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The legal difference between a Court of Appeal case that is published, or unpublished is not well known in the workers’ compensation community. The difference is the result of California Rules of Court section 8.1115. This Rule provides that “an opinion of a California Court of Appeal or superior court appellate division that is not certified for publication or ordered published must not be cited or relied on by a court or a party in any other action.” An attorney who refers to an unpublished opinion in a Court subject to the California Rules of Court violates the Rules, and is subject to sanctions. Thus, an unpublished opinion does not set precedent that can be used in similar litigation in a Court subject to the California Rules of Court.

However, the WCAB is not subject to the California Rules of Court. It has its own rules of Practice and Procedure. The WCAB does not have an equivalent to Rule 8.1115. For that reason, litigants can refer to an “unpublished” opinion at the WCAB trial level, and on Reconsideration, but not in cases that move to the Court of Appeal and above. LexisNexis publishes the California Compensation Cases, volumes containing California workers’ compensation Appeals Board decisions and appeals court cases. This publication includes the text of unpublished Court of Appeal opinions, and litigants can use the California Compensation Cases citation to unpublished cases that would otherwise not appear in the Official Reporter of the California Courts. The legal effect of an unpublished opinion in a workers’ compensation case as a result of this Court Rule is somewhat murky.

Last month the Court of Appeal decided in the then unpublished case of The Regents of the University of California v WCAB and Shirley Lappi that Labor Code section 5708 sets forth a general rule authorizing the WCAB to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.”

Fortunately, the Court of Appeal recognized the importance of this previously unpublished opinion. On June 17, it issued the following order. “The opinion in this matter filed on May 23, 2014, was not certified for publication. Requests have been received to order publication of the opinion and it appears that our opinion meets the standards set forth in California Rules of Court, rule 8.1105(c). The requests are GRANTED. The opinion is ordered published in the Official Reports.”

The decision can now be cited at the WCAB level and above, and has become binding precedent on all lower courts and judges.