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In an unpublished Texas case, Grillo v. Harris Hospital, a former client sued for legal malpractice damages for the alleged failure to communicate a settlement offer.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.

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