Posts

New Rules Of Professional Conduct For California Lawyers

                                                 New Considerations in Settlement and Case Management 

The California Supreme Court has approved new rules of professional conduct for attorneys licensed in California which go into effect November 1, 2018. These rules generally expand the existing settlement ethics rules. Violation of the rules can lead to a range of disciplinary actions, including disbarment. Here are the ones which affect people trying to settle a case.

Client Communication
Prior Rule 3-500 in a single sentence required lawyers to keep clients reasonably informed about significant developments. New Rule 1.4 is more detailed. Now there’s a two-way street: the lawyer must reasonably consult with the client about how to achieve the client’s goals. What’s more, the lawyer must also inform the client about what the lawyer cannot legally or ethically do even if it’s what the client expects.

Prior Rule 3-510 required lawyers to promptly communicate the specifics of a written settlement offer. A California lawyer need only pass along a spoken settlement offer if the lawyer deems the offer significant. New Rule 1.4.1 preserves this distinction.

In evaluating settlement offers or making other decisions about the representation, the Comment to new Rule 2.1 clarifies that a lawyer can initiate advice to a client on relevant, non-legal issues, such as moral, economic, social and political factors.

Diligence
Prior Rule 3-110 defined “competence” as including diligence. Now a separate Rule 1.3 prohibits a lawyer from “intentionally, repeatedly, recklessly or with gross negligence” failing to act with reasonable diligence.

New Rule 3.2 says “a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to delay or prolong the proceeding or to cause needless expense.” Now an ethical rule may apply to needless court appearances and continuances and improperly postponed treatment.

Truthfulness
New Rule 4.1 prohibits lawyers from knowingly making a false statement of material fact or law to a third person, i.e., someone who is not a client, such as an opposing party or witness. A lawyer cannot knowingly incorporate or affirm the truth of someone else’s false statement. A nondisclosure is the equivalent of a lie if the lawyer makes a partially true but misleading material statement or omission. On the other hand, the Comment to the Rule clarifies that there is no affirmative duty to inform an opponent of relevant facts. Representations about case value are not statements of fact or law.California Business and Professions Code sec. 6068(d) requires lawyers to represent clients with methods which are “consistent with truth.” A lawyer who intentionally deceives the court or any party can be charged with a misdemeanor. This statute remains in effect.Everybody Who Acts For the Firm
Prior Rule 3-110 included within the duty of competence a duty to properly supervise lawyers and non-attorneys or agents. New rules 5.1, 5.2, and 5.3 expand on that and provide for vicarious liability for a breach. A subordinate lawyer has an independent duty to follow the rules, but is not responsible for following instructions when there is an arguable question of professional duty.

 

Documenting the Mediated Agreement

Almost all of my mediations end with agreement to a Compromise and Release. Parties often bring a partially completed Compromise & Release form, DWC-CA form 10214(c), to the mediation. That’s great. But when considerations prevent execution of a final agreement at the mediation, a Memorandum of Understanding, known as an M.O.U., can be invaluable.

What Is It
After working hard to come to terms, you don’t want to let the passage of time blur people’s memories or minimize their commitment. Participants should not leave the mediation without a record of their agreements.

A Memorandum of Understanding memorializes the skeleton terms agreed upon at the mediation. Parties sign off at the mediation. The M.O.U. might specify a timeline or conditions.

If It’s Complicated
Some settlements are complicated, requiring many addenda. Unanticipated issues may have arisen and been resolved at the mediation. Parties need to return to their offices to draft the final settlement document. The M.O.U. should specify the basic terms as well as deadlines for completion of the initial settlement document, exchange of revisions, and submission to the WCAB.
Conditional Agreements
Some agreements are conditional, usually upon CMS approval of a Medicare Set-Aside allocation. Attorneys may address this issue by doing everything but the walk-through, including signatures, pending approval. This leaves a potentially dangerous loophole when unforeseen events occur during the waiting period.Another way to document a conditional agreement is through an M.O.U. Unlike the agreement which sits in a file drawer, an M.O.U. can specifically address the condition, including what will happen if the condition cannot be fulfilled. For example, if CMS comes back with a higher amount, and the parties do not assent to that amount within a specified time, they can agree to return to mediation.

Getting to MOU

Mediation allows parties to address issues outside the jurisdiction and procedures of the WCAB and to fashion creative solutions.

If you have despaired of closing that troublesome,  decades-old claim, turn to mediation.

Take the bull by the horns, and the result may well be an M.O.U.

Turn Workers Comp Straw Into Gold

Remember the story of Rumpelstiltskin, a little man who could turn straw into gold? The mediation process does the same thing. When provided with the basic ingredients, the mediator can create gold: a win-win settlement.

But the parties have to provide the “straw”:
 
An Open Mind
One reason a case stays open may be that parties are not paying attention to what the other side views as important. Try to discard pre-conceived notions of what the other side needs and come to mediation willing to listen.

Preparation
What does your side really need to settle this case? Is it purely a dollar figure—or are there non-monetary concerns?  Which issues must parties resolve for settlement to happen? Communicating those issues to the mediator in advance makes for an efficient mediation.

A Willingness to Settle
The right people need to be at the mediation with adequate authority. Parties need to spend time calculating a reasonable settlement range in light of all factors before negotiation can bear fruit—or gold. The decision-maker must be at the mediation as well as any necessary support people. That might include family members, clergy, or other advisors to the injured worker, a nurse case manager or structured settlement broker for the employer. If the decision-maker can’t/won’t close the deal without the support person’s input, that person needs to be there or at least available by phone. Coming to mediation with the right people and proper authority shows respect for others at the table and enhances the opportunity for a good result.

When everyone brings the right straw to the bargaining table, they are likely to walk away with a golden settlement. Rumpelstiltskin is the bad guy of his story, but your mediator can be the hero of yours.

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.

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.

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 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.

YOU HAVE TO GET OUT OF B-E-D TO SETTLE

Maybe being in BED- Blame, Excuses, Denial- is really what’s blocking your ability to close claims.
Blame
It’s easy to blame the other side. “The adjuster/ defense attorney/ applicant’s counsel isn’t paying attention.”  “They’re keeping the case going for the wrong reasons.” Whatever. The only person you can control is you. Without casting aspersions, start communicating anew keeping the end in sight. This might mean sending an email AND a letter, calling and maybe texting. Bring in your favored mediator AND file a DOR.
Excuses
Let go of the past. Maybe you made a mistake or missed an opportunity which would have set the claim on a better course. How much could you have settled that claim for 4 years ago? Resolve to start over today.

Denial
Get serious about evaluation. You can’t properly manage a claim if you shut your eyes to the true cost of keeping it open. In “old dog” cases, medical expenses almost always go up. Even when a drug is scheduled to go generic, a new, better, expensive drug becomes available. A settlement has to cover the injured worker’s future claim-related medical expense. Six percent is not a realistic discount rate. On the other hand, let’s be honest about what treatments the injured worker will actually use.

Get Out of B-E-D Now
Changing your attitude can change your results.

Maybe you made a mistake or missed an opportunity which would have set the claim on a better course. How much could you have settled that claim for 4 years ago? Resolve to start over today.