Few readers of this blog may know that the New Jersey Division of Workers’ Compensation achieved a number of notable firsts this year with the appointment of Judge Maria Del Valle Koch as director of the division in June 2022.
Koch is the first woman director and the first Hispanic director in the history of the New Jersey Division of Workers’ Compensation. This is particularly noteworthy right now because Sept.15-October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month, an annual observance established by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 to celebrate the histories, culture and contributions of Hispanic Americans.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Koch for the first time, and she was kind enough to allow me to interview her for this blog regarding her Hispanic heritage and her aspirations as director.
Koch grew up in Jersey City, N.J., with four sisters and two brothers. She said education was stressed at home. She attended James J. Ferris High School and received her bachelor's in history from St. Peter’s University in Jersey City. She graduated in 1987 from Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, N.J.
Her mother, who is now 94, was born in Cuba and came to the United States in 1955. Her natural father and her stepfather were both born in Puerto Rico. The director learned to speak, read and write in Spanish.
“I’m very proud of my being Puerto Rican and Cuban,” said, adding, “The hallmark of my family is this: My mom told us to be proud of our Hispanic culture and to be proud to be American.”
Both of her brothers were born in Cuba, and both served in Vietnam. “We all believe in serving our country and our community,” she said.
Koch worked in general practice in Jersey City, then worked for the Middlesex Region of the Public Defender’s Office until 1996. She established her own law practice in 1996. She worked as a public defender from 2002 to 2008 in Perth Amboy, N.J. In 2014, she was appointed as judge of compensation. In December 2020 she was appointed administrative supervising judge while sitting in Plainfield vicinage. Gov. Phil Murphy nominated her as director of the division on June 9, 2022.
Koch had not practiced workers’ compensation law before becoming a judge of compensation. She credited several former judges with helping her develop a deep appreciation for the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act, including former Judge of Compensation Nilda Hernandez, former Judge of Compensation Yolanda Adrianzen and former Judge of Compensation James Welch.
In regard to being the first woman director of the division, she said, “All of the women judges who came before me have set the standard very high.”
Koch describes her style of leadership as collaborative, professional and consensus-building.
“What motivates me as director is that I am part of a greater task to do right by people,” she said.
She summed up her approach as “be kind and be collegial.”
In addition to running the Division of Workers’ Compensation, she handles seven lists in the Plainfield vicinage.
“As a workers’ compensation judge, I have to set the tone and example for the way that we treat injured workers, attorneys and everyone who is part of the division,” Koch said.
Koch commented that one of the major challenges in recent years for the division, as for all courts, has been the COVID pandemic.
“We in the division have had an uncanny ability to think outside the box,” she said, adding, “Like a good ballplayer, you have to adjust with each at-bat and with each pitch.”
Utilizing Zoom and Teams effectively has made a big difference, she said.
“My mission and my goal is to continue the high-quality standard of excellence during the pandemic crisis that the division has always demonstrated in New Jersey,” Koch said.
The director remains optimistic about the future of the division.
“Our division has stood out as a court that is second to none in its ability to produce for workers and for all stakeholders,” she said. She is hopeful that more judges will be nominated in the coming years.
The director lives at the Jersey Shore and when she is not working, she said she enjoys sailing and surfboarding. She has three children who are a big part of her life. She also remains an ardent fan of the New York Yankees and the New York Giants.
“The Giants did not look so good in their most recent game and need to do a little better,” she noted.
Our thanks to the director for allowing readers to learn more about her very interesting personal background and her goals for the division in the coming years.
John H. Geaney is an attorney, executive committee member and shareholder with Capehart Scatchard, a defense law firm in New Jersey. This post appears with permission from Geaney's New Jersey Workers' Comp Blog.