Privacy Issues When Predators Cause Comp Claims

In the #MeToo and #TimesUp era, employees may be more ready to assert sexual aggression claims than in the past. These situations could lead to a workers compensation claim, a civil suit or even criminal proceedings. Privacy is an issue in each setting, but only in comp is the claims professional engaged in the victim’s medical treatment. Privacy issues merit consideration throughout the life of the claim, including at time of resolution.

The applicability of SB 863 and Labor Code §4660.1(c) regarding the compensability of psych claims is outside the scope of this post.

Who is the adjuster?
Advocacy based claims handling emphasizes empathy with the injured worker.  Adjusting a claim for physical injury from rape, actual or attempted, or a psych claim arising from sexual aggression may call for special attention to who will see the injured worker’s records.  A female adjuster may be best suited to handle a woman’s claim.  But reports of Kevin Spacey’s and others’ behavior remind us this problem is not limited to aggression against women.

An important concern with #MeToo claims is to avoid a string of claims personnel who have access to the injured workers’ medical records as they make treatment authorization decisions. Some companies have procedures to limit access to sensitive records. However, the longer a case is pending, the more likely it is that multiple people will need to see these records, possibly causing additional stress for the injured worker.

Confidential Resolution
As with all other workers compensation claims, early resolution is best. Mediation is the most private place to resolve sexual aggression claims.  Unlike with an informal meeting, mediation confidentiality is mandated by law.

A WCAB hearing may create additional psychological issues for someone who has had these experiences. Assure that person or their representative that participants are barred from disclosing what happens in a mediation in other forums.

Additionally, caucusing enhances a claimant’s privacy. Once I have separated the parties into separate spaces,they can talk to me without fear that anything will be communicated to those in the other room without their permission. As the mediator, I can reframe the injured worker’s concerns to maximize privacy. This environment facilitates case settlement.

Mediate to Comply with this Regulation

Ready to file that DOR?  Not so fast. If you can’t show you tried to settle, you may be wasting everyone’s time.
Mediation Shows Readiness
8 CCR §10414(d) requires that “All declarations of readiness to proceed shall state under penalty of perjury that the moving party has made a genuine, good faith effort to resolve the dispute before filing the declaration of readiness to proceed, and shall state with specificity the same on the declaration of readiness to proceed…. [emphasis added]”The way to show a genuine, good faith effort at resolution is to mediate the disputed issues.   Here’s how you meet the regulation’s requirement to state with specificity:”The parties attempted to resolve the described dispute through mediation with mediator Teddy Snyder on [date].”

How often will you need this language? Almost never. The reason is that once parties mediate their dispute, more often than not they resolve it.

Convening
Convening, the process of getting everyone to agree to a time and place to mediate, can be the trickiest part. Some practitioners remain unfamiliar with mediation. They may confuse it with arbitration. We are all afraid to try new things, sometimes even when clients tell us to. You need to communicate your readiness to resolve the issues in a setting where those issues can be fully explored and the parties are in control of the outcome. Mediating is the win-win choice.

Convening is best done by the attorneys, though the mediator can assist. If you are still trying to get the other attorney’s attention, you may indeed have to file that DOR. Once you get a response, even if it takes going to the Board, immediately suggest mediation as a way to cut to the chase, resolve the issues and avoid future unnecessary Board appearances.

Plan How To Start Your Mediation

The way mediations start is important. A bad start can result in a lot of wasted time getting to the place you should have been at the beginning.

The First Move
The best way to start is to start. Don’t be afraid to make the first offer to settle. Setting a settlement floor or ceiling tells your negotiating opponent where you are. Silence can falsely communicate that you are in the same ballpark.

Even if your offers did not get a response before, making a new offer now re-defines the settlement ballpark. An offer made “in light of new information” (even if that is simply a reconsideration) is not bidding against yourself.

Start Very Big or Very Small
Think about how your negotiating opponent will react to your opening. Your initial offer should not be so ridiculous that your opponent will walk out. On the other hand, research tells us that an extreme number can lead to a final result closer to the speaker’s expectation than does a more moderate opener.

Pick the Tiny Issue
Seldom does a Workers Comp settlement turn on only one issue.  Plan to start with the issue where the parties have the smallest evaluation difference and continue on as the challenge size increases. You may have to skip and come back to the thorniest issues regardless of size. Isolating issues and knocking them down one by one is an effective way to reach agreement.

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.