You Have To Play To Win

–How Mediation Is (Not) Like the Lottery–

No, I’m not advocating you play the lottery, but the slogan does apply: you have to play to win. The odds of winning the California Super Lotto Jackpot are 18 million to 1 against you. The likelihood you will be able to resolve your workers compensation issue in mediation is more like 80-90% in your favor providing you participate.

Take a Calculated Risk
The only settlement offer without a chance of acceptance is the one you never make. Some parties complain that they can’t settle the case. Yet, those same parties refuse mediation or come to mediation unwilling to negotiate. You cannot expect resolution in mediation if your position is to never move off the number that was refused pre-mediation. You have to play to win.

Playing the lottery is the classic example of a blind risk. A blind risk embodies an irrational hope, an action based on nothing more than emotion, expecting something for nothing. A person who takes a calculated risk, on the other hand, has objectively assessed the situation and examined the upside and downside potential. This is true for investors, explorers, world leaders, and negotiators.

First evaluate, then negotiate
Before you can effectively negotiate, you have to do your homework, i.e., run the numbers to evaluate the claim. Once you have considered the best and worst alternatives to a negotiated agreement, you are ready to proffer your demand or offer. You have to play to win.

Mediation allows the people with the most knowledge about the claim to take control of resolving it. During mediation, the mediator can help you calculate your risks and negotiate resolution.

How Minimum Wage Laws Affect Indemnity Payments

SAWW is going up. The California State Average Weekly Wage determines the annual adjustment of the minimum and maximum payments to persons receiving temporary disability benefits per Labor Code 4453(a)(10). The State Average Weekly Wage also determines the adjustment to payments to persons receiving a life pension or total permanent disability indemnity per Labor Code 4659(c).

In June, the Department of Industrial Relations Division of Workers Compensation announced an increase for payments starting January 1, 2017. The minimum TTD rate will increase from $169.26 to $175.88 and the maximum TTD rate will increase from $1,128.43 to $1,172.57 per week.

In a separate development, a new rule gradually raising the minimum hourly wage to $15 by January 1, 2023 was signed into law in April. A rising minimum hourly rate will increase the State Average Weekly Wage over the next seven years and in consequence some workers compensation indemnity benefits.But there’s a safety valve. After January 1, 2017, the governor can delay any scheduled increase for one year if certain economic or budget conditions exist. The economy has been expanding. Some experts predict a collapse.

Effect on Settlements
When evaluating claims for settlement, parties may have to consider how the expected SAWW increases will affect the value of future indemnity benefits. The minimum hourly wage increases are small, 50 cents the first two years and a dollar a year thereafter. Is this enough to affect the historic rate of increase we have seen for life pensions? Claims subject to minimum and maximum TD increases are most likely to be affected. An across-the-board increase in claim value will also increase attorney compensation.

Predicting is hard.  Settling sooner rather than later avoids uncertainty.

THE ONE THING TO DO TO MAXIMIZE WORKERS COMP MEDIATION SUCCESS

Preparing a mediation brief is the one thing you can do to maximize the likelihood of a successful mediation. The goal in mediation is to define issues and resolve them. You can get a head start by alerting your mediator to the issues and suggesting why those issues tilt in your favor.

Lack of a brief unnecessarily lengthens the mediation. Your mediator is probably being paid according to how much time is spent in mediation. Effective resource management dictates you don’t want the mediator to have to spend the first hour—or two or three—digging out the issues.

Mediation can be an exhausting process. People get cantankerous which makes negotiation more difficult. Short-cutting the mediation by defining issues in advance can keep participants at their best.

The brief need not be formal. A letter may be adequate. If you are in doubt about how formal your brief must be, contact the mediator and ask.

A party who does not brief the issues may be allowing the other side to define the discourse. Send your brief to the mediator far enough ahead of the mediation so the mediator has adequate time to review it.

The mediation brief you send the mediator is confidential. You decide whether to share it with the opposing party. Information disclosed to the mediator during mediation is not discoverable. The mediator cannot be subpoenaed. This allows you to control when to disclose your “smoking gun”—maybe not until trial.

Some parties prepare two briefs: one for the opposing party and one for the mediator. More commonly, a party prepares just one, but may decide to waive confidentiality of the brief during mediation.

Settlement Season

settlement-seasonHere we are in the fourth quarter of the year or as some call it, settlement season. Workers Compensation cases seem to drag on, but as year-end approaches, everyone in the system suddenly wants to get claims off the books. There is good reason.

Claimants on the road to settlement often want to complete a buy-out in time to get cash for the holiday season. Carriers have to report to state insurance departments how many claims are open at year-end. Self-insureds want to avoid funding a bond for another year.

If you haven’t previously mediated a Workers Compensation claim, you might feel a bit intimidated. You don’t have to commit to a settlement in advance of mediation. In fact, many mediations start with parties insisting the claim will not settle.  Yet, the majority of those mediated claims do result in settlement.

Parties just need to agree to sit together with the mediator to discuss the issues. Once everyone is on board, a mediation can be scheduled quickly. Unlike a WCAB hearing, participants can take all the time they need.

When parties collaborate in mediation to define issues, they often find themselves resolving those issues. Minimally, everyone will be on a firmer basis to move forward.

What You Forgot To Tell Your TPA

Many self-insureds and carriers use Third Party Administrators as their front-line adjusters. A set of instructions or guidelines from the actual check-writer is supposed to regulate the TPA’s procedures. Anticipating every permutation of every possible situation is impossible, but every set of instructions should include guidance on when and how to use mediation.

Recently I had the opportunity to review a set of TPA instructions. The TPA was directed to “negotiate settlements of covered claims pursuant to the authority granted by” the contracting party. No further details were provided.  However, another section of the agreement spelled out in minute detail a procedure for mediation should a dispute arise between the TPA and its client. The client knew mediation was an important tool for resolving its own disputes, but provided no direction about how to use it to resolve covered claims.

The regional risk manager of one national account tried to get their local team of TPA workers compensation adjusters to try new dispute resolution techniques, but the adjusters refused. “If they want us to do that, they need to include it in their instructions.”

What Should TPA Instructions Say About Mediation?
“At appropriate milestones in the life of a claim, adjusters and attorneys should take active steps to initiate mediation and report on the results.

“These milestones include:

-Upcoming trial date
-IW has reached permanent & stationery status
-IW has reached age 61
-70% of indemnity reserve has been paid
-4 reserve changes within 2 years
-Case is more than 4 years old

“Additionally, claims handlers should attempt to close claims with mediation in:

-Death cases
-when the IW is acting in pro per

“Adjusters and attorneys are expected to participate in mediations with a good faith intention to negotiate and resolve pivotal issues.”

Making Sure Your C&R Is Approved: Itemize Offers to Assure Adequacy

“Let’s see,” I said to the employer’s representative. “After deducting PDAs, the MSA, and attorney fees from this offer, the injured worker will end up owing you money.”

It happens more often than you might imagine. Usually it’s because the defense has forgotten the attorney’s fee. Then they wonder why the offer was rejected. Unless parties are in mediation, negotiation often stops.

Why You Need Adequacy
A settlement must be adequate. A recent case on the issue of settlement adequacy, Alvarenga v. Scope Industries, caught some workers compensation professionals off-guard. The court reversed approval of the settlement because after allowing for attorney fees it was inadequate to fund the MSA. Whether CMS approval of the MSA was sought was irrelevant.

California regulations mandate adequacy:
“The Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board shall inquire into the adequacy of all compromise and release agreements and stipulations with request for award, and may set the matter for hearing to take evidence when necessary to determine whether the agreement should be approved or disapproved, or issue findings and awards.”
8 CCR § 10882 Action on Settlement Agreement

Written Itemization Promotes Settlement
Itemized offers and demands help settle cases. When the PDAs, MSA and attorney fees are itemized in an offer, everyone can see how funds will be disbursed.California law favors written settlement offers. Attorneys must show clients written settlement offers and demands, California Rule of Professional Conduct For Attorneys 3-510, but need only convey oral offers if the attorney thinks the offer is “significant.” Written offers let the recipient easily and accurately convey the information to the ultimate decision-maker.Preparing an offer or demand requires review of indemnity issues, Medicare-eligible expenses, and non-Medicare-eligible expenses. Calculating the settlement parts separately can be an eye-opening exercise. Itemizing can show why the offer or demand is reasonable.

Cannibal Negotiation

Cannibal negotiation refers to a deal where parties figure out how to get money from an entity not at the table.

The term originates from an arrangement where OldCo paid NewCo to keep NewCo’s cheaper, competing product off the market. NewCo is paid for not selling anything. The buyers who need that product have to pay OldCo’s high price. The buyers are being cannibalized.

Honest disagreement can thwart parties’ good intentions to reach a workers compensation settlement. Cannibal negotiations can ethically resolve disputes over the value of future medical benefits.

The first place a true cannibal negotiator should turn is Medi-Cal. Medi-Cal can fill the gap between parties’ valuations and provide a safety net to pay for the injured worker’s health care at no cost to any party. A special needs trust or structured settlement may be needed to keep an applicant eligible for traditional Medi-Cal. Under expanded Medi-Cal, the applicant can receive a settlement of any size without losing eligibility so long as Modified Adjusted Gross Income is under the limit. Caution: home health care and non-emergency medical transportation are not included in expanded Medi-Cal. 

Medicare is the next source a cannibal should think of for a funding entity not at the negotiating table. Medicare is different from Medi-Cal in that the injured worker had to contribute the required number of quarters to achieve eligibility. Also, a Medicare Set-Aside must be depleted before additional funds can be tapped to pay for a claim-related Medicare-eligible expense.

Lastly, the parties may be able to use part of the settlement to fund health insurance premiums for the injured worker. A health insurance agent can provide a quote for Affordable Care Act coverage regardless of the injured worker’s pre-existing condition. A (cannibalized) subsidy may indeed keep the premium cost affordable.

Cannibal negotiators can “prey” on more than one source. Some applicants are “Medi-Medi”, enrolled in both Medicare and Medi-Cal. MSAs should not be tapped until the applicant is eligible for Medicare; for the period up to 30 months before then, Affordable Care Act insurance can provide coverage.

5 BEST BENEFITS OF WORKERS COMPENSATION MEDIATION

venn settlement colors
1) Mediation Works.  In one study, 61 percent of workers compensation mediations resulted in total resolution of the disputed issues.
2) Mediation is fast- no waiting for a hearing date on an overcrowded court schedule.
3) Take as much time as you need- no rush to finish within a half-day window at the WCAB.
4) Mediation saves time and money compared to numerous, futile court appearances.
5) Presence of the neutral can help preserve the attorney-client relationship and inject a dose of reality.

Settlement Ethics

Ethics are the moral principles that govern behavior. Every workers compensation professional has ethical rules to follow. For attorneys, these are spelled out in Codes of Professional Responsibility, statutes and sometimes case law. Despite some differences among the states, the basic principles governing settlement ethics are mostly the same

Duty to Communicate to the Client
Lawyers must keep clients reasonably informed about significant developments (CA Rule of Professional Conduct 3-500). CA Rule 3-510 tells lawyers to promptly communicate the specifics of a written settlement offer. In other words, a California lawyer need only pass along a verbal settlement offer if the lawyer deems the offer significant. The lesson for negotiators is to make all settlement offers in writing to ensure the client learns about them. The bonus: a written offer avoids confusion about the offer’s terms.

In an unpublished Texas case, Grillo v. Harris Hospital, a former client sued for legal malpractice damages for the alleged failure to communicate a settlement offer. The suit claimed that the attorney’s failure to convey a structured settlement offer resulted in the plaintiff’s loss of public benefits worth millions of dollars. The law firm paid a $1.6M settlement.

Duty of Competence
A lawyer must be competent, defined as having the diligence, learning and skill, and mental, emotional and physical ability to practice (CA Rule of Professional Conduct 3-110). That means the lawyer should be conversant with all the factors impacting settlement, including access to public benefits and tax. If the lawyer is not expert in a subject, the lawyer can notify the client to obtain such an expert.

Duty of Honesty
Lawyers must act honestly in litigation, including settlement negotiations. California Business and Professions Code Section 6068(d) requires an attorney to “employ, for the purpose of maintaining the causes confided to him or her those means only as are consistent with truth…“ Business & Professions Code 6128 imposes misdemeanor criminal liability on a lawyer who intends “to deceive the court or any party.” The maximum penalty is a six-month jail sentence, a fine up to $2,500 or both.

Six Biggest Mediation Misconceptions

The Mediator might rule against me.

Mediators do not make any rulings. The role of the mediator is to help the parties resolve the issues.

 

If I go to mediation, I will have to give up something.
Negotiation is about compromise. Each side usually gives up something. You won’t give up anything unless you, and only you, make the choice to negotiate a deal.
 
Mediation is too expensive.
Mediation is cheaper than litigation. It is efficient and eliminates other procedures which use up time and money.
 
Mediation is a waste of time.
Mediation has been shown repeatedly to be effective in resolving all issues. But even if you don’t conclude your case at the mediation, mediation typically allows parties to learn more about their opponent’s case—and their own. Issues are narrowed, setting the stage for further negotiation or more efficient litigation.
 
There is no reason to mediate—our case is a sure winner.
Mediation might be a place to test that hypothesis—or convince the other side. Presumably you wouldn’t be in litigation if there weren’t two sides to the story. If there is counsel on both sides, your opponent is spending time, money and effort for a reason. Applicants representing themselves might just need a forum to tell their story. Litigation is always uncertain. Settlement is the only way to retain control over the outcome, rather than let a judge impose a resolution on you.

 

We look like push-overs by suggesting mediation.
Mediation is the rule rather than the exception in most areas of law in the United States, and it’s become more common in California Workers Compensation cases. The fact is that most cases settle at some point. Smart Workers Compensation professionals use every tool at their disposal to conclude cases as early as possible.