Ghosts, Goblins and Mediators

Halloween is just around the corner, a time when people love to be scared. It’s fun, because everyone knows there’s really nothing scary at all.

Mediation isn’t scary. Yet some Workers Compensation professionals fear it.

Fear of losing control
Adjusters and attorneys know their jobs. They may bristle at the idea of someone else getting involved in the settlement process. Yet, they don’t hesitate to call in other experts.

Workers Compensation professionals retain control in mediation. Only the parties can choose an outcome. The mediator cannot order anyone to take any action. What the mediator can do is help parties define issues, resolve differences, and see new routes to settlement.

Fear of looking bad
Some Workers Compensation professionals worry that calling in a mediator makes them look like they couldn’t do their job. On the contrary, professionals who use every tool in their arsenal look smart. Referring a claim for mediation can short-cut litigation, saving time and money. This makes you look like someone who knows how to get things done.

What are you scared of?
You don’t need a costume, and you don’t need a candy bucket to get started.  Treat yourself to mediation to move that difficult case forward.  Mediation can benefit all parties, and that’s no Halloween trick.

Get “In Pro Per” Claims Off The Books

You know the claims I’m talking about: the really old claims where the Injured Worker is representing himself/herself. Let’s call them “in pro per”s.  Active in pro pers file one court paper after another, causing the insurer or self-insured employer to fund what seems like a never-ending stream of money to send a representative to the Board. The in pro per’s papers may not state a recognizable claim. Pressed for time, the Information and Assistance officer may give the in pro per short shrift.  Defense attorneys with varying degrees of patience usually do, too.

But what if what the parties really need is a sort of an interpreter, a mediator.

Mediating an in pro per’s claim demonstrates respect for the in pro per.  The feeling of lack of respect and inability to get heard is often what drives the in pro per to keep summoning the employer to court.

“Why would I waste time and money on a worthless claim?” you may ask. Because you’re spending time and money now, and mediation is a way to end that endless cycle.

Sometimes the in pro per has a bona fide complaint, but without professional assistance has not been able to communicate it. The neutral mediator is often able to re-state the concern in a way the parties can address and put past them. The mediator can help each party see the other side’s point of view.

Are You A Rule-Breaker?

Workers Compensation professionals have to know a lot: the California Labor Code, Title 8 regulations, state and federal rules governing health care entitlements. To make things even harder, the rules of this highly-governed road keep changing. Workers Compensation may be the most intricate, heavily regulated area of practice. These rules can constrain the parties’ ability to negotiate satisfactory settlements.

You only have to know one rule about mediation: everything that happens within the mediation, including pre-mediation and follow-up communication, is confidential.  You don’t have to share your mediation brief with the other side if you don’t want to. In mediation, in contrast to WCAB practice or arbitration, you can get creative. You can break the rules.

 Mediated agreements can include provisions a WCJ could never order, such as agreements relating to actions in other forums.  You can settle claims which haven’t been made yet.  Parties can use creative solutions like structured settlements and medical care trusts. The mediator can help you brainstorm.

BREAK THE RULES

As mediator, I help parties settle cases.  There are no rulings in mediation, so no one loses.  Go ahead, let’s break some rules– and settle the case.

WHAT TO EXPECT AT MEDIATION

Mediation remains unfamiliar to most California Workers Compensation professionals. To succeed, you– and your client– need to know what to expect. While all mediations share some similarities, each mediator has a unique style. Here’s what you can expect at one of my mediations.
We usually start in joint session. The discussion might be limited to the logistical: introductions, bathrooms, lunch, etc.  People get to look each other in the eye.The first real step will be for the Applicant to tell how the injury happened and how things are going now. The purpose of this is to allow catharsis and to build empathy and trust between the injured worker and the mediator. Usually this is in a separate session known as a “caucus,” but if the defense needs to hear this information or wants to ask questions, it might happen while the parties are still in joint session. If the defense has heard the Applicant’s story many times, I may have Applicant do the venting in caucus.

I usually start negotiations with the Applicant’s side. If there were prior offers and demands, I will review those to make sure we are all at the same starting point. Then comes exploring the positions which support those offers and demands. The parties’ briefs should explain the issues; the more complicated the case, the more important the briefs. Defining issues for the mediator in the brief makes for a more efficient mediation. But the briefs do not limit the number of issues; sometimes new issues emerge in mediation.

I might speak with one or more attorneys outside the hearing of their clients, for example, to discuss a point of law.  All parties might reconvene to brainstorm solutions to an issue.  If parties are disrespectful of one another, I will stop a joint session.
In the give and take of numbers, issues will be discussed and swapped.  Cases do not settle without compromise.  Parties should expect give and take to finalize the settlement terms.
Participants may be surprised by the amount of time spent in caucus with the other side.  As mediator, my job is to give all parties adequate time to express their concerns.   While there are certainly exceptions, a typical workers compensation mediation lasts three to five hours.

YOU CAN’T SETTLE IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE ISSUES

HOW MANY PIECES ARE THERE TO THE SETTLEMENT PUZZLE?  
Answer:  Probably more than you think.
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The more issues there are in a negotiation, the greater the opportunity for give and take across issues. This adds flexibility for parties to shape a settlement acceptable to all. Trading across issues in negotiation is called “logrolling.”Every case has its own unique issues. Here is a partial list, some obvious, some I have seen people miss.

INCOME ISSUES
  • Disability percentage, including whether the disability is caused by an industrial injury
  • Apportionment
  • Applicable Date of Injury
  • Past payments- when were Permanent Disability payments supposed to start? Was the right rate used? Were past payments properly characterized as PD- or should they have been TD, Temporary Disability. Is there a TD overpayment?
  • If Life Pension payments will be due, when should they start?
  • Average Weekly Wage- Have you taken into account overtime and the value of non-cash compensation?
  • Ability to perform future work
  • Return to Work issues- will the employer provide modified work?
  • What about training? Check the new California law about computer purchases.
  • Liens
  • Penalties
MEDICAL ISSUES
  • What are the accepted body parts?
  • What expenses are reasonable and necessary? This can include issues about support services.
  • What is the appropriate medical specialty?
  • Is the treatment the Applicant wants compensable?
  • Is the Applicant’s over-all medical condition likely to shorten life expectancy?

 

5 BEST BENEFITS OF WORKERS COMPENSATION MEDIATION

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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.

Understanding Public Income and Medical Benefits after the Affordable Care Act

acaThere’s a lot more to the Affordable Care Act than buying private health insurance through an exchange marketplace like www.CoveredCA.com.

Four kinds of public benefits can help people get the medical care they need:

  1. Subsidized premiums and co-pays for private health insurance purchased through an exchange.  Commercial insurers issue these policies, not the government.
  2. Medicare, for people who have contributed the necessary number of quarters during their years of employment. Medicare Set-Asides are required when a Medicare beneficiary settles a claim for future medical care.
  3. Expanded Medi-Cal for people with low income; there is no asset limit, no requirement for a set-aside
  4. Traditional Medi-Cal for the indigent; there are income and asset limits, no requirement for a set-aside

These types of benefits are frequently confused, especially because the names are so similar.  For optimal settlement of a Workers Compensation case, you need to know the injured worker’s eligibility for these plans.

The Elephant in the 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.