“Women in Comp,” Louisiana Comp Blog’s profile series highlighting local female executives in the workers’ comp sector, is back in the new year. The first featured leader of 2016 is Judge Diane Lundeen, a workers’ comp judge in OWC District 8, New Orleans. Read on to get Judge Lundeen’s perspective on her career, Louisiana’s workers’ comp system, and how professional women often represent, and thus can help, each other.
Comp Blog: Let’s start with your background. Where did you grow up?
Judge Lundeen: I grew up riding horses in Oklahoma and then Tulane lured me away and brought me here by giving me a really nice scholarship and I instantly fell in love with New Orleans. I just knew I belonged here. But like true New Orleanians, I left for a little while and lived in California and Tennessee, but I missed it here terribly, so I came back here for law school at Loyola. So I figure all I have to do is get a PhD from LSU and I’ll be well-rounded!
Comp Blog: How about your professional story? What led you to your current position as an OWC Judge?
Judge Lundeen: I started as a pre-med student at Tulane, but I just wasn’t sure if that was my dream or my parents’ dream for me. It seemed like a lot of time and money to invest if I wasn’t sure, so that’s when I became a paralegal in California, working in securities law. While in Tennessee, I worked in unemployment and tax law. During that time, I had the opportunity to go into semi-adjudicatory positions and litigate cases, because you were permitted to do that back then. As soon as that happened, I knew I had found my calling, so I applied to law school, graduated from Loyola in 1994 and here I am now as a judge!
Comp Blog: So what drew you to workers’ comp specifically?
Judge Lundeen: I was working in a law office and my boss didn’t have a lot of structure. That was extremely challenging, but it was great, because I had the opportunity to do a lot of things as a baby lawyer that other people wouldn’t have the opportunity to do. We had a third party tort case and my boss knew nothing about workers’ comp so he told me, ‘you need to make this happen.’ I went to the law library and read the Hornbook on comp and read the Workers’ Compensation Act and immediately fell in love with it. It just made a lot of sense to me. We wound up getting a great result for the client and took on a lot more comp cases.
After that, I was picked up by a firm that represented the teacher’s unions across parts of Louisiana and spent years working with them. And when I left that firm I ended up starting my own firm, still working with the teacher’s unions and other workers’ compensation clients, and I continued that work until I took the bench in 2006.
Comp Blog: The viability of workers’ comp have been under attack recently from both those who contend that benefits have been eroded too far and the forces representing such movements as opt-out. What is your response to this? Is workers’ comp still a relevant part of the American workplace?
Judge Lundeen: I think workers’ comp is extremely relevant. Louisiana was one of the first states to implement a workers’ comp system and I think that’s something about which we can be very proud. It’s an organic process over time and it’s brought us to where we are now. I think that any system can be improved and that there are people who are working tirelessly to do just that. However, I think we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. History shows that this system was a trade-off between employers and labor and that when the system was tort-based employers had a very hard time doing business.
I think one of the things we’ve been doing recently is to pass a lot of legislation designed to get workers the care they need as quickly as possible so that they can get back into the workforce as quickly as possible. Whether or not it works is a disputed point. For example, the goal of the Medical Treatment Guidelines was to expedite care. For some people, I think it has worked and they’ve moved quickly through. Others have expressed that there have been significant bureaucratic issues, whether it’s because of the carrier, or the attorneys, or the law, or the doctors.
Comp Blog: How do you think that could be helped?
Judge Lundeen: I think a lot of those issues can be resolved by properly training the doctors to handle the system and the Guidelines. By the time the lawyers get an MTG case, it’s at the appellate stage. Here [at the OWC District Court] we’re serving in a unique role as a district court but also as an appellate court.
Comp Blog: On the same vein of doctor training, how do you respond to stakeholders that suggest that opioid abuse falls entirely on doctors over-prescribing the medication?
Judge Lundeen: I think it falls on the medical schools to teach doctors appropriate prescribing practices. I’ve seen injured workers here that are addicted, they are not bad people, but somewhere along the way the opioids took over, and that could be for any number of reasons – including whether or not the medication was used as prescribed. As for palliative care, I have definitely seen people that successfully use opioids and in so doing are able to maintain some level of function after an injury. It’s incumbent first and foremost upon the doctors to monitor their patients carefully.
Comp Blog: Let’s talk more in detail about your role as a judge. How difficult is it to strike and balance and remain neutral? What are the best and worst parts of the job?
Judge Lundeen: The hard part is when a case is in front of me, and based on equity, I don’t think personally that a particular party should win. But, I can’t superimpose my perception of equity in rendering a judgment; I have to look at what the Legislature did with the statute and simply interpret it. That’s difficult mostly because sometimes laws just aren’t meant to address certain things, and so the result isn’t the right result based on my opinion, but it is the right result based on the law as it’s written currently. When I really feel that an injustice is being done, I can write that in my opinion, and some laws have subsequently been legislatively addressed and changed as a result of a judicial opinion. It’s not easy to have your hands tied that way, but it’s the way it has to be to ensure justice in the vast majority of cases.
One of the best parts of my position is that I have the time to research cases extensively when I write my opinions. When you’re practicing as an attorney, you’re often pressed for time and you still have to do the best job that you possibly can for all of your clients and there’s only 24 hours in a day. They don’t always have the opportunity to research cases like I can.
Another great thing is that people will bring res nova issues into this court and I get to be a part, at least in my niche, of defining what the right outcome should be for these novel ideas.
Comp Blog: All of this brings us to the concept behind this series, which is your status as a female executive. How have things changed since you started in the legal profession?
Judge Lundeen: It’s very different now to be a female lawyer than it was when I first started, in what was, at the time, an extremely male-dominated profession. The main thing back then was that sometimes, colleagues and superiors would underestimate me. However, that was also an advantage, and typically after our first litigation, I wasn’t underestimated anymore.
As far as women in leadership roles today, I think we’re seeing a lot more equality, and that has everything to do with the women who came before us. Fortunately or unfortunately, we as women represent our gender even as we act as individuals and that’s an obligation we need to take seriously. Everything that we do can serve to the benefit or detriment of our gender. The fact that women are in roles that they never thought we would be in has something to do with overcoming a history of self-limiting and allowing society to limit us. I’m seeing, particularly in the younger generation, a much better understanding of gender equality than we had even twenty years ago.
Personally, I came from a long line of very strong women and from the time that I was a child, I was told that I could be and do whatever I wanted, but that I was responsible for accomplishing that. There are no limits for us.
Comp Blog: Finally, what advice do you have for young women that aspire to leadership roles in their chosen profession?
Judge Lundeen: I would tell them to pursue their dreams and their passions. It’s very easy to try and fit into a role that someone else has assigned to you. You don’t have to be the CEO of an international company to be successful. Sometimes we measure success in terms of finances and I know power women that are very wealthy and very happy and I know extremely successful women that are not monetarily rich. Being the best artist or the best riveter that you can be is just as worthwhile as moving up the corporate ladder. Move roadblocks out of your way, and don’t take no for an answer.