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A Mediation Story

The claim was decades old; indemnity was supposedly fully paid. The carrier hadn’t paid a medical bill in years. The applicant had dismissed her attorney, but continued to pursue the claim.

The carrier wanted the claim off the books, so they called me. Without prompting, the adjuster disclosed his authority limit to me in an email.

The applicant, the carrier’s hearing rep, and I met for mediation.

While there was no question the applicant was disabled, the dispute was whether the disability was industrial. Thankfully, the applicant had a very good alternate form of medical insurance which had been providing and continued to provide full coverage.

I spent time with the parties separately, allowing each of them to vent about how they had been taken advantage of by the other. Issues were raised, demands and offers exchanged. While remaining neutral, I empathized with both parties, discussing pros and cons. Finally, the hearing rep made what he said was an offer of his full authority.  I showed him my print-out of the email which showed authority for an additional $15,000. 

He stared at me.  “I have to make a call.” 

“Let’s make it together,” I said.

We got on the phone to the adjuster who said the hearing rep was correct. “Mike” (not the real name), I said, “Are you able to take a look at your email to me of [the email date]?”

“Yes, I see it.”

“That says your authority is $15,000 more.”

“Oh, I didn’t have that authority. I never had that authority.” 

I did NOT say, “Then why did you tell me that’s what you had?”

Instead, I went to the room where the applicant was waiting and put the hearing rep’s offer on the table.

“I have to call my spouse.” I left the room to give her some privacy.

After a little while, the applicant told me her spouse said the offer was an absolute non-starter.

The hearing rep stated he had to leave for another commitment, and the mediation adjourned without resolution.

A few days later, the applicant called me to ask if the offer was still open.  I said I would check.

The case settled by Compromise & Release for the amount of the hearing rep’s offer.

The Lesson

Parties sometimes need time to process everything that happened at mediation. They may have learned about new issues or gained new insights about the basis for the opponent’s position. People often have a negative kneejerk reaction to a demand or offer. After some time to cool down, they may be able to understand a different point of view, even if they don’t agree with it.

Think about why this case settled. What did the applicant gain by being able to talk about the claim with the mediator? What do you think happened between her and her spouse once she got home? What can you conclude about pre-mediation communication between the adjuster and the hearing rep, between the adjuster and the applicant?

How important is it to have everyone who will participate in making the settlement decision attend the mediation?

Four Necessities for Mediation Success

These four attributes are integral to an effective mediation.

Fairness
The process and the person conducting the process must be fair. What’s more, all participants must perceive them as fair. Mediation is a level playing field. This safe, neutral environment is a good place to test the validity of an argument.

The mediator is a professional neutral. Without preconceptions, she can serve as a sounding board for every person’s position. 

Respect
Agreeing to mediation shows respect for others. It signals a willingness to listen. This signal is reinforced by exercising courtesy and diligence in the scheduling process and following through up to, at, and after the meeting.

Communication
Any credibility earned before mediation is squandered if parties demonstrate they are not listening during negotiations. Failure to listen is shown by an inappropriate response, such as shouting at or insulting the opponent or refusing to continue participation.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but the mediator can facilitate communication between parties by separating them and using shuttle diplomacy to calmly convey each party’s message.

Trust
No negotiation result is satisfactory if the parties do not trust the other side to follow through. If mistrust has arisen due to past misunderstandings and broken promises, part of the mediator’s job is to re-build enough trust to resolve the dispute.

One solution to this problem may be to use a different negotiator at mediation, someone who does not incite personal animosity. Another solution is to make sure all agreements are specific and documented before parties leave the mediation. Particularly when the relationship has been hostile, the mediator is the linchpin in parties’ trust in a negotiated agreement.

How to Win With Throwaway Issues

Some issues aren’t worth fighting over. Yet, parties and counsel frequently do take a stand when they might do better by taking a step back and just throwing that issue away.

It’s the Principle of the Thing

OK, you’re completely right on this issue—but what is the big picture? A fight over a $300 interpreter bill is counterproductive when you are trying to resolve a claim with a value of $600,000.

When mediation participants staunchly maintain, “It’s the principle,” they almost always mean, “It’s the money.” Particularly for the employer side, this is a business negotiation. Savvy negotiators know how to bargain away the little issues to get the optimum result.

Location, Location, Location

Perhaps the most common throwaway is where to convene the mediation. Southern California is a big place, and drives of several hours to get to a Board or mediation are not uncommon. Sometimes parties argue over where to hold the mediation. You can’t resolve the case if you can’t even agree where to get together to talk about it.

Usually, California workers compensation mediations are held in one of the attorney’s offices. Sometimes only the defense attorney’s office is large enough to accommodate the participants. But negotiations may be most fruitful at a location which does not intimidate the injured worker. Using the AA’s personal office and the reception area for caucuses (mediator sessions with only one side) may seem cramped, but if the injured worker is most comfortable there, that may be the best choice. If you are arguing over this issue, just give it up.

I Owe You One, Man

Negotiation is a give-and take process. Once someone has acquiesced on an issue, the other party usually feels somewhat beholden to give way on the next one. Minimally, your “generosity” with issues which are of little consequence to you can show how reasonable you are. These concessions help advance the mediation toward a successful conclusion.

Some negotiators invent issues to fight over just so they can have them in their back pocket to throw away. Throwing away your position on an issue can be the smartest way to negotiate to the best final resolution.

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.