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Shirley Lappi sustained a workplace injury in 2003 while working as an administrative assistant for the University of California at Irvine and she filed a claim against the University for workers’ compensation benefits.

In 2007, Lappi noticed the deposition of the Sedgwick claims examiner assigned to her case and sought production of all unprivileged documents pertaining to her case, including Sedgwick’s claims file. After the University moved to quash the deposition, the WCJ ordered the claims examiner to make himself available for deposition and to “produce all non-privileged portions of the claims file.” At the deposition, the claims examiner produced the claims file, which included computer notes identified as “Notepad Detail.” However, he produced none of these notes for the period after January 11, 2008, when the University initially retained counsel in this matter. Lappi made a further demand for the missing documents, which the University refused to produce on the basis of claimed privilege. The parties returned to court on February 28, 2012. The WCJ noted the parties were unable to agree on the release of the notes and ordered the University “to file a copy of computer ‘Notepad detail’ with the WCJ . . . for [an] in camera review of alleged confidentiality of said notes.”

The discovery dispute continued between the parties until it was ultimately removed to the WCAB for resolution. The WCAB noted that if the disputed documents “do not refer to an attorney’s communication, they may not be protected by the attorney-client privilege. Moreover, if a note with an action plan does not refer to an attorney’s impressions, it is difficult to see how the action plan would fall within the work product doctrine.” However, the WCAB explained that “it is not clear from the testimony at trial or from the petition whether the notes sought actually summarize or refer to attorney communications.” Given this dearth of concrete information, the WCAB concluded the WCJ’s decision requiring production must be rescinded and that the “best course is to return the matter to the WCJ so that she may appoint a special master” who would “conduct an in camera review of the disputed documents and to provide that report to the parties and to the WCJ.”

The University petitioned the Court of Appeal for review of the WCAB’s decision, presenting this question for determination: “Do the attorney-client privilege, the absolute work product doctrine and Evidence Code section 915 operate within workers’ compensation proceedings in the same fashion as in judicial proceedings; i.e., can the [WCAB] order an in camera review of documents in order to determine whether attorney-client privilege or the absolute [work product doctrine] apply despite Evidence Code section 915?” The answer to that question in the unpublished decision of Regents of the University of California v WCAB was: Yes they do and therefore, no it cannot.

Section 915 is found in division 8 of the Evidence Code (Evid. Code, § 900 et seq.), which governs privileges. It provides, in pertinent part that “the presiding officer may not require disclosure of information claimed to be privileged under this division or attorney work product under subdivision (a) of Section 2018.030 of the Code of Civil Procedure in order to rule on the claim of privilege . . . .” (§ 915, subd. (a).) Section 915 carves out some exceptions to this rule, none of which are applicable here. It is beyond dispute that section 915 would have prohibited the type of document review ordered by the WCAB if this dispute had arisen in the context of an ordinary civil case.

Labor Code section 5708 sets forth a general rule authorizing the WCAB to adopt its own “rules of practice and procedures” and specifies that in the conduct of hearings and investigations, the WCAB “shall not be bound by the common law or statutory rules of evidence and procedure.” However, when it comes to the treatment of privileged information specifically, division 8 of the Evidence Code trumps this provision of the Labor Code. Division 8 expressly applies to “any action, hearing, investigation, inquest or inquiry (whether conducted by a court, administrative agency, hearing officer, arbitrator, legislative body, or any other person authorized by law) in which . . . testimony can be compelled . . . .” Moreover, Evidence Code section 910 explicitly overrides any other statute which might otherwise be viewed as limiting application of the “rules of evidence” generally: “The provisions of any statute making rules of evidence inapplicable in particular proceedings, or limiting the applicability of rules of evidence in particular proceedings, do not make this division inapplicable to such proceedings.”

The Court of Appeal concluded that “In light of these provisions, it is clear that while the WCAB is free to adopt rules of practice and procedures which ignore the “rules of evidence” set forth in the Evidence Code, it nonetheless remains bound by the statutory requirements for dealing with privilege found in division 8 of that code, including section 915. As a consequence, the WCAB erred in this case when it ordered an in camera review of the University’s allegedly privileged documents by a special master for the purpose of assessing the merits of that privilege claim.”