Change is coming. We find ourselves in the wake of great technological advances that we have worked very hard to develop and deploy. The onset of the Great Pandemic in 2020 drove our societal reliance on technology and those who practice Florida workers' compensation were benefitted. Time and again, we hear of the challenges that were faced by lawyers and litigants as other adjudication systems stalled, faltered, and failed. We were all resilient; lawyers, judges, staff, and more were amazing. 
I was reminded of that when an attorney recently inquired about that history, "whether the OJCC’s offices were shut down for any time period during Covid." The attorney was working on some reporting or documentation of the pandemic. I think the attorney was a bit surprised by the response, that the OJCC never shut down for COVID-19.
There were a couple of days that particular offices were closed for cleaning. There were a couple of instances in which our landlords constrained public access to an office here or there. There were the inevitable examples of an employee or two missing work for a variety of challenges. It was not an easy time, and I would not want to minimize the impacts of the pandemic. But, throughout, we remained open.
There were accommodations for the pandemic. Mediations shifted to telephonic in a March 2020 mandate. We strove to return to live mediation in July 2020, but lawyers did not wish to return. In short, we were inundated with requests to appear telephonically. The filing flood led us to reinstate mandatory telephonic mediation later in July and maintain it for another 8 months. We returned again to in-person in February 2021. And no one came back.
We struggled with process and the challenges of trial. There was no systemic change for trials and hearings. But, in March 2020 we offered Zoom hearings and other alternatives to live appearances. Make no mistake, in-person trials continued throughout. There was plexiglass, masks, Lysol, and more. But, with these tools and efforts, "live" trials never ceased. Many lawyers elected the Zoom alternative. At least one judge opted for telephonic trials. And, we persisted. As the pandemic ended, and we strove to return to normal early in 2021, the lawyers did not want to come back. Zoom trials persisted.
There is the old movie saw that "if you build it they will come" (Field of Dreams, Universal 1989). And as well as that ball field in the cornfield worked out for Kevin Costner, the adage rang shallow in the world of Florida workers' compensation. Build it we had, but they didn't come. The practice persisted in its preference for remote appearances, video technology, convenience, and the lawyers didn't come. Some even complained that there were too many OJCC offices, too much space, and questioned why. They advocated for a smaller footprint.
This fed the perception in Tallahassee that the OJCC paradigm of distributed district offices was antiquated and unnecessary. The great success of the great pandemic response demonstrated that technology can overcome distance, and it did. The practice demonstrated its preferences and the accountants responded. A statute was quietly amended in 2022, and Florida's practice changed. By the end of fiscal 2022 (June 30), The OJCC had seen DOAH close Melbourne, Lakeland, and Port St. Lucie. The closure of Gainesville was foreshadowed then.
In fiscal 2023, the closure of Gainesville came to pass as predicted. And progress continued. In March 2023, the next round of closures was announced in Further Consolidations in 2023. In the coming days, Daytona will be consolidated into District Orlando, Panama City will be split and the counties and cases reassigned to Districts Pensacola and Tallahassee, and District Sarasota will be integrated into District St. Petersburg. We will retain all of our judges and staff throughout the process. Judge Moneyham will undertake a new docket in St. Petersburg, alleviating a long-standing overburden there.
I anticipate that these 2023 changes will bring me the same reactions and comments that marked 2022. I will hear from lawyers who are troubled by the change because it is change (no one likes change). I will hear from lawyers who are troubled by their loss of convenience ("do you know how far I will have to drive for a hearing?"). I will hear from lawyers who lament the inconvenience to their clients in terms of travel. I have heard recently from several who lament the challenges their clients experience with technology, bandwidth, and more in the new era of Zoom mediation.
In the end, there will be change. In the end, the Florida OJCC will have a smaller footprint, a less geographically diverse presence, and a continued or perhaps increasing reliance on technology. In the end, if you wish to cast blame for the world changing, perhaps it is on me. The present could likely not be without the technology and innovation of the last two decades: videoteleconference, electronic filing, electronic service, digital appellate records, and more. The world has changed. I am proud to have been along for that ride, as a cheerleader, but not a programmer. 
Or, perhaps the blame is on you. When the local offices were ready and willing in the early days of pandemic recovery, and live mediation returned, the public did not. We had built it, but they did not come. After a more extended pause, we returned again to in-person mediation, and still they did not want to come. The market chose remote, technology, and convenience. There is a sound argument that the place we are in today is what the customers demanded.
Or, perhaps there is no blame. Perhaps we are all in the midst of a cascade of change and challenge that was inevitable. As the world evolved and reacted to the convenience, economic pressures, and progress, we would perhaps have been at this station regardless of any effort or pandemic. Possibly, in the spirit of The Butterfly Effect (NewLine 2004), we would have all found ourselves at this junction, at ten remaining District Offices anyway. Maybe not as rapidly, maybe more rapidly still. In the end, we shall never know.
What we know is that this station is where we do stand today. The reality of 2023 is that further District closures are coming. The timing will be within days. We expect to transfer these counties and reassign these cases in March. We anticipate ceasing live proceedings in Daytona, Panama City, and Sarasota by April. As Theodor Geisel might say, "the time has come, the time is now." (Marvin K. Mooney, 1972).
There will be inevitable questions about what the rest of the journey looks like. Knowing we have arrived at this station, some will ask what the next station on this track looks like. In the historic words of Mr. Spicoli (Fast Times, Universal 1982), "I don't know." Write that on the board for everyone. Will there be further changes in years to come? Will technology further revolutionize the practice of law? Will lawyers use the remaining facilities around the state? Again, Mr. Spicoli, "I don't know."
The future will be addressed as it becomes the present. Evolution will proceed with us, through us, and perhaps even without us. How the world changes is largely up to you and perhaps a great many things like technology over which you have no control or even comprehension. So, for now, enjoy this station stop on the trip. We know what it looks like, that it has Zoom mediation and ten District Offices.
Tell me how it is or is not working for you and we will strive to serve you. Tell me how you think we could serve you better. Be a part of where we are today and make tomorrow match your expectations and preferences through your participation, contribution, and leadership. Tomorrow opens before you like the next stop on this train track. Be a part of it as you are drawn down these tracks to the next stop. We have been resilient and will remain resilient. Whether you like it or not, I believe in you. 
By Judge David Langham

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    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

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