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Courting Chaos

When the workers' compensation appeals system bogged down, judges felt the pain, too.

Gwen Compton Ternes has been living with pain since she fell to the floor in 1987 when the wheels of her office chair came off. The injury to the former office manager led to a series of health problems, and by 1999, three doctors agreed that Ternes required replacement surgery on her right knee.

However, when workers' comp balked at paying for the proposed operation, Ternes hired Denver attorney Doug Phillips to represent her in an appeals hearing before a state administrative law judge. The hearing was held in May 1999. At the time, state law required an ALJ to render a summary order, outlining a decision, within fifteen working days.

June and July came and went without a decision on Ternes's appeal.

 
Hadley Hooper
 
Injured worker Gwen Compton Ternes suffered as a result of delays in the state's Division of Administrative Hearings.
Jonathan Castner
Injured worker Gwen Compton Ternes suffered as a result of delays in the state's Division of Administrative Hearings.

By late summer, the Englewood resident had become a virtual prisoner of her pain. As her knee deteriorated, her suffering got so bad that she abandoned a walker in favor of a wheelchair. She couldn't make it to the store, she says, and walking into the next room was torture.

"I couldn't even go in the den and do paperwork because it hurt so bad to bend," says Ternes, now 58. "I was mostly sitting here at the house doing nothing."

Ternes and Phillips began pestering the Colorado Division of Administrative Hearings for a response.

"I called a couple, three times," Ternes says. "I never could speak to the judge. Her paralegal just said she was backlogged. It's kind of like you're stuffed in a corner and forgotten about."

Finally, in late November of '99, six months after the appeals hearing, Ternes received notice of the judge's decision authorizing the surgery.

Her attorney did not hold the tardy decision against the judge. Instead, he says, Ternes's prolonged wait was a symptom of a larger problem. The Division of Administrative Hearings appeared to be in chaos.

Last October, at least twelve of the fifteen administrative law judges who work under presiding judge Marshall Snider signed a letter of no confidence asking that he be demoted. The office, which handles disputes regarding workers' compensation and provides adjudication services for more than fifty other state agencies, was buckling under the weight of gross mismanagement. The judges were overworked, and some of their decisions were months overdue. Records were in disarray, morale was dismal, and staff turnover was atrocious.

"Marshall is an obstacle. If you get rid of Marshall, things will get better," says one of the judges who agreed to be interviewed anonymously because they have been told that speaking to the media is cause for termination.

The problems didn't begin with Snider. Last year, a legislatively mandated audit found $140,000 in "questionable" billings and uncovered the fact that during the first six months of the year, the division had failed to bill $350,000 for services rendered to two agencies. As a result of the findings, division director Dolores Atencio was placed on administrative leave and "allowed" to resign in September. Since that time, the state has appointed a new director to oversee the division, most of the vacant staff positions have been filled, and the decision backlog is ebbing.

From the outside, things are looking up. And though the past months' progress has blunted the intensity of the unhappy judges' feelings, it has done little to change their position on Snider's leadership, because Snider was Atencio's go-to person when she was at the helm. His fellow judges are still angry about what they see as Snider's unquestioning willingness to do whatever it was Atencio asked of him, whether her requests were ethical or not.

The judges are not alone in their desire to see Snider step down; siding with them are two local attorneys who last year launched their own investigation into problems at the division. And their concerns go far beyond issues of Snider's everyday supervisory duties. One is even convinced that Atencio and Snider's juggling of the books (in an attempt to repair the budget) may have bordered on the criminal.

Nevertheless, Snider has continued to enjoy the endorsement of his bosses. His superiors are so pleased with his performance, in fact, that last month he received a promotion to Administrative Law Judge IV, a position that carries with it a salary of up to $92,000 a year. Where some people see only a yes-man, his supporters see a man whose fierce loyalty got him into trouble. Snider "got thrown into the middle of something, and it just turned into shit," says a Denver attorney.

"I think I'm a pretty good judge of character, and I've found [Snider] to be completely straight and completely supportive," says Paul Farley, who was appointed division director in January. "I'm very pleased to have him as my chief judge.

"So far," he adds, "everything I've heard is guilt by association."

Snider concedes that his reputation among his colleagues may have suffered as a result of his role as Atencio's "hatchet man."

"I think the most objective thing I can tell you is that our department conducted an investigation," Snider says. "I can't say what the investigation said -- it was a personnel issue -- but the results of that were that no one found that I did anything wrong. I have not been disciplined [regarding his former budget practices], and I was told that I will not be.

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