Workers' comp commissioner combines knowledge, compassion
By MICHAEL DAVIS, The Virginian-Pilot
“If someone’s injured and unable to work, it’s a pretty devastating place to be,” said Ferris, who was promoted from staff attorney to deputy commissioner of the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission in August.
“You need to apply the law and come up with an opinion that explains not only what the decision is, but why you made it.”
Ferris, based in Virginia Beach, is one of eighteen deputy commissioners statewide who decide workers’ comp cases.
Colleagues call Ferris even and professional, with a sharp, analytical mind and comprehensive knowledge of the law.
But they also say she has a finesse for managing the parties at her hearings, when emotions can be raw.
“These can be highly charged, and our deputies have to handle it,” said Lawrence D. Tarr , chairman of the three-person panel that heads the commission.
As she grew up in upstate New York, she dreamed of being a lawyer, Ferris said. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at the State University of New York at Geneseo , nurturing her interest in criminal law through a minor in criminal justice.
But after graduation from Union University at Albany Law School, her first job clerking with a firm in New London, Conn., exposed her to administrative law, which deals with government agencies and their regulations rather than the court system.
Stints with the Department of Labor and private practice in the mid-1990s added state and federal workers’ comp cases to Ferris’ resume .
She also served two years with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, before joining the workers’ comp commission in Virginia Beach as a staff attorney in mid-1999.
Administrative law is a hybrid discipline. It typically carries the weight of judicial decision and has similar procedures to civil litigation. Just as in a courtroom, the parties often sit at separate tables, enter exhibits into evidence and call witnesses.
But hearings are usually on a smaller scale, less formal and more streamlined than civil court. That appealed to Ferris.
“The process, from beginning to end, is shorter,” she said. “I like to see the cases come through and come to a resolution.”
Relatively few workers’ comp cases even get to the hearing stage. Tarr estimates that about 80 percent are not disputed and are resolved without a hearing.
But managing the other 20 percent can be tricky. By definition, the process is contentious and adversarial. And it deals with workers’ fundamental ability to earn and support themselves and their families, versus employers’ economic concerns.
The parties are required to maintain a professional decorum, but Ferris has to take into account that they are often under extreme duress.
“They’re under a lot of stress when they’re injured. There can be devastating financial consequences,” Tarr said. “Clearly, it’s a very serious business that we’re in.”
Deputy commissioners need to not only know the law but also be able to evaluate the facts of the case and write reasoned decisions clearly and persuasively.
At least as important, according to those in the field, is “judicial temperament.” They must present an impartial, calm and fair demeanor on the bench, move the hearing along without cutting the parties short, but still adhere to the rules of evidence and procedure.
Ferris is circumspect about her function.
“I hope when people come in front of me they have a sense that I give my full attention to them, I do a full and fair review of the evidence, and issue an opinion based on the evidence and the law that explains why I decided what I decided,” she said.
But colleagues say Ferris is a skillful practitioner.
“Lawyers are, by nature and trade, argumentative people. It’s difficult sometimes to have two people argue over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin,” said Bob Rapaport , who hired Ferris at his Norfolk firm in the mid-1990s, and continues to represent clients in cases before her.
“She’s able to make anyone feel like they’ve had their day in court.”
Ferris is also trained in mediation, acting as a neutral party who meets with the worker and employer to try to negotiate a settlement without moving the case to a full hearing.
“If it seems like the parties can solve the matter, we provide them with an opportunity to do that,” she said. “They have more latitude. It’s more informal. They get a chance to get down to what it is they need to resolve.”
Off the clock, Ferris says her full-time job is her family. Husband Tom is a project director for a military contractor; they reside in Virginia Beach and have two children, ages 2 and 6.
Even that role contributes to her skill set, according to Rapaport.
“I think being the mother of two children helps,” he said. “When you’re dealing with two lawyers, that’s what you’re dealing with.”
Reach Michael Davis at 446-2599 or email@example.com.