Posts

New Law on Settlement Agreements

A new California law effective January 1, 2020 governs settlement agreement language regarding employment dismissals and rehires. An employer and employee can still agree that a settlement includes termination of employment, but the agreement cannot include language that the person is barred from re-employment.

The legislative history of AB749 shows that the motive behind the law was to prevent situations where a sexual harasser remains employed by a company, but the victim can’t get back or hang on to a job. Here’s the language:

“An agreement to settle an employment dispute shall not contain a provision prohibiting, preventing, or otherwise restricting a settling party that is an aggrieved person from obtaining future employment with the employer against which the aggrieved person has filed a claim. . .”

The law specifically allows termination of a current relationship. Also, the law explicitly states that an employer need not re-hire someone when “the employer has made a good faith determination that the person engaged in sexual harassment or sexual assault” or ”there is a legitimate non-discriminatory or non-retaliatory reason for terminating the employment relationship.”

If It’s Not a Sexual Harassment Case?
This law applies to all claims brought by an employee against an employer in any forum, including mediation, arbitration or other internal process. When an injured worker has not returned to work for years, their employment status in certain situations could still be technically “employed.” To clarify that the injured employee cannot access employee benefits, a settlement agreement may include language defining the date of termination of employment or might specify that the employee is resigning.

I have helped create a settlement where status as an employee was reinstated for a minimal amount of time with the proviso that the employee was resigning on a specific date. I have also helped create settlement agreements where the employee was paid as an independent contractor for a limited period.  This will be more difficult now after passage of AB5, also going into effect on January 1, 2020, which tightens the definition of who is an independent contractor.

Settle, Settle, Settle

It’s almost always better to settle than to keep pouring money into litigation. A trained settlement professional can help you negotiate the best result.

Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men

You’re sure to hear this phrase repeatedly in December. What are you doing to make it happen?

Most readers of this message are professionals charged with managing disputes. You may spend a considerable amount of time strategizing how to annul the opposing party’s claims. That’s appropriate. It’s your job. But what practically every party involved in a conflict really wants is peace. Settling parties often say they are compromising in order to get peace.

It’s also your job to achieve the optimal result in a cost-efficient manner. Mediation is a way to achieve that outcome. A trained professional neutral will work with all parties to achieve their own bit of peace– not just at holiday season, but all year round.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS

Evaluating the Denied Workers Comp Claim

I recently mediated a partially denied claim where the attorney for the injured worker had no idea what the value of the future medical costs might be. It was an old dog claim, and treaters had been deposed multiple times.

When a printout provides historic data, it’s pretty easy to project future expenses. Sure, parties might disagree about the credibility of treaters’ recommendations or the likely cost of future expenses. They might debate the effect of inflation vs. drugs going generic. But parties can compromise on those things. There are ways to prepare for contingencies in a Compromise & Release. An experienced mediator can help you.

Perhaps this issue is in the NSS category. On the other hand, I see so many parties come to mediation unprepared, I’m taking the time to spell it out.

Discovery Is How You Find Out Things
The Principal Treating Physician (PTP) submitted a report recommending expensive future surgeries and treatment. The PTP was deposed—multiple times. Experts for the employer were deposed and of course said that the need for those procedures was non-industrial. Did anyone ask those experts what such a surgery or treatment might cost?

There’s This Thing Called the Internet
As an experiment, I Googled “cost of fusion surgery los angeles”.  I also Googled “how much does Medicare pay for fusion surgery los angeles.”

I didn’t spend a lot of time on this, but I did browse:
https://www.healthcarebluebook.com/page_ProcedureDetails.aspx?cftId=22&g=SpinalFusion+(lumbar)
https://www.beckersspine.com/spine/item/35786-spinal-fusion-price-in-30-largest-us-cities.html
https://health.costhelper.com/back-surgery.html

Mediation participants often bring in printouts from various websites showing medication costs.

A person might want to argue about the numbers shown on these pages. For one, it isn’t clear that Worker’s Comp wouldn’t get it cheaper. In other words, the value to the employer is different than the value to the injured worker.

Also, many injured workers have Medicare or Medi-Cal (Medicaid) coverage. This means they have lots of room to negotiate.

Informed negotiators negotiate. Uninformed ones throw out numbers without support. You could be using a number that’s too high or too low. When your position lacks credibility, the case is unlikely to settle.

Claims Organizations Have Data
Claims organizations are in the business of paying for medical treatment. Claims professionals see bills for the same procedures again and again. They set reserves based on data. Ask for that data from your client or your opponent. If you are the Applicant’s Attorney, the worst that can happen is that they refuse. That says a lot, too.

No Excuses
There’s no excuse for coming to mediation while clueless about the value of the case. You should repeatedly re-evaluate throughout the case’s pendency. Preparation and good faith negotiation can end cases earlier, saving everyone time, money and stress.

How to Write a Workers Compensation Mediation Brief

Why do so many advocates stumble when it comes to preparing for mediation? Perhaps the most important thing a lawyer can do to prepare for mediation is to write a brief. Done properly, the process forces the writer to focus and get ready to negotiate. But many people do it wrong, mostly by providing irrelevant and obsolete information and not providing the data necessary to evaluate the claim. This problem is so common, I now instruct parties in my confirmation letter what to include.

The brief doesn’t have to be fancy. I don’t care if there’s a caption. An email message is fine. What would be helpful would be sub-headings for the categories shown below.

Transmit the brief at least 7 days in advance of the mediation. This helps everyone prepare, including the mediator. Your brief may prompt a request for a document. Showing up with your brief at mediation wastes participants’ time and money as the mediator reads the brief. Late preparation can raise new questions and sometimes leads to adjournment and a second session to allow time for everyone to get answers.

Claims professionals, you know the mediation is coming up. Ask your lawyer to provide you a copy of the brief at the same time it is sent to the mediator. This assures you and your advocate are on the same page. You can also monitor the timeliness of the preparation.

Facts

The brief should briefly (that’s why it’s called a brief) recite facts such as the dates of injury, affected body parts, and the injured worker’s date of birth.

Indemnity
State specifically if indemnity is open. If it is open, what do you think is the correct percentage and dollar amount? If less than 100%, what are the Permanent Disability Advances to date? At what rate are they being paid? Is there any argument about apportionment, overpayments or retro? Do the parties agree on the DOI? If parties disagree on an issue, spell out your position. What does the other party say?

Medical
Copies of narrative medical reports (AME, QME, PTP) from the last two years will be very helpful as well as a print-out of medical expense payments for that period.

Medicare Status
Is there a current (within the last year) MSA? If so, attach a copy to your brief. If the injured worker is a Medicare enrollee or is at least 62 1/2 years old, get a current MSA report and attach it to your brief. If you are not obtaining an MSA because the injured worker is undocumented or is otherwise ineligible for Medicare, say so in your brief. If you have obtained CMS approval, provide a copy.

Other Issues
Are there any other issues to be resolved? Mediations are most successful when parties are able to prepare for negotiation and do not encounter surprise issues.

Confidentiality
Indicate if the brief is confidential or is being shared with the other party. You may choose to create two briefs, one for exchange and one confidential.

Humility Leads to Mediation Success

Here’s an oxymoron for you: the humble litigator. Like jumbo shrimp and military intelligence, it may seem ridiculous to pair humility with any litigator. But for anyone trying to settle a claim, a little humility can help get you to the finish line.

Most of the time that dispute will eventually settle without court intervention. The parties want to resolve the issue with the smallest expenditure of time and money. Incivility, bias, prejudice and anger are inconsistent with humility and get in the way of settlement.

Acting with humility does not admit fault. The most successful litigators are courteous and respectful.

I’m The One Who’s Right
Of course you are.

Then why is the other side fighting so hard to say the opposite? Of course they’re completely wrong, but maybe, just maybe, you could pretend they have a reasonable point of view. Or—here’s a shocking concept—try to see their point of view.

 

Students learning to debate (or get through law school) may be asked to argue a position with which they disagree. While preparing for mediation, try to outline the other side’s position and think about all the reasons supporting that position. This is an excellent way to marshal your own arguments.  It is also an exercise in empathy.

You Want Me To Do What??
Think about forgiveness. When you feel wronged, your desire for vindication may make negotiation difficult. Forgiveness must be internal and not necessarily verbalized.

Forgiveness is about moving on, doing the best thing for you and those you represent, not for the benefit of the offender. Forgiveness keeps you in control of your emotions rather than surrendering control to the volatility of others. Forgiveness does not validate the other side’s behavior or minimize the damage it has caused. It doesn’t mean you were not wronged or that the parties will have a good future relationship.

Conversely, a well-phrased apology has helped settle many a case. For example, I watched one litigator, without any prompting and without admitting fault, express sorrow that the injured worker had experienced a lengthy delay in getting treatment. That may not be right for your case; for his, it was. Don’t forget that everything said in mediation is confidential and cannot be used for evidence in any forum.

Good People, Strong Emotions

You’re a good person, right? Yet, difficult situations can spark rage and other extreme emotions in the best of people who then behave without humility.

In mediation you can state your position in the strongest terms in a private session with the mediator. The mediator can then skillfully communicate those emotions to move parties to settlement.

A bit of humility can improve your effectiveness in formulating and reacting to those communications.

3 Ways to Evaluate Future Medical Care

Evaluating future medical care is usually the most challenging component for parties trying to settle a workers compensation claim by Compromise & Release. If your crystal ball is in the shop for repairs, try one of these methods.

Medicare Set-Aside
You don’t need a Medicare Set-Aside for claims outside the review thresholds, but claims professionals often order one to get the medical expense analysis. If the report’s only use will be for internal purposes, there is no requirement to share it. If you disagree with a report, you can provide further information to the provider and request revision. Or you can order another report from a different provider. Applicant’s counsel can request the claim professional order an MSA.

Don’t forget that the Medicare Set-Aside amount does not include amounts for co-pays, deductibles, or non-Medicare-eligible expenses.

 

 

Historic Expenses
Don’t be shy about requesting a copy of the print-out of expenditures. Spending some time with the medical expense print-out can be revealing. Total the expenses for the last two or three years and divide by the number of months being reviewed to obtain the average monthly expenditure. You can include claim administration expenses to show what the employer has been spending or omit those expenses to better reflect the actual expenses likely to be incurred post-settlement.

Review the expenses to see if some items are atypical. Is there a major surgery which will not recur? Has the injured worker stopped taking expensive opioids? Omit those items from your calculation, but include the expense for substitute treatments or medications. Conversely, if credible medical reports indicate a future large expense, the evaluation can be increased.

Revisions are not usually a problem because it’s easy to omit a past surgery from the historic total or to change the time period under review. One-time future large expenses can be added as a lump sum.

Once you have determined the average monthly medical expense, your structured settlement broker can quickly calculate the present value of future lifetime care, including an inflation factor to account for rising prices. This figure can purchase monthly payments to be paid to the injured worker or a medical expense account. The broker’s services are free, but be sure to keep that broker in the loop for future settlement discussions.

 

 

Health Insurance Premiums
Many injured workers can get health insurance for their medical expenses after workers compensation coverage stops. Some may already have that insurance. Injured workers who lack health insurance should check with a health insurance agent or www.coveredca.gov to determine their access to an appropriate policy and the cost.

Once you know the premium amount, add in a generous inflation factor plus an allowance for any co-pays and deductibles. Again, your structured settlement broker can calculate a present value, and, voilá!, you have your medical expense evaluation.

 

 

No Claim Too Difficult
Every claim can be evaluated and settled. It’s only a question of how to calculate the settlement components. Whether the disagreement is about DOI, AWW, underpayments, overpayments, scope of the industrial injury, or the cost of future medical care, we can figure it out together in mediation.

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.

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.