Tuesday, February 20, 2018
The Utah Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of bar charges against a former ALJ
This is an appeal in an attorney discipline proceeding involving Richard LaJeunesse. LaJeunesse has been licensed to practice law in Utah since 1996. From 2001 through 2012, he was the Presiding Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and Director of the Adjudication Division of the Utah Labor Commission. In that capacity he adjudicated workers’ compensation disputes between occupationally injured employees and their employers or insurance carriers. He also oversaw the work of other ALJs.
This case arises out of a policy adopted by LaJeunesse in his work as Presiding ALJ and Director of the Adjudication Division. The policy concerned ALJs’ treatment of medical panel reports submitted under Utah Code section 34A-2-601(2). That provision requires an appointed medical panel to make “a report in writing to the administrative law judge in a form prescribed by the Division of Adjudication.” UTAH CODE § 34A-2-601(2)(b)(i). It also directs the ALJ to “promptly distribute full copies” of that report to all parties and their attorneys. Id. § 34A-2-601(2)(d)(i). LaJeunesse interpreted this statute to leave room for an ALJ to reject reports submitted by medical panels and to request changes to the form and verbiage in a report—without submitting the rejected report to the parties or their attorneys. Applying this policy, another ALJ working under LaJeunesse’s supervision (Debbie Hann) rejected reports she deemed noncompliant and requested medical panels to submit replacement reports. In those instances she did not provide a copy of the rejected report to the parties or to their counsel. LaJeunesse knew of three of these instances. And he personally participated in rejecting a medical panel report and requesting a new report in one instance.
A party in one of these cases discovered that a medical panel report had been rejected without being distributed to the parties. An audit and investigation ensued. The Utah Labor Commission ultimately concluded that the policy adopted by LaJeunesse ran afoul of explicit and implicit mandates of the Workers’ Compensation Act, including the requirement that ALJs “promptly distribute full copies” of medical panel reports to parties and their attorneys. Id. It also faulted LaJeunesse for embracing a policy that allowed ALJs to destroy medical panel reports without informing the parties of the existence of such reports or of the nature and extent of proposed changes to them. Thus, the Commission repudiated the policy adopted by LaJeunesse, instructing ALJs that they could no longer withhold medical panel reports. And the Commission ultimately terminated LaJeunesse for his role in adopting and implementing a contrary policy.
The attorney was charged with conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice
Judge Stone concluded that LaJeunesse had not engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. He held that LaJeunesse had a sound legal basis for the policy he had adopted or, alternatively, that a lawyer exercising quasi-judicial power (as an ALJ) cannot be found in violation of rule 8.4(d) merely for adopting a reasonable interpretation of a statutory scheme that is ultimately shown to be incorrect.
We affirm on this latter ground. We conclude that a lawyer cannot be charged with conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice for adopting a good faith but mistaken interpretation of a law that governs the lawyer’s performance of quasi-judicial authority.
We can understand the OPC’s motivation in pursuing this case. The policy adopted by LaJeunesse seems to have interfered with the transparent operation of the system of adjudicating workers’ compensation disputes. It may have deprived parties and their counsel of the opportunity to object to proposed changes to medical panel reports. And the policy in question may ultimately be incompatible with the terms and conditions of the Workers’ Compensation Act—or at least with best practices thereunder. That is not enough to sustain a charge of conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice under our rules of professional conduct, however. We affirm the dismissal of the charge against LaJeunesse because we conclude that the policy in question was adopted in a good faith attempt to interpret the law.