Mixed Bag for 2012 Court Filings

By Bill Dries

The business of Circuit Court saw a jump in 2012 while filings in Chancery Court dropped compared to the previous year and the number of filings in Probate Court remained the same.

The year-end numbers across the three civil courts monitored by The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com, showed a 6.4 percent increase in filings in Circuit Court – 7,550 compared to 7,069 in 2011.

Hospital liens – claims filed by hospitals on insurance money paid to patients – were the top category with 2,273 filings. That was followed by 2,064 divorces, with and without children, and 1,175 auto accident claims.

A year ago, divorces were the top category followed by hospital liens and then auto accidents.

Divorces remained the top category in Chancery Court, making up a bit less than a third of the 1,633 filings for 2012. That total marked a 15.8 percent drop from the 1,939 filings in the three divisions a year ago.

Divorces, with and without children, numbered 578. Breach of contract claims came in second with 157 filed. The third highest category was the 150 claims for collection of delinquent taxes.

The delinquent taxes category began showing up in the top three for Chancery Court a year ago. The claims had once been handled manually. The number of filings in the category increased with the online automation of the process started under Chancery Court Clerk Dewun Settle and continuing under his successor in the clerk’s office, Donna Russell.

A year ago, workers compensation claims were the third highest category in Chancery Court with 139 filings. The number was 134 for 2012.

Circuit Court had 60 filings in the category in 2012.

Those numbers could change in 2013 with legislation Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is considering.

The last comprehensive overhaul of the state’s workers compensation system was nine years ago. The changes then included the use of dispute resolution processes before trial. In the intervening years, however, there have been other changes.

For instance, changes to state laws in 2011 set a more specific definition for an accidental injury and excluded “repetitive motion conditions” from what constitutes an injury unless the condition “arose primarily out of and in the course and scope of employment.”

An August WorkComp Strategies report for the Tennessee Department of Labor recommended “shifting adjudication of disputed claims from the courts to a purely administrative process.”

It cites varying numbers of trials on the claims across the state’s judicial districts.

“Clearly, some judges are more experienced in workers compensation and others less so, as reflected in the volumes,” the report reads. “It is also possible that some districts are preferred by litigants for any number of reasons, leading to higher volumes.”

The steps leading up to the filing of a case in Circuit or Chancery court are complex. It is the result of a denial of a claim by an employer. The employee then files a “request for assistance” and pursues that through the state Labor Department. A Labor Department attorney reviews the dispute and either denies the claim again or orders benefits paid by the employer. If denied, an employee could then file suit in Chancery or Circuit courts. If the claim is approved by the Labor Department there is still monitoring to see when the employee’s benefits should end and he or she should return to work.

And that could also lead to a dispute that results in a lawsuit.

The WorkComp Strategies report concludes basic structural reform is needed that takes away original jurisdiction from Circuit or Chancery courts and creates a mandatory alternative dispute resolution mechanism in the state Labor Department. The Labor Department would have a set of “workers’ compensation judges” overseen by a chief judge. Appeals beyond that would not be automatic but could be considered by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the 1,105 filings in Probate Court were exactly the same number filed in 2011. Wills were the top of the four categories with 578 filed, followed by 262 requests to appoint administrators and 220 conservatorships and 45 requests for guardians.