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The Smartest Thing to Do in Mediation

W-A-I-T: these four letters remind you to ask yourself Why Am I Talking? Silence is often your most effective negotiation technique.
 

Silence has two big benefits
The first benefit of silence is to be better able to respond. Too many people come to mediation with their attitudes so entrenched that they don’t listen. You cannot successfully respond if you have not listened—really listened—to the opposing party.

Do not multi-task. During a remote mediation on your laptop, no one may be able to see you scrolling on your phone. But you are cheating yourself of the opportunity to collect information to help you conclude the case. You can miss something important if you’re not paying attention.

Lose the condescension. If you come to mediation with the attitude that your side is righteous and the other side’s views are valueless so you don’t have to pay attention to them, the initial obstacle to reaching settlement is yourself.

The second benefit is that if you just stay quiet, the other party may rattle off information to fill the silence void that damages their own case.

Listen First

Lawyers in particular are prone to thinking about what to say next instead of taking heed of what’s happening in the moment. It’s why they can miss asking the follow-up question a deponent’s answer should have prompted. And it’s why they ignore signals that would help them settle their case.

As your mediator, my job is to recognize those missed signals and follow up with the participants to facilitate settlement.

The Role of Empathy in Settlement

Empathy, the ability to see a situation from a different point of view, is an important negotiation and advocacy skill. You must be able to anticipate and understand your opponent’s position to effectively counter it. Debate trainers assign students to argue the position opposite their personal beliefs to foster this skill.
I’m Fine. To Hell With You
Lately we have seen a stunning lack of empathy in our country. On the same day as a county announced that COVID-19 had become the county’s leading cause of death, one resident yelled, “It’s my body and I want to go to work.” Another defiantly asked, “Why shouldn’t I be able to sit in a restaurant and eat?”

The answer is that many people, perhaps the majority, who are infected with the virus are asymptomatic. COVID-19, unlike collisions, drownings, obesity, heart disease, and cancer, is wildly contagious. There is currently no vaccine and no cure. More than 81,000 Americans have died. Around the world, people are not allowed to work in close quarters or sit in a restaurant because that potentially exposes coworkers, servers and other customers to the contagion. Not everyone reacts to the virus the same way.

Similarly, the television journalist who tweeted that anyone who wants to continue to shelter in place should just stay home lacks any awareness of how most people live. If the boss requires workers to show up or lose their jobs, those workers don’t have the luxury of working from home. There are more people living paycheck-to-paycheck to pay the rent and buy groceries than people pulling in big bucks.

And then there’s the 79-year-old Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice who said “regular folks” were not getting COVID-19. Got that, anyone with a family member in a nursing home?

Negotiators need not have suffered a serious injury or business reversal themselves to empathize with someone who has. Perhaps you have had a personal experience which makes you wonder why your negotiating opponent is apparently so much less resilient that you. Again, not everyone reacts to an event the same way. An inability to concede that these are that person’s feelings, even if you think they are baseless, impedes meaningful settlement discussions.

Why Video Mediations Are Like Early Personal Computers

You may have heard the abbreviation RTFM. As soon as everyday consumers started using computers, telephone customer support staff had to field daily questions about the most basic functions. Perhaps the most infamous is about the user who insisted that a floppy disk drive (remember those?) was a cup-holder. What the tech people wanted to yell was, “READ THE F-ING MANUAL!” 

Read the Mediation Instructions
I send instructions to participants in every one of my mediations. Over time, these instructions have gotten so specific that they even include directions on what topics to include in the mediation brief.

For better or worse, I am no longer disheartened when it is painfully obvious parties have paid no attention to the instructions. We simply carry on.

Instructions for Video Mediations
Shelter-in-Place orders have drastically increased the use of video platforms for remote mediation. It’s really important to prepare for video mediation by READING THE INSTRUCTIONS. These include information about:

  • How to sign in
  • Acceptable remote locations
  • WiFi requirements
  • Device requirements
  • What happens if a computer goes down

Unlike with in-person mediations, failure to read video mediation instructions can prevent the mediation from going forward.

Courts may be closed, but the disputes go on. You can get those disputes resolved during a shutdown with video mediation.

A Mediation Quiz

Find out how much you really know about mediation with this short True/False quiz. 
1. Opposing parties meet together with the mediator in caucus. T/F

2. No one can use documents disclosed solely in mediation as evidence if the case does not settle. T/F

3. If parties are unable to agree on settlement terms, the mediator will decide the case based on the information presented at the mediation. T/F

4. The process of getting everyone to agree to mediation and to a specific date, time and place is called “convening.” T/F

5. Mediators start a mediation with a mediator’s proposal. T/F

6. Settlement at mediation should be documented with a settlement agreement, stipulation to settle, or memorandum of understanding. T/F

ANSWERS  

  1. FALSE. Opposing parties meet together with the mediator in joint session. In caucus, only one side meets with the mediator
  2. TRUE. Strict confidentiality laws prohibit the introduction of evidence in any civil forum of information disclosed exclusively within mediation
  3. FALSE. Mediators never decide any issue in a case. The mediator facilitates communication so parties can come to an agreement. The parties have complete control of whether and how a dispute resolves.
  4. TRUE. Sometimes convening the mediation is as big a challenge as settling the dispute.
  5. FALSE. The mediator’s proposal may be made near the end of the mediation, never at the beginning. When it looks like parties will not move one more inch toward settlement, and the mediator has an idea what it will take to settle the case, the mediator may propose a way to resolution. Each party responds confidentially to the mediator’s proposal. If everyone agrees, there is a settlement. If fewer than all parties agree, no one will ever know others’ responses; everyone is left at the same bargaining position as before the mediator’s proposal.
  6. TRUE. Settlements should be documented while everyone is together. If parties are unable to complete a settlement agreement at the mediation, which is common, the main areas of agreement should be documented in a binding stipulation or MOU, memorandum of understanding.

HOW DID YOU DO? 
6 correct answers- Mediation Superstar

4-5 correct answers- You’ve got the right idea. Just brush up on the nuances

2-3 correct answers – Looks like you’ve done some reading, but are still pretty unclear on the particulars. Get more information here.

0-1 correct answers- Hey dude/girl, have you ever even been to a mediation?  Please call me, and I’ll talk you through how it works.

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.

WHAT TO EXPECT AT MEDIATION

Mediation remains unfamiliar to most California Workers Compensation professionals. To succeed, you– and your client– need to know what to expect. While all mediations share some similarities, each mediator has a unique style. Here’s what you can expect at one of my mediations.
We usually start in joint session. The discussion might be limited to the logistical: introductions, bathrooms, lunch, etc.  People get to look each other in the eye.The first real step will be for the Applicant to tell how the injury happened and how things are going now. The purpose of this is to allow catharsis and to build empathy and trust between the injured worker and the mediator. Usually this is in a separate session known as a “caucus,” but if the defense needs to hear this information or wants to ask questions, it might happen while the parties are still in joint session. If the defense has heard the Applicant’s story many times, I may have Applicant do the venting in caucus.

I usually start negotiations with the Applicant’s side. If there were prior offers and demands, I will review those to make sure we are all at the same starting point. Then comes exploring the positions which support those offers and demands. The parties’ briefs should explain the issues; the more complicated the case, the more important the briefs. Defining issues for the mediator in the brief makes for a more efficient mediation. But the briefs do not limit the number of issues; sometimes new issues emerge in mediation.

I might speak with one or more attorneys outside the hearing of their clients, for example, to discuss a point of law.  All parties might reconvene to brainstorm solutions to an issue.  If parties are disrespectful of one another, I will stop a joint session.
In the give and take of numbers, issues will be discussed and swapped.  Cases do not settle without compromise.  Parties should expect give and take to finalize the settlement terms.
Participants may be surprised by the amount of time spent in caucus with the other side.  As mediator, my job is to give all parties adequate time to express their concerns.   While there are certainly exceptions, a typical workers compensation mediation lasts three to five hours.

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.