Posts

COVID-19 IS MESSING THIS UP, TOO

HOW CCP 599 HELPS AND HURTS

Due to the pandemic, very few cases are being tried. Reports from the legal community indicate that the absence of an imminent trial date is inducing parties to put off settlement as well.

A History of Procrastination
Lawyers have always seemed to have a reason why it’s too early to settle a case. They need to get another report, look under every rock for new information, research the heck out of every issue whether or not it is pivotal. Traditionally, discovery cut-offs and upcoming trial dates have put up a big stop sign to that process in civil cases. Without that stop sign, some workers compensation cases continue for decades.

Human nature being what it is, litigants tend to wait to the last minute to undertake the tasks necessary to close a case. The global pandemic has aggravated our proclivity to procrastinate.

When do cases settle? Legal and claims professionals have always referred to the ubiquitous last-minute settlements as happening “on the courthouse steps.” As trial dates get pushed further and further back on courts’ calendars, parties put off settlement longer.

CCP 599 Makes Procrastination Easy
When the global pandemic forced courthouses to close their doors, the California legislature recognized the obstacles to litigants’ ability to move their cases forward. The response was Code of Civil Procedure 599. This new section delays most civil litigation deadlines during the official COVID-19 state of emergency and for 180 days thereafter. If a deadline had not passed by March 19, 2020, the continuance or postponement of a trial date extended that deadline. That includes discovery cut-offs and dates for identification of expert witnesses and motions for summary judgment. Notably, the court retains the power to order litigation deadlines. Parties can also agree to self-impose deadlines which would otherwise be suspended.

At the beginning of the pandemic, no one had any idea how long this suspension would last or how we would all learn to conduct much of the court’s business remotely. Still, 599 remains in place. Some lawyers and claims professionals report that the absence of a hard deadline has resulted in fewer settlements.

Blessing or Curse?
In the last year, we have learned to manage litigation pretty well without setting foot in the courthouse. Doctors have resumed seeing patients. The suspension of many hard deadlines provided breathing room while we figured it all out. These are blessings.

On the flip side, cases are backing up. After courthouse life returns to a version of normal, it will take a long time to work through the backup. Once 599 expires, there will be a rush to undertake long-delayed tasks critical to settlement. Things could get kind of crazy, and that’s the curse.

What to Do Now
Before any more time passes, look at those files to see what can be done to set them up for settlement. Almost all mediations are now occurring remotely. Let’s settle those cases promptly, so you can better manage your caseload once the state of emergency is lifted.

Are You Serious?

The #1 predictor of mediation success is whether the participants have come with a seriousness of purpose. They understand that mediation is their best chance to avoid delay and expense, not to mention a bad result. They have readied themselves to settle the case.

Why Are You Here?
Sure, the court may have ordered the parties to mediation. Look at this as a blessing. You might have struggled to get your opponent to the negotiating table. Now the court has done this for you. Moreover, instead of having to deal with insincere posturing, the mediator can filter communications to get to the crux of the dispute.The participant who only comes to mediation because “opposing counsel wanted to do this” is throwing away an opportunity and dishonoring the client.Have You Prepared?
Mediation helps parties resolve disputes efficiently. Yet, both attorneys and their clients often show up for mediation completely unprepared. Being prepared doesn’t just mean knowing the facts and law of your case, though some mediation participants even disdain this basic step.

Before coming to mediation, double-check whether you have followed the mediator’s pre-mediation instructions and requirements. This is doubly important in an era of remote video mediation.

Evaluation is Key
Take the time to thoroughly evaluate your case. Don’t think you can come in with an extreme number and wing it. Be prepared to explain your proposal, including why it is reasonable. What calculations were involved? Have you researched similar issues online so you can show how those precedents apply or are different?

The next step is to educate the client about that evaluation and plan your negotiation. Make sure you know who can grant settlement authority and line it up in advance of the mediation. The ultimate checkwriter should attend the mediation.

Come to mediation ready to settle, and chances are high you will.

Remote Mediation with Non-English Speakers

You’re ready for your remote video mediation. Everyone has the latest version of the technology and knows how to join. You rehearsed with your client; maybe you did a practice session with the mediator. You submitted the mediation confidentiality form and contact form. Now you can concentrate on the facts and the law.

Wait–What about the Interpreter?
At the beginning of every remote mediation, I confirm that everyone present has signed off on the confidentiality agreement. Yet, sometimes, against all the rules, someone else is there. Often, it’s a family member who is “just there to interpret.”

It’s inconvenient, but perhaps not a major issue. Just as would happen with an in-person mediation, someone who does have a role in the mediation can execute the confidentiality acknowledgement at the last minute. But some family members refuse documented participation in any court proceeding. Sometimes the party lacks the technology to return a signed document immediately.

Usually, the attorney can interpret for the client. Of course, the attorney is bound by confidentiality rules, but this arrangement often omits a few steps.

Get the Client What the Client Needs
An English language confidentiality agreement executed by a party who clearly needs an interpreter raises questions. Did the client sign a document without understanding it? If the attorney or a family member interpreted, that should be documented within the agreement. The person who interpreted should be a signatory, e.g.,

I translated this document and read it to Plaintiff in Spanish:___________________________________

The Settlement Agreement
Attorneys on both sides of the conflict should be concerned about the validity of an English-language settlement agreement when one or more signatories are not fluent in English. Nobody wants to be in in court after the fact because someone is contesting the agreement. The document should be read to the non-English speaker, and the interpreter needs to disclose and sign off on the settlement document. Ideally, lawyers will also provide a written translation of the document. Google Translate can create it quickly, but not necessarily with 100% accuracy.

The ultimate protection is to bring in a certified court interpreter by video or telephone and at the time of signing the settlement document.

Translating to Everyday English

You may think all the mediation participants are speaking English, but you have failed to realize that at least some of you are speaking a foreign language. The most common foreign language used in mediation is Lawyer, and Adjuster is also common. In some mediations, everyone except the claimant is speaking Insurance, but no one has thought to provide a translation.

While the professionals in the room are speaking one of these languages, the clients are often mystified, simply trusting that their counsel is looking out for them. Sometimes, though, a client’s inability to understand becomes apparent near the end of the day.

I have heard of mediations where, when it was all over, the client asked, “What just happened?” In one of my mediations, as the attorneys were finalizing the details of the settlement, the claimant asked me how a particular issue was being resolved—an issue that hadn’t been addressed at all. I had to make sure the attorneys addressed this concern with the claimant and each other.

Professionals who use jargon regularly can easily forget that people outside their closed community don’t understand what the professionals are talking about. Just as you would provide an interpreter to translate an international language, make sure everyone understands what is being said in the languages of Lawyer, Adjuster or Insurance.

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.

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

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.

When The Injured Worker Calls- Ethical Implications

I get calls at least once a month from represented injured workers who don’t know what is going on with their claims. Stop and think about that in light of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Typically, in violation of existing rules, the AA has not communicated with the client. Sometimes the attorney has given the client false information. Recently an IW told me his lawyer said there was no such thing as mediation for workers’ compensation cases.

Many of these IW’s are reaching out directly to the employer’s counsel to try to resolve their issues. This puts the employer’s counsel in a difficult ethical position. New Rules 4.2 (represented person) and 4.3 (unrepresented person) lay out the restrictions on defense counsel for that communication.

Frustrated injured workers who want to resolve their claims are seeking information on the internet. That’s how they get to me.

I am not an advocate for anyone; I am a professional neutral. I have always made that role clear to callers. New Rule 2.4 requires mediators to inform unrepresented parties of the mediator’s neutrality. All I can do is assure the workers that I am available to mediate and to talk to their lawyers or adjusters about starting the process.

If you get a call from someone who wants to mediate, don’t brush off that inquiry. There is no charge to talk to me about whether mediation is right for your case. I’ll give you the information you need.

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.