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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.

Is Mediation Effective in Workers’ Comp?

Babe Ruth’s lifetime batting average was .342. Studies in states with a history of workers’ compensation mediation suggest your success rate with it is likely to be a whole lot better.

In Florida, parties must mediate workers’ compensation claims within 130 days of the filing of a petition for benefits. Results for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2013, showed a 74% success rate, defined as partial or complete resolution of the issues.

The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry reported that the state’s mediation resolution success rate between June 2007 and September 2008 was never less than 60%. The success rate was 100% in four of those months.

The Maryland Judiciary’s Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office conducted a study where half of Baltimore’s workers’ compensation filings were referred to mediation. The 2002 report details the results. Measured at various points in the litigation process, the mediated cases were consistently found to conclude more quickly and with less discovery than the control group. For example, 83% of cases in the workers’ compensation mediation group were disposed of before their scheduled trial date, compared with 70% in the control group.

In 1992, the Dallas Mediation Project reviewed 981 mediated cases. Workers’ compensation, contract disputes and collection cases showed the highest level of resolution—87% of these workers’ compensation cases settled through mediation. Motor vehicle claims settled 85% of the time, and other personal injury claims settled 77% of the time.

Don’t be afraid to step up to the mediation plate. You might hit a home run.

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.

Flavors of Workplace Injuries

Workplace injury benefits come in many “flavors.” Most California workers are covered by workers compensation, administered by the state. However, federal law provides workplace injury benefits to others.

A narrow definition, subject to many refinements, of these groups includes:

  • Jones Act- maritime workers
  • Longshore Act- dockworkers
  • Defense Base Act – civilian employees working abroad on a U.S. military base or under contract with the U.S. government for public works or national defense
  • Federal Employers Liability Act- railroad workers

There are important differences among these laws, including what triggers compensation and available benefits. All workplace injury claims, however, can be resolved through mediation.

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.

New Mediation Disclosure Law

Effective January 1, 2019, California attorneys must provide a written mediation disclosure statement to clients or face potential disciplinary consequences.

What Does the New Law Do?
The disclosure does not protect clients so much as inform them about mediation confidentiality. Under changes to the Evidence Code, attorneys must have clients sign off on a mediation disclosure form as soon as reasonably possible before the client agrees to participate in mediation. If the attorney is hired after the client has agreed to mediate, the attorney must get the client’s sign-off as soon as reasonably possible after being retained. If the client signed off on a disclosure with prior counsel, new counsel should get another acknowledgement naming the current attorney. All clients should sign it.

The disclosure must be on a single page not attached to any other document and must be printed in the preferred language of the client in at least 12-point font. It must include the names of the attorney and the client and be signed and dated by the attorney and the client.

The law specifically contemplates an “attorney disciplinary proceeding to determine whether the attorney has complied with Section 1129.”

Unh-Unh, Not Me
What if the Evidence Code doesn’t apply to your practice area? You work in administrative law, such as Workers Compensation, or limit your practice to federal court.

Even if you never handle a case with a state civil court aspect nor a federal case with diversity jurisdiction, observing the new rule is the safe choice.That this amendment passed at all started with concerns about legal malpractice suits founded on communications within the mediation process. Legal malpractice suits are filed in state court or rely on diversity jurisdiction using state rules. Mediation confidentiality rules apply to all types of practice.

What Does the Disclosure Do—And Not Do?
The disclosure lays out the basics of the mediation disclosure rules, i.e., an almost total evidentiary exclusion of communications. This includes legal advice provided to a client during the mediation. Absence of the client’s signature or that the client did not receive the form is not a ground for invalidating a settlement agreement.

The “safe harbor” disclosure form in Evidence Code 1129 assures clients they can still sue for malpractice or report misconduct to the State Bar, just not using any evidence relating to a mediation.

How To Comply
Attorneys who regularly mediate should consider obtaining the disclosure at the beginning of the representation. The safe harbor form doesn’t limit the disclosure to a single case. Nonetheless, attorneys working on multiple cases under an ongoing or tripartite relationship may wish to add language to make it clear that the client is executing a blanket sign-off.

Litigation Status Reports from the Confederate States of America

THINGS ARE GOING GREAT – LET’S KEEP FIGHTING

The fall of Atlanta “is not a calamity that endangers our cause.”
Montgomery, Alabama Advertiser, September 1864

 

“No former period of the war has contained such elements of encouragement for the South as the present.”
Richmond, Virginia Examiner, February 1865, 60 days before the surrender at Appomattox

 

Many clients receive litigation status reports that parallel the unfounded optimism in the South in the final months of the U.S. Civil War. People who try to settle cases often see litigants with that same willful refusal to recognize a failing battle effort. Parties and lawyers who have been living with a case for a long time may delude themselves about their chances of winning.

 

Lawyers in the Front Line
Typically, the lawyer is the front-line soldier with the best ability to assess how things are going. The client expects reliable status reports and guidance in choosing the best course for the litigation. Corporate and insurance clients usually require reports to include an evaluation.Clients want a lawyer who believes in their case. And lawyers have a duty both to the client and the legal system to represent the client “zealously within the bounds of the law.” But sometimes lawyers prepare status reports which mislead clients to pursue expensive and futile choices.Some lawyers seem to think they are litigation superheroes who can’t be beat. Dig deeper and you will find they settle most of their cases, but at what cost? The justification that the client would have gotten a worse deal without the lawyer’s extreme tactics may not be sound.Many lawyers are like animals burrowing a tunnel who never stick out their head to see where they are. They have a playbook they think they need to follow before even considering settlement. It seems like there is always one more report, one more deposition, one more motion they have to have.Lawyers also fear telling clients the unvarnished truth about their cases because the lawyers want to keep the gig. I’ve seen cases where it is the third lawyer on the case on each side. In one instance, the lawyer told me that both prior lawyers had counseled that the opponent’s settlement proposal was reasonable; each was fired. The current lawyer said, “You and I both know those lawyers were right, and they were fired. I am going to try the case.”
Those battles at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge? According to the Mobile Register, union casualties were “ten times greater than ours.” In fact Confederacy casualties numbered 6,687 to the Union’s 5,815.
 
Psychological Reasons for Unfounded Optimism
There are psychological reasons why people refuse to settle. For example, people need to justify past expenditures, known as “sunk costs.” So they feel the need to keep fighting, even when settlement is the best way to stop that drain. Another is reactive devaluation, where people refuse to credit information from the opponent which conflicts with the belief system they have created for themselves.When litigation status reports only offer a choice among battle plans, clients may not realize settlement could be their best option.

Pass the Buck to the Mediator

Mediation is a good way to get the most belligerent parties to talk about settlement. Opposing sides don’t even have to sit together. Caucus sessions take place among the mediator and representatives of a single side. Nothing said in caucus gets repeated elsewhere without the party’s permission, so caucus is a safe place to discuss the weaknesses of a case as well as its merits.The mediator is a professional neutral. Parties can get the opinion of someone who comes to the case without preconception. This is closest to what could happen in court. The mediator can ask pertinent questions and bring the parties to partial or full agreement.When parties can’t bring themselves to agree, the mediator can suggest a mediator’s proposal to close the case. This allows everyone to save face and does not damage the attorney-client relationship.If you are creating or receiving litigation status reports that don’t consider mediation, an essential part of the plan may be missing. Mediation offers a timely, cost-effective way to end whatever war you’re fighting.

Mediation Phases

Like the moon, mediation proceeds in phases. Here’s a primer on what happens when.

Phase 1: Investigation
The first phase of a mediation consists of fact gathering and defining the issues. When the parties provide exhaustive briefs, time spent on fact-finding may be minimal. We can quickly pin down which facts and issues the parties agree or disagree on.Sometimes people agree on the facts, but not how to interpret those facts. Ferreting out those disagreements is part of defining the issues. Usually case resolution will turn on fewer than five pivotal issues.

As we drill down, disagreement about a fact may emerge, but a participant may be able to get the evidence to resolve the question during the mediation. Perhaps the information was not previously shared because it was not obvious this was an issue, or someone may have been playing hide-the-ball. The employer’s side in a workers compensation case should bring a copy of the indemnity and medical payment print-outs to the mediation.

If no one can access the needed information during the mediation, we can usually put that issue aside and continue to mediate to resolution. But if that piece of the puzzle is critical, we might adjourn the mediation to allow time to gather those details with a commitment to resume on a specified date.

Mediation is not the time to declare you need additional discovery. For purposes of negotiation, let’s assume that each side’s discovery efforts would produce information favorable to that party. If the case settles, no one need undertake that expense.

Phase 2: Working With The Numbers
Now that we know what we’re dealing with, it’s time to talk about value. Sometimes parties have exchanged offers and demands prior to mediation, but often they were waiting for this meeting. If everyone was together in joint session until this point, now may be the time to go into caucus, separate private meetings with the mediator.

Once in caucus, parties can be candid about the strong and weak points of their case. Nothing said in caucus will be shared with the other side unless you authorize it to be shared. Moreover, per statute, no communication between any participants made exclusively within mediation can be used in any civil forum.

Occasionally, a party has a secret reason for wanting to settle that has nothing to do with the case itself. Here are some real-life examples from my mediations that show the importance of confidentiality. An injured person planned to move to another country. A defendant company was negotiating a buy-out; they were undergoing a fiscal review and wanted to get this potential liability off the books. In each case they told me these things, but the information went no further.

While remaining neutral, the mediator gently helps each side form their offers of settlement and communicates them to the other party. Sometimes this entails restating a party’s position in a way to avoid unnecessary antagonism.

As information and offers are exchanged, parties converge on resolution. If everyone is unwilling to go one step further, and it seems resolution is close, the mediator may suggest a “mediator’s proposal.” This allows parties to settle while saving face and can reduce dissatisfaction within the attorney-client relationship.

Phase 3: Documenting the Agreement
We have a deal, and now everyone gets back together. Parties are encouraged to bring a draft agreement to the mediation. If they must return to their offices to hammer out the final document, before leaving the mediation everyone should sign a Memorandum of Understanding which recites the agreed-upon terms.

Putting words to paper can call parties’ attention to missing details. Now is the time to consider the What If’s.

Finally, review the timeline and commitments for wrapping up the loose ends. That typically includes court approval if required and paying the mediator.

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.