3 Reasons Why I Talk to the Injured Worker

TRUST, CATHARSIS, COMPREHENSIVE RESOLUTION

 

Near the start of every mediation, once each side is in their own caucus room, I spend time talking directly with the injured worker. There are at least three reasons to do so.

1. I want to build trust in the mediation process.

The injured worker needs to feel part of and emotionally invested in the mediation process.  The injured worker is probably unfamiliar with the mediation process and may be apprehensive. The parties may distrust each other. Empathy is one of the traits of a good mediator.  I assure the injured worker that nothing will happen that the injured worker does not agree to. When the injured worker trusts the mediator and the mediation process to be fair, the likelihood of settlement increases.

2. Catharsis is part of the settlement process.
The mediation may be the closest the Injured Worker will get to a day in court.  Telling the story is a prerequisite to accepting settlement.  I want to make sure the Injured Worker gets the chance to tell the story in a neutral setting. Letting out emotions is good, and crying not uncommon.  Occasionally an attorney will intercede and take the place of the client to tell the story from the client’s viewpoint.  This is a mistake.
3. Sometimes the Injured Worker’s concerns are not being addressed.
At one mediation, when it looked like the attorneys had wrapped up all the issues, the Injured Worker asked me, “When will I be able to go back to work?”  A return to work was not part of the attorneys’ deal, and I had to rewind the process to make sure the Injured Worker’s concerns were addressed.  When the Injured Worker feels able to speak directly to the mediator, this type of omission– which could lead to problems for all participants later– is less likely to occur.

I participated in many workers compensation mediations before I became a mediator.  I never saw a mediator take the time to talk to the injured worker. Instead, I saw mediators create a barrier between themselves and the injured workers that made settlement more difficult. I work hard to make sure no communication barriers exist.

Mediator Proposals

I see cases– sometimes years later– where the parties were oh-so-close to settling when negotiations broke down. Nobody would compromise their bargaining position to give that last inch, and they didn’t have a mediator to help them bridge the gap.
A Secret Response To An Offer Nobody Made
A “mediator’s proposal” works like this. I come up with a figure, sometimes with conditions such as CMS approval, which I believe will settle the case. Neither party has made this settlement offer, but, based on the negotiations which have occurred so far, it is a figure I believe all parties can accept.The mediator’s proposal depends on confidentiality. Parties are in separate rooms at this point. These separate sessions are called “caucuses.” I have always communicated my mediator’s proposals aloud in the caucus room, but some mediators write the proposal on two pieces of paper (one for each side) and sometimes put them in envelopes to be opened once the mediator has left the caucus.

If both parties accept the proposal, we have a settlement. (Hurray!) If one party accepts, but the other does not, there is no settlement, and the refusing party never learns that the other side accepted. I only tell parties there is no settlement. If both sides refuse, I tell them there is no settlement, but, again, parties do not know if the other side accepted the mediator’s proposal.

There are many benefits of the mediator’s proposal. Principally, no one has forsaken their last offer to settle. If a mediator’s proposal does not succeed, the parties can continue negotiating from their last position.

Blame it on the mediator
The mediator’s proposal allows mediation participants to save face. “It wasn’t our idea; it was that darn mediator’s.” Sometimes attorneys hesitate to be completely forthright in their recommendations to their clients, particularly if they are the second or third attorney on the file.  The mediator’s proposal opens the door for a frank discussion while allowing the attorney to shift responsibility to the mediator for an idea the client may find distasteful.

Mediators don’t stick their necks out to come up with a proposal unless they are pretty sure it is going to be accepted.  These things don’t happen early in the mediation.  More likely, you will see a mediator’s proposal when it looks like parties are heading to an impasse. Because my mediator’s proposal is a reflection of the parties own negotiation to this point, it is generally accepted.

Stop Hiding The Ball: What You Need To Tell The Other Side

Your best friend in negotiation can be your opponent—provided you put your report where your mouth is. Too often parties withhold evidence which would support their position. Sure, your opponent’s initial reaction may be to denigrate your evidence. But they may not have anything to refute it. It might even be too late for them to try to work up something.
Help Your Opponent Convince Their Client
So why did it take so long to get to this point? Because you have been hiding the ball. If you expect large sums for a life pension or for treatment the carrier had denied plus penalties plus fees, be prepared to show why the employer was wrong. You can’t expect opposing counsel to advise their client to change their case evaluation if you’ve been keeping secret the reports that crush their position. Of course, timing is important. There are many reasons why you might not want to show your hand too early. But by the time you are at the mediation table, you must be prepared to put your cards on the table.

How Mediation Confidentiality Helps
Perhaps you have a sub rosa video or some other smoking gun the other side doesn’t know about. Your mediation brief can be confidential– for the mediator’s eyes only. When you are in caucus (a private meeting with the mediator,) you can discuss secret information with the mediator. If you don’t want it disclosed to the other side, it goes no further. But putting the mediator in the picture allows her to frame the issues in the case to maximize the potential for settlement.

Negotiations succeed when parties are in the same ballpark. If you don’t communicate what your ballpark is, your opponent will assume that their evaluation is the correct one. It’s hard to play in the same game when one of you is at Dodger Stadium in L.A. and the other is at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. To bring everyone to the same field, you have to communicate.

America Runs On . . .

You’ve probably seen the ad:

Courtrooms– even WCAB courtrooms– run on evidence. It’s your job to make sure you have evidence to support your view of the case.

The advice to communicate your evidence so your opponent can help you “sell” your position assumes you’ve done everything necessary to gather that evidence.  That could mean obtaining a narrative medical or vocational report or ordering a Medicare Set-Aside allocation report.

Mediations are efficient and successful when everyone comes prepared with information to support their demand or offer.

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.

Heartsink Patients

Heartsink” is the term for how the treater feels when it is difficult if not impossible to help patients with chronic pain and disability. A 1989 Toronto Star editorial placed these patients into four categories: dependent clingers, entitled demanders, manipulative help-rejecters, and self-destructive deniers.
You know these injured workers. They are the ones whose life is wrapped up in their claim. The only way they will give up that obsession is to replace it with a plan for life after claim closure.Injured workers need to feel that a settlement is the just result. They need adequate compensation to create a safety net for future medical care. A WCAB hearing is often just a prelude to more conflict.

Mediation can provide the forum to help the injured worker create a plan for life without an ongoing claim.

 

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.

The Regulation (Almost) Nobody Follows

“If a party requests that a defendant provide a computer printout of benefits paid, within twenty (20) days the defendant shall provide the requesting party with a current computer printout of benefits paid. The printout shall include the date and amount of each payment of temporary disability indemnity, permanent disability indemnity, and vocational rehabilitation maintenance allowance, and the period covered by each payment, and the date, payee, and amount of each payment for medical treatment. This request may not be made more frequently than once in a one-hundred-twenty (120) day period unless there is a change in indemnity payments.

A defendant that has paid benefits shall have a current computer printout of benefits paid available for inspection at every mandatory settlement conference.
California Code of Regulations Title 8 §10607.

The benefits printout is the foundation of every workers compensation claim evaluation. Yet, workers compensation professionals often ignore the basic exercise of examining claim expenditures. Attorneys sometimes come to mediation with a rolling cart holding boxes of documents. Yet, when asked for the printout, they have to contact their office or the adjuster. Stranger still are the answers I sometimes get to the question, “How did you get to that number?” When I ask participants how they formulated their demand or offer, their answers may have no relation to actual claim exposure.

Showing up at a mediation or mandatory settlement conference without having scrutinized the printout numbers is inefficient, maybe even sloppy. Better practice is to obtain the printout in advance and create projections to support your claim evaluation.

Workers compensation professionals should review past medical expenses to project future expenses. Of course, parties may disagree about what expenses are reasonable and the likelihood and duration of future care. A medical recommendation for a new treatment (which may be disputed) can skew the numbers. For example, resolution of one mediated case hinged on a medical recommendation for a newly available prosthetic device.

The printout is also critical to resolving retro and overpayment disputes. When parties disagree about whether payments in a given time period should have been paid at the PD or TD rate, the printout is the best evidence of what was actually paid.

When both sides look at the printout together, they can often resolve their disagreements with a little help from the mediator.

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.”