner level, email addresses of all witnesses and attorneys must be provided. Similarly, the Full Commission requires identification of the attorney handling the oral arguments, if different from the attorney of record. Prior to the hearing, a WebEx link for the hearing will be provided by the Deputy Commissioner. Similarly, the clerk of the Panel Chair will send an email requesting/confirming a preferred email address to send the Microsoft Teams invite to. Thereafter, a Microsoft Teams meeting invitation and link will be provided by the Full Commission’s office. It is imperative that attorneys respond to the clerk and accept the Microsoft Teams meeting invitation in a timely fashion to ensure receipt of the invitation/link and for oral arguments to run smoothly on the day of.
Prior to a Deputy Commissioner hearing, practitioners and witnesses may perform a “test hearing” through www.webex.com/test-meeting.html. It is also recommended that you and your witnesses “appear” for the virtual conference at least 15 minutes ahead of time to work out at any issues. While members of the Industrial Commission have become quite adept with the virtual platforms, they often have to spend large amounts of time guiding less adept practitioners and claimants who are experiencing technology issues. Microsoft Teams, used by the Full Commission, allows practitioners to navigate the system, through use of the “join” link that is emailed by the Full Commission ahead of time, to ensure competency with it (the link can be used more than once). Alternatively, a request can be made to the clerk of the Panel Chair a few weeks in advance of the oral arguments to schedule a “meeting” through Microsoft Teams.
Some witnesses have trouble securing a strong internet connection, which can cause massive delays, particularly if the witness keeps freezing or dropping the connection, and thus necessitating a pause in the hearing. As such, reaching out to plaintiff’s counsel a few days before the hearing to discuss plans to ensure that all witnesses have a strong internet connection, as well as a device to access the virtual hearing, is advisable.
Asking the Deputy Commissioners for a pre-trial conference via WebEx to work out connectivity issues, especially for pro se claimants, is another excellent resource. In addition to working out connectivity issues, it also gives Deputy Commissioners a chance to explain to pro se plaintiffs what will take place at the hearing and answer questions that may slow a hearing down. Additionally, some Deputy Commissioners have been utilizing the pre-trial conference to explain the Pre-Trial Agreement to pro se plaintiffs and ask the pro se plaintiff to stipulate to everything in the Pre-Trial Agreement if there is no disagreement.
As for exhibits, an organized binder of all bate stamped exhibits the parties intend to admit should be prepared well in advance of the hearing and provided to each witness ahead of time, as a substantial amount of time can be wasted trying to identify what document the witness is to review during the hearing. In addition, while WebEx allows documents to be pulled up on the platform for everyone to see, it is a slow process and some witnesses may not be able to review the document and testify on video at the same time. As far as video evidence is concerned, each Deputy Commissioner seems to have a different protocol for submission of the video, as it cannot be uploaded through the Industrial Commission portal. For example, one Deputy Commissioner requested that the video be mailed to the Industrial Commission on a USB prior to the hearing, while another requested that the video or video link be sent by email and then be mailed to the Industrial Commission post-hearing if admitted into evidence. As such, it is advisable to contact your Deputy Commissioner in advance of the hearing to determine how he or she would like the video to be accessible during the hearing and for entry into evidence.