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In re Discipline of LaJeunesse

Supreme Court of Utah

February 16, 2018

In the Matter of the Discipline of Richard LaJeunesse, #7408 Office of Professional Conduct, Appellant,
v.
Richard LaJeunesse, Appellee.

         On Direct Appeal Third District, Salt Lake The Honorable Andrew H. Stone No. 130905706

          Barbara L. Townsend, Salt Lake City, for appellant

          Elizabeth A. Bowman, Salt Lake City, for appellee

          Heidi E. C. Leithead, Salt Lake City, for amicus curiae, Workers Compensation Fund

          Associate Chief Justice Lee authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Durrant, Justice Himonas, Judge Mortensen, and Judge Hagen joined.

          Having recused himself, Justice Pearce does not participate herein; Court of Appeals Judge David N. Mortensen sat.

          Due to her retirement, Justice Durham did not participate herein; Court of Appeals Judge Diana Hagen sat.

          Justice Petersen became a member of the Court on November 17, 2017, after oral argument in this matter, and accordingly did not participate.

          Lee Associate Chief Justice

         ¶1 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.

         ¶2 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.

         ¶3 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.

         ¶4 LaJeunesse was then subjected to a bar complaint. After an initial investigation by the Office of Professional Conduct (OPC) a Notice of Informal Complaint was issued against LaJeunesse. The complaint charged LaJeunesse with violating rule 8.4(d) of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct by engaging in "conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice."

         ¶5 That charge was heard by a screening panel of the Ethics and Discipline Committee, which found probable cause to conclude that LaJeunesse had violated rule 8.4(d). A petition was subsequently filed by the OPC in the Third District Court. The case was heard by Judge Andrew Stone. 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.

         ¶6 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. Cf. In re Worthen, 926 P.2d 853, 870 (Utah 1996) (adopting a similar standard for assessing judicial misconduct).

         I

         ¶7 LaJeunesse's case was adjudicated in a five-day bench trial in February 2016. At the close of the trial Judge Stone entered extensive factual findings. We summarize the background and findings in detail below with quotations from the district court record.

         A

         ¶8 ALJs hear contested claims for workers' compensation and may appoint a medical panel to advise them regarding the contested medical issues in the case. The medical panels are considered "adjuncts" to the ALJ at the commission level. But "[t]he final responsibility of making the decision as to the issues in such a proceeding is given to the Commission, " and the medical panel may not take over this responsibility of the Commission. IGA Food Fair v. Martin, 584 P.2d 828, 830 (Utah 1978) (citation omitted), abandoned on other grounds by Allen v. Indus. Comm'n, 729 P.2d 15 (Utah 1986).

         ¶9 Before referring a case to a medical panel, the ALJ makes interim findings resolving any factual disputes. The medical panel is bound by those findings; it is left only to resolve any outstanding medical issues. The ALJ, on the other hand, is not required to accept the medical panel's conclusions if "substantial conflicting evidence in the case supports a contrary finding." Utah Code § 34A-2-601(2)(e)(ii).

         ¶10 By statute, the medical panel is to make "a report in writing to the administrative law judge in a form prescribed by the Division of Adjudication" and "additional findings as the administrative law judge may require." Id. § 34A-2-601(2)(b). The "administrative law judge shall promptly distribute full copies of a report submitted to the administrative law judge" to all relevant parties and their attorneys. Id. § 34A-2-601(2)(d)(i). The parties then have 20 days to file "a written objection to the report." Id. § 34A-2-601(2)(d)(ii). If no written objection is made within the prescribed period, then "the report is considered admitted in evidence." Id. § 34A-2-601(2)(d)(iii).

         ¶11 In 2011 and 2012, there were numerous complaints about the quality of medical reports provided by medical panels to ALJs. Common complaints went to concerns that medical panels assumed facts beyond or contrary to the ALJ's interim findings, or that opinions were ...


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