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Deborah Blevins: Judge, Mediator and Manager



“I’ve worked with a lot of people who are smarter than I am but I’ve met few who can outwork me,” stated Deborah Blevins, who has recently been honored in a publication of Virginia Lawyers Weekly as one 2020s Influential Women of Law.

The Honorable Deborah (Debbie) Blevins is a resident of Pulaski and has worked in Virginia’s Worker’s Compensation Commission since 2004. As a member of the Commission, Blevins acts as a judge, mediator and manager.

Virginia’s Worker’s Compensation Commission was created in 1919 as a type of insurance that protects businesses and employees from financial loss when an employee is hurt or gets sick from a work related cause. The Commission is set up like General District Court but the subject matter is exclusively Workers Compensation claims as they relate to both employees and their employers.

Blevins explains the difference.

“If we didn’t have the worker’s comp system, everybody would go through General District Court instead of going through the Commission. Fewer people would receive benefits because in the regular state court system, you have to prove that somebody was negligent in order to receive benefits. In worker’s comp, you generally don’t prove that because there’s a different standard for whether or not you receive benefits. So, in this system, more people are covered but people don’t get as much as you might get in state court.”

Blevins continued her point by giving an example.

“If you’re in an automobile accident, you have to prove that the other person was at fault in order for you to recover but if you recover, you get pain and suffering, as well as your lost wages and medical benefits. In worker’s comp, you don’t have to prove that your employer was at fault. You just have to prove that you were hurt in the course and scope of your employment and that the accident arose out of your employment and then you get lifetime medical benefits and lost wages, but you don’t get pain and suffering. So, it’s more of a no fault system, fewer benefits, but more benefits available to everybody.”

Debbie Blevins grew up in rural Dinwiddie, Virginia, and took her first job in high school at a burger joint known as the Hickory Hut. She attended Swarthmore College, located near Philadelphia, but after graduating couldn’t find a job, so she decided to attend law school at the University of Virginia.

While still at UVA, Philip Sadler and Gary Hancock, two lawyers from the Pulaski law firm of Gilmer, Sadler, Ingram, Sutherland and Hutton, came to interview her. She wound up staying the summer in Pulaski and after taking a job with the law firm moved to Pulaski and she’s stayed here ever since.

“UVA is kind of a big law school,” Blevins recounted. “A lot of people go from there to big firms all over the country and even the ones who stay in Virginia usually go to big firms and in big cities. I had been in Philadelphia and knew that I didn’t really want to live in a place like that forever. Mr. Sadler said to me, ‘If you come to Pulaski your social life is going is probably going to revolve around your church and the community because we don’t have movie theaters or many restaurants and things for young people to do.’ OK that was entirely true, but it’s the kind of place that suited me and I still want to be here.”

For the first several years of her practice, Debbie Blevins did criminal defense cases, real estate cases and a lot of divorce cases, which made sense, as she was one of the few women to practice law in town at that time.

In 2004, she applied to be a Commissioner for Virginia’s Workers Compensation program and got the job. Blevins now maintains offices in Bristol, Roanoke and Richmond and travels about 35,000 miles a year for her work.

In addition to acting as a judge, Blevins acts as a Mediator at formal settlement conferences and this is one of her favorite duties as a Commissioner.

“In mediation, you get to help people decide for themselves without telling them what to do,” said Blevins. “That is the most rewarding because it’s kind of like grassroots democracy. You decide for yourself and you don’t have to do it. If we get to a point where the two sides can’t agree then OK they can’t agree and they can go on to court. But if they can agree, people are generally relieved, they’re happier. It’s a really good thing. If you can help people on both sides.”

Perhaps Blevins most significant achievement is her contribution to creating the Worker’s Compensation Commission’s Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Department in 2012.

“It was taking an average of 300 days to get a claim, from the time it was filed, to the time it was heard,” Blevins recounted. “So you had some places that were taking far longer than a year to get through our administrative court system. Think about that. If you’re the guy that just wants to get the mileage paid or just wants to get authorization for an MRI for an accident that happened six months ago and it takes you more than a year to get an answer on that. That’s a serious problem from the employees point of view. And it’s really inefficient and costly for employers and insurance carriers because they have to have lawyers and pay them to go to court and the insurance adjuster has to keep your file open and monitor it for all of that period of time.”

This inefficiency prompted Blevins, with the help of the former Chairman of the Commission, the late Roger Williams, to create the Alternative Dispute Resolution Department.

“We created the ADR track to try to pick out the cases that could be resolved easily to let people make their own decisions and pull them out of the judicial system,” said Blevins. “We’re able to fast track them. The cases that need to be heard, we let him go through the judicial system. It’s been really successful. We went from about 200 mediations in 2012 to over 5000 ADR events of some kind last year and have reduced that term for the judicial system from about 300 days to about 200 days.”

Today Blevins managers the ADR track of Virginia’s Workers Comp Commission and travels all over the East Coast training other mediators and helping set up similar programs in other states. She also chairs a dispute resolution committee that trains workers comp judges.

Acting as a judge for a case that goes to the Worker’s Compensation Commission is Blevins most challenging task. The burden of proof in these cases is not the same as a criminal case where a jury must be convinced, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Rather, these cases are decided on a burden of proof.

“The burden of proof means, you have to convince me that something is more likely than not,” said Blevins. “It’s generally someone who can prove something is more likely than not.”

This can be a difficult task.

“I’m in court and have to make a decision about who’s telling the truth because you see people for a very short period of time and have to make that decision,” said Blevins. “You know, in real life … who knows. Right? I’m not God. Do I really know who’s telling the truth and who’s not, no I don’t. I just do the best I can.”

Today, Blevins is highly sought out for her expertise in mediation and has several lectures and training sessions on her schedule. Her work requires a great deal of travel but she always ends up back in Pulaski, where she lives with her husband Swede. In her free time, Debbie works out at the YMCA and does some recreational reading.

“My husband says, I’m the only person he knows whose work is their hobby and there’s a lot of truth in that,” Blevins admitted.

She and her husband Swede Blevins She lives in Pulaski with her husband and has no plans of relocating.

“In metropolitan areas, there’s a totally different culture,” said Blevins. “Honestly it’s part of why I love Pulaski and I won’t leave here because there’s a community here. This community feeling … it’s accessible, people are friendly they’re open. In metropolitan or suburban areas that’s not sometimes true so much. That’s why I always want to stay in Pulaski.”



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