California Court of Appeals Holds that Denial of Right to Cross-Examine Plaintiff Deprived Defendant of Right to Fair Trial in Workers’ Compensation Case

In reviewing a decision of the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, the California Court of Appeal held that the defendant’s due process right to cross-examination was violated when the plaintiff employee refused to respond to cross-examination. In this case, the appeals court focused on the importance of cross-examination, especially as a tool to help determine the credibility of a witness.

In 1996, Mr. Ritzhoff injured his right ankle, right hand, back, and psyche while working as a banquet server for the defendant.   The Workers’ Compensation Judge determined that Mr. Ritzhoff was permanently and totally disabled, relying on the opinion of his treating psychiatrist.

The defendant paid temporary disability payments, and a hearing took place to determine whether Mr. Ritzhoff was temporarily psychiatrically disabled. At this hearing, on cross-examination, Mr. Ritzhoff admitted working since his injury.

The WCJ found Mr. Ritzhoff temporarily totally disabled from a psychiatric injury, caused by his injured ankle. Psychiatric reports took place, and three hearings focused on whether Mr. Ritzhoff was psychiatrically permanent and stationary, and no longer entitled to temporary disability payments. In all three hearings, Mr. Ritzhoff refused to be cross-examined.

The defense sought to prove that Mr. Ritzhoff was permanent and stationary, and that his testimony made clear that he worked from time to time and was functioning normally.

After the hearings, the defendant petitioned for reconsideration based on the argument that their due process rights were violated when benefits were awarded without the opportunity to cross-examine Mr. Ritzhoff and one of his treating physicians.

The WCJ and the Appeals Board made clear that the issue of whether to award and continue substantial benefits, without cross-examination, involved a psychiatric medical opinion. According to the WCJ and the Appeals Board, Mr. Ritzhoff’s layperson testimony would not be useful in determining the medical question of his status.

The California Court of Appeals, in their discussion, stated that the right to cross-examination is protected by the Confrontation Clause, set forth in the Sixth Amendment. The guarantee of a fair trial, or a fair hearing, includes the right of cross-examination. This right applies to parties in workers’ compensation proceedings.

The court stated that in fact, Mr. Ritzhoff served a purpose as a witness, including testing his accuracy or credibility. Furthermore, the court stated that Mr. Ritzhoff’s credibility is at issue in this case.

In this case, the prejudice to the defendant arose from the deprivation of the right of cross-examination. This resulted in an unfair hearing. In this particular case, the court noted the manic outbursts of Mr. Ritzhoff, which served to bring his credibility into question. Furthermore, the court stated that the defense was not permitted to show their information or evidence surrounding the fact that Mr. Ritzhoff allegedly worked and maintained a relatively normal lifestyle. The court stated that this evidence would surely affect the determination of the extent or percentage of his permanent disability. If the defense had been able to cross-examine and show Mr. Ritzhoff had been working, they may have been awarded a more favorable result, including anything less than total disability.

The appellate court also stated that an order in a workers’ compensation case is final if it determines a substantial issue, one that is basic to the employee’s entitlement to benefits. In this case, the final decision of the appeals board is the denial of the petition for reconsideration, and adopting and incorporating the WCJ’s report as its own decision. This decision awarded Mr. Ritzhoff total permanent disability.

Finally, the court of appeal stated that the appeals board was wrong in concluding that the defense should have sought review of their denial of cross-examination after the first and second hearings. These were not final decisions of the appeals board, and thus they were not reviewable. The appeals board exceeded its powers. It adopted a decision that was flawed because of a denial of due process.

The appeals court annulled the decision of the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board and remanded with directions for further proceedings.

At Sharifi Law, we offer competent legal counsel for workplace injury claims in Southern California. Contact our office today at 1-866-422-7222.

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