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More than seven years after she slipped and fell at work, Pattie Crawford and National Rehabilitation Hospital were still embroiled in a dispute over her injury claim.
Crawford had injured her wrist and thumb in her February 2006 tumble, and according to Anand K. Verma, an administrative law judge with the D.C. Department of Employment Services, she was entitled to surgery on both, at the hospital’s expense. Appeals ensued.
Overruled, repeatedly, and instructed to re-hear the case, Verma each time would issue a decision similar to his last one, sometimes injecting his opinions on medical issues. On a fifth go-round last September, appeals judges concluded that he was trying to play doctor and ignoring the law in a way that “flies in the face of the concept of a fair and efficient judiciary.”
Verma had issued hundreds of decisions as a DOES workers’ comp judge over the past 16 years. Metro workers. Hotel workers. D.C. government workers. People from all walks of life appeared before him, unaware of a disturbing but only recently discovered fact:
Verma’s license to practice law—much less decide on it—was revoked in 1998.
While it is too soon to tell what this means for parties who appeared before Verma all those years, some veteran judges say that scores of his decisions could be tossed on grounds that parties before him were deprived of a proper hearing. D.C. municipal regulations require that its workers’ comp judges be licensed in either the District or some other jurisdiction in the United States. Bar records in D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania and California—jurisdictions in which Verma has either lived or applied for a law license—show no history of his licensure, and the bar associations in those places confirm they don’t have him listed.
Verma resigned in December, according to sources with firsthand knowledge, after a supervisor confronted him about recently unearthed court records showing that he was disbarred by the Indiana Supreme Court in 1998 for “chronically deceptive behavior,” a “willingness to knowingly falsify legal documents” and “a serious lack of candor and trustworthiness.” (DOES officials wouldn’t comment on Verma’s departure, which they called a personnel matter.)
Lawyers who have practiced before Verma and his former colleagues say they’re shocked, but they’re also quick to note his reputation for being unwilling or unable to follow workers’ comp law, chronic appeals, reversals, and delayed justice for injured employees and their employers.
“I wish I could say I’m surprised,” workers’ comp lawyer Benjamin Boscolo says of the recent Verma revelation. “Verma would basically say, ‘No, I’m not gonna do what you told me.’ He didn’t follow the rule of law. He was at odds with the system. It was frustrating to go before him. You never knew what to expect.”
But Verma isn’t the only problem with the District agency in charge of dealing with workers’ comp claims. With little attention, an obscure panel of judges within DOES strains under as many as 900 requests for workers’ comp relief each year, deciding whether and how to award damages from mandatory payments employers make in case their workers get hurt on the job.
Judges and lawyers alike say the program suffers from a lack of enforceable standards, failure to allocate adequate resources, and shoddy oversight.
With such a dysfunctional program, it’s no surprise Verma was able to preside without actually being licensed to practice law, says Boscolo, who over the years has represented blue-collar workers, professional football and hockey players, and even the occasional pro wrestler.
“Employers and workers get a mixed bag [from the workers’ comp panel],” Boscolo says. “They have no idea how long it will take to resolve a claim. There’s no one to enforce performance standards, no centralized decisionmaking. I wish I could say how many chief judges they’ve had over the years. It raises doubts about the vitality of the system.”
The District’s workers comp program processes injury claims and mediates disputes between workers and their employers or employers’ insurance carriers. According to DOES, the program receives between 700 and 900 applications for formal hearings per year, and issues approximately 200 to 230 compensation orders after formal hearings are concluded. Last year, 171 of those decisions were appealed.
The 10-member panel of workers comp judges—currently there is one vacancy—also oversees settlement of between 500 and 670 cases per year before a formal hearing gets underway, DOES officials say.
Though attorneys and judges allow that it is easy to single out Verma, DOES records and appellate opinions show that his performance wasn’t always out of step with his peers. Rulings by the Compensation Review Board, which hears workers’ comp appeals, show that appellate judges rejected Verma’s decisions more than 50 percent of the time from 2005 to 2010.
But the average reversal rate of the entire panel was a dismal 56 percent as recently as 2011, according to DOES records. That figure was reduced slightly to 51 percent in 2012, before falling to 26 percent last year.
Still, a look at 10 random Verma decisions yields six rejections, some accompanied by sharply worded opinions from the CRB. Appeals rulings on his cases were sometimes marked by scorn for the decisions.
In a 2013 case involving a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Agency employee with plantar fasciitis, which can result in sharp and sometimes radiating foot pain, the CRB chastised Verma for basing his decision to award benefits on a medical journal article he placed in the hearing record without letting others respond—while ignoring “the specific facts of the case.”
“Given the continued failure of [the judge] to follow instructions to apply the law to the facts appropriately, the CRB sees no way to adequately and fairly resolve this matter,” the appeals panel wrote, vacating Verma’s decision for the third time and ordering a new hearing.
Such recalcitrance, workers’ comp lawyers say, delays employee benefits, risks costing employers back pay for workers who cannot work, and generally undermines a fragile system.
By 2011, after Verma found that Pattie Crawford’s fall in the hospital parking lot caused both her wrist and thumb injuries, she was still waiting for a determination on whether the hospital’s insurers would be forced to pay for surgeries on both. Today, she still hasn’t had the surgery, nor has her claim been resolved.
On the first appeal, the CRB criticized Verma’s legal reasoning and sent the case back to him. When he again ruled in Crawford’s favor, the CRB found that a doctor’s opinion Verma relied on to establish causation for the injuries was “clearly in error.”
On a third appeal, on similar grounds, the CRB “vacated and remanded” Verma’s ruling and criticized him for “erroneous analysis,” a disregard for medical opinion based on “mere speculation,” and “a clear misunderstanding” of hospital quality reports.
After yet another Verma decision went before the CRB in November 2013, the appellate judges resorted to high-minded scoldings: Verma “demonstrates an unwillingness to follow the specific instructions of the CRB despite several remands to address the same errors, all of which needlessly prolong a process designed to provide swift relief,” the panel wrote.
Given the decisions where Verma was concerned, it seems that if anyone at DOES had bothered to review judge credentials—ever—they might have intervened sooner.
Hope Todd, ethics counsel for the D.C. Bar, says she has never heard of an unlicensed administrative law judge like Verma. “That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened,” she says.
Todd is stumped, however, when asked to explain what kind of judicial codes need be in place to prevent such an embarrassing hole in oversight. “It seems the employer would be the one to regulate the conduct of ALJs,” she offers.
The DOES Policy on Employee Conduct and Behavior requires its judges to “refrain from official action that would adversely affect the confidence of the public in the integrity of District government.” But the policy doesn’t spell out any enforcement methods or punitive measures—much less offer guidance on how to deal with unlicensed lawyers who are judges.
Lisa Mallory, the most recent confirmed DOES director, an appointee of Mayor Vincent Gray who decamped in January to head the D.C. Building Industry Association, declines to discuss Verma or any DOES systems in place to enforce the department’s conduct policy.
“I really can’t comment on DOES,” Mallory says. “I’ve moved on to the building industry. DOES can speak to what was done [to address Verma]. To say nothing was done is inaccurate.”
The agency doesn’t have a permanent boss. It’s hard to discern who is responsible for the workers’ comp judges. DOES General Counsel Tonya Sapp says in an email that she “provides legal advice to any program within DOES that requests it, including the workers’ compensation program,” but has no supervisory role. “I am an employee of the Office of the Attorney General and thus, have no authority to supervise any employees of DOES,” she says.
Interim DOES Director Thomas Luparello, previously the chief information officer, says in an email that the department now requires annual verification of judges’ legal credentials—since discovering “the legal impediment of an ALJ.”
Luparello says the Office of Inspector General “is aware of the [Verma] case,” and that the DOES legal department has contacted D.C.’s Office of the Attorney General for guidance.
Verma did not return numerous calls for comment to a number listed for him, and no one answered the door at two residences area property tax records show he owns. A person who answered the phone at one home this week said he was not Verma and had no way to reach Verma.
In 1984, Anand K. Verma was admitted to the Indiana State Bar Association under the name Anand K. Rajan. The next year, he submitted a job application to an insurance company, in which he falsified his date of birth and the dates he attended undergraduate and graduate school in India and the United States, according to the Indiana court’s 1998 ruling.
Verma also submitted a letter from the National Law Center at George Washington University that was altered to incorrectly state his dates of attendance, and a purported transcript that misrepresented his dates of birth and attendance at other universities, the court found.
The court suspended Verma’s bar license for one year, but his problems weren’t over.
In 1998, the same court found that Verma made false statements on bar applications in Pennsylvania and Maryland. On the Pennsylvania application, court records show that Verma falsely claimed to have practiced law in Indiana from 1985 to 1992, though he actually lived in California, Pennsylvania, and D.C. during that time.
On his Maryland application, the court ruling states, Verma “procured or forged” a signature of a “David Rivera,” allegedly a member of the Minnesota bar who claimed Verma practiced law in D.C. in 1993. On Verma’s own application, however, he states that he did not practice law in D.C. during that period, the court found. The Minnesota Bar shows no record of a “David Rivera.”
A 1994 letter Verma sent to Maryland bar officials also misrepresented the extent of his prior discipline in Indiana and falsely stated that he never had a formal hearing there, the court found.
In disbarring Verma, the Indiana justices said, “We view him as unable, truthfully and within the bounds of basic precepts of professional ethics, to represent the causes of others as an officer of this court.”
Veteran workers’ comp lawyers in D.C.—and their clients who have gone before Verma—are left to wonder to what degree his performance can be explained by his little secret.
Eric May, who has represented injured workers in the District for 40 years, says that in one case, Verma’s decisions were so poorly reasoned that the CRB asked the chief hearing judge to appoint a different judge. May also recalls once joining lawyers from both sides of the workers’ comp system in asking the chief judge to press DOES officials to remove Verma from the panel.
“It became difficult trying to defend Verma,” says May, who also happens to represent Pattie Crawford. “The CRB felt challenged by him. They got enraged and kept sending his decisions back down. A couple CRB judges had been called out by him, and it became personal.”
But Verma is not the sole source of the problems with DOES’ Administrative Hearings Division, as the workers’ comp panel is known. To lawyers and judges familiar with the system, he looks more like a symptom of an overburdened panel with no consistent leadership, lost in a neglectful bureaucracy.
“My opinion is that AHD is unmanageable,” May continues. “It’s like herding cats. There are diverse personalities. Some of them are not that bright. The time it takes to make a decision varies per judge. I had one that took three years. There’s an element of unpredictability. And it is difficult to unload a judge because of [the District’s] merit system.
“Workers’ comp decisions in Virginia and Maryland are much faster. The delays [in D.C.] hurt both sides,” says May.
Former DOES judges trace the whole division’s problems to the creation in the early 2000s of the Office of Administrative Hearings, a central panel of judges appointed by the D.C. Commission on Selection and Tenure that did not include workers’ comp judges.
Whereas the OAH is an independent agency with its own D.C. Council–approved funding, an organizational structure dictated by D.C. law, and a code of ethics—including a requirement that all lawyers and judges annually show active D.C. Bar membership—the AHD is more of a bureaucratic stepchild, reliant like the rest of the workers’ comp program on funds paid into a risk pool by District employers. Former DOES judges say they perform similar functions for less pay and with fewer resources and training.
With a backlog of 158 cases in 2013, which is defined by a delay between hearing and decision of more than 20 days, sources say the AHD is stretched thin, operating without a chief judge since January 2013—after the last one, George Crawford, was jailed as a result of a contempt-of-court order in a debt dispute.
One former DOES judge, who requested anonymity to avoid alienating current or future employers, asserts that “there’s no cure for the [AHD] as long as they are hidden over there” at DOES, “which doesn’t care about workers’ comp.”
“We are aware of the general perceptions and are diligently working to improve efforts and perception,” says Luparello, noting that DOES is conducting a search for a chief judge, who will answer to Associate Director Mohammad Sheikh of the agency’s Labor Standards Bureau. A newly hired chief operating officer who will play a supervisory role over the AHD, Luparello adds, is, unlike Sheikh, a licensed attorney.
The D.C. Council hasn’t been much help. At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who sits on the Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees DOES, reportedly was briefed on the city’s workers’ comp woes, to no effect. Neither he nor At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange, a candidate for mayor who chairs the committee, responded to emails asking about the problems.
Given such rudderlessness, perhaps it’s little wonder that Verma flew below the radar for so many years. As for his decisions that did not receive appellate review, the District will have to wait to see if former claimants come forward. “Lawyers for claimants who didn’t get a hearing before a properly licensed [administrative law judge] could be petitioning to get what they think their client deserved,” cautions E. Cooper Brown, former chief judge of the CRB.
Luparello says DOES will deal with such scenarios on a case-by-case basis. Former AHD judges say any petitions for review could end up before the D.C. Court of Appeals.
The whole situation, though, belies the success Mallory touted in her March 2013 Council testimony, in which she claimed a transformation at DOES after “decade-long systemic neglect, discovery of fraud and waste [and] lack of organizational and operational procedures.”
Which is too bad, says labor lawyer Boscolo, warning that instability among judges who deal with the “lives and livelihoods of employees and the profitability of corporations” undermines confidence in what should be a pillar of local government.
“People respect judges because they’re supposed to be wise and experienced,” Boscolo says. “We entrust them with the hardest decisions. It’s an important job in our society.”
“He was at odds with the system. It was frustrating to go before him. You never knew what to expect.”