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.

The Elephant in the Mediation Conference Room

Sometimes the issues the lawyers and adjusters are discussing are not what is most important to the Applicant.

Recently, in a pretty small case, the professionals told me the disagreements were about what had been paid and what was still due. The injured worker told me his biggest concern was that, although he had returned to modified duty, the employer had told him there was no more work for someone with his disability. The injured worker was terrified that he would be out of a job with no ability to get another one, but that is not what the lawyers were discussing.

Many times, the injured worker’s biggest issue is not one that is dispositive of any issue in the case, but, in fact, is the driver for the injured worker’s decisions– the proverbial elephant in the room the negotiators are trying to ignore.

Because these are often personal matters, the injured worker may not share these concerns with the employer’s side– or even the injured worker’s own lawyer.

  • The woman with a sick teen-aged son who desperately wanted to control her own industrial medical care, but was afraid that if she C&R’d her case, the lump sum payment would result in the family’s loss of Medi-Cal which provided care for the son.
  • The man suffering from non-industrial cancer whose biggest concern was leaving an estate to support his wife.
  • The injured worker who wanted to return to his home country, but feared that expressing that desire would diminish the value of the claim.

These issues can often be discovered and resolved through mediation. Parties can express their concerns to the mediator confidentially. Once the mediator knows the real issue, the mediator can often re-frame the issues to allow the parties to reach resolution– all without breaching confidentiality.

Death and Taxes

Workers Compensation is one more area where death and taxes must be considered.

DEATH

Death of an injured worker who has not previously entered into a Compromise & Release for the indemnity part of the claim stops all benefits. Per California Labor Code 4700, “Neither temporary nor permanent disability payments shall be made for any period of time subsequent to the death of the employee.” Life expectancy is uncertain. An injured worker who is concerned about the injured worker’s family’s future welfare may want to get the value of those benefits now. The way to do this is by entering a Compromise and Release settlement.

An injured worker can create a potential estate for the injured worker’s family by cashing out the value of future indemnity benefits. The question then becomes how to value those benefits. Rather than a dollar-for-dollar payment, it may be appropriate to apply a discount for present value. In other words, a dollar in hand today is worth more than the promise of one to be paid years in the future. The reason is that today’s dollar can grow with proper investment. Parties may differ on the proper discount rate to use for this purpose. In cases where payments are due for the lifetime of the injured worker, disagreements can arise about the injured worker’s life expectancy.

TAXES

All payments made pursuant to a Workers Compensation claim, both medical and indemnity, are being paid due to a physical injury. Therefore, these payments are excluded from gross income for income tax purposes under Internal Revenue code section 104. Settling the claim for a lump sum does not change the tax-free character of the payment. Beware, however, that once that money is invested, the income generated from that principal is treated like any other income without regard to the source. The injured worker can choose to invest some of the settlement in a structured settlement which pays return of principal and tax-free investment income according to a schedule the injured worker chooses at time of settlement.

Don’t Miss the Crossover Issues

Crossover issues are not strictly workers compensation issues– which is why they are sometimes overlooked. That omission can cost a party money or even lead to a professional malpractice suit. Third Party Claims
Product liability, medical malpractice, and negligent roadway design are examples of third party claims usually unaffected by the exclusive remedy rule. Collisions may give rise to the most common third party claim.

SSDI
Whether and when to apply for Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) are not simple decisions. Federal law is written to make sure a disabled person does not earn more when not working than the person did on the job. The “80% rule” limits the combined total of SSDI and indemnity payments to an injured worker. This rule principally affects lower wage earners.

Medicare/Medi-Cal
Virtually all workers compensation professionals recognize the need for a Medicare Set-Aside in appropriate cases. Correct self-administration remains a challenge. Additionally, practitioners should be aware that two forms of Medi-Cal currently exist: traditional and expanded. Savvy negotiators can often use these programs to create a safety net to cover the injured worker’s medical expenses as part of a Compromise & Release completely closing the claim. C&Rs drafted without considering Medi-Cal issues could imperil medical care for the injured worker and the injured worker’s entire family.

Immigration
Undocumented injured workers are eligible for workers compensation benefits in California. Some undocumented workers have been in their jobs for decades. They remain under the legal radar until a workplace injury occurs. At that point, a false or stolen identity may come to light, creating issues for the injured worker and the employer. The Patriot Act’s provisions about identification required to open a bank account or to send money out of the country can also interfere with an injured worker’s decision to choose a Compromise & Release.

Tax
The tax code provides that money received on account of a physical injury is not taxable. Usually all payments made on a workers compensation claim arise from a physical injury. However, a number of circumstances could trigger taxation. Also, once an injured worker receives a buy-out, earnings on invested or banked sums are taxable.

Get Help
Workers compensation professionals should recognize crossover issues, and counsel should alert clients when these issues appear. The next step could be to bring in an expert in that area, provide one or more referrals, or advise clients to seek professional advice on their own.

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.

Bulk Settlement Days

The Workers Compensation community is small. We see the same folks again and again. Applicant’s counsel commonly have an inventory of cases with one carrier or TPA, perhaps involving a single employer. Claims professionals and defense counsel often have multiple claims with one applicant’s attorney. These scenarios beg for an efficient resolution.

A litigation management technique called a Bulk Settlement Day involves scheduling multiple cases for mediation with the same players on the same day, same place, one after the other. Some people use the term Block Settlement Day for the same idea, referring to a block of cases.

Scheduling a Settlement Day is not as daunting as you may think. Start with a letter suggesting several cases you know are good settlement candidates. Invite the addressee to suggest others. If you need help composing your letter, please contact me for a form. 

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.