Joseph Dehner is a partner in the Frost Brown Todd law firm and co-author of "Structured Settlements and Periodic Payment Judgments" (S2P2J). He has been studying and writing about structured settlements since 1977 and agreed to be interviewed for this S2KM blog post.
S2KM: Your Frost Brown Todd biography highlights your expertise in multinational securities and business disputes. How do structured settlements fit into your legal practice?
Dehner: Through some of my clients, I was part of the birth of the structured settlement industry many years ago. It is great to see the structured settlement industry evolve into a robust part of the U.S. economy. I continue to advise attorneys and firms on structured settlement and periodic payment judgment issues. One example was the honor of serving as the U.S. Government’s expert witness in the criminal trial of James Gibson, who besmirched the good names of structured settlements and US Government bond trusts, and is now serving a long prison term.
S2KM: William T. Robinson lll, your Frost Brown Todd partner and President-Elect of the American Bar Association (ABA), was be a featured speaker at the NSSTA 2011 Annual Meeting. In addition to Robinson and yourself, does Frost Brown Todd have other attorneys with structured settlement expertise?
Dehner: We have a large litigation department, but I am the primary person specializing in structured settlement matters within our firm.
S2KM: You and your co-authors have been writing and updating S2P2J since 1986. Who is your target audience and how to you track new developments?
Dehner: Our target audience includes attorneys, as well as structured settlement consultants, judges and funding providers. We review on a monthly basis all reported cases and news reports about structured settlements and periodic payment judgments, and follow information as it flows about case and other developments.
S2KM: Having recently completed S2P2J Release 49, what important legal issues and developments do you see emerging?
Dehner: There is a growing experience of post-settlement issues emerging from a variety of directions – including fights among beneficiaries of holders of structured settlement rights, factoring company fights and disputes arising from Protection Act hearings, tax rulings (e.g., wrongly incarcerated persons can receive tax-free payments, despite prior uncertainty whether they suffered a “physical” injury), rights in bankruptcy, whether structured settlement rights are marital property, and many other issues that are being resolved over time by individual case rulings. The growing use of structured settlements outside the “tax-free” arena represents recognition that settlement is a time to put into place good financial planning.
S2KM: How do structured settlements in the United States differ from structured settlements in other countries?
Dehner: Many countries have more of a safety net philosophy and less of a litigation-driven means of addressing the needs of injured persons. But for common law countries, many have moved well ahead of the USA in insisting that compensation meet needs – meaning that payments should correspond over time to the actual needs of injured persons. So, in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere, we are seeing a conversion from the ancient lump-sum one-time system to what we in the USA would find normal in the workers compensation context. This is a real sea shift in thinking.
S2KM: Are there any lessons or ideas the United States structured settlement industry can gain from other countries?
Dehner: Sure – read Chapter 1 of our book about other country experiences and approaches.
S2KM: How do you view the secondary market? Are structured settlement transfers good or bad for the industry generally - and more specifically for structured settlement recipients?
Dehner: It’s not a question of bad or good. It’s a question of how individuals react in the real world. People who hold structured settlement rights chose to take money over time at one point, and then decide for various reasons to get cash now in exchange for giving up future rights that have greater value overall. But that’s their choice. The reality is that high-pressure tactics, coupled with what would have been viewed as usury and heresy in the Middle Ages, robbed those individuals of a truly fair and efficient secondary market when the factoring industry arose. Protection Acts now exist in 47 states. When you review the reported decisions about transfers of structured settlement rights, virtually every case where a judge wrote an opinion rejects the transfer and recites in pointed language why discount rates and other factors compel denial of a transfer application. Most transfers go through anyway because of no real contest and no real focus by the court on the underlying issues. I would hope that the impact of factoring over time does not dissuade Congress from maintaining favorable government support for structured settlements through a continuation of 104(a)(2) treatment.
S2KM: What factors, in your opinion, have contributed to the recent decline in growth of the structured settlement annuity premium?
Dehner: It’s pretty simple really. Interest rates are so low for so long that structured settlements have not stood out as bargains compared to receiving a lump sum and investing it for potentially greater returns (though the performance of the US equity markets should cause a reasonable observer to think twice).
S2KM: Do you have any thoughts or ideas about how to improve and/or grow the structured settlement industry?
Dehner: Greater focus on its basic point is where to start. Regardless of tax treatment, putting into place a compensation plan that actually aims to match needs with resources makes sense. Although there is no solid statistical evidence to support the concept that recipients of windfalls have nothing left after five years, we all know the realities that confront anyone who obtains a large sum as a first time experience with wealth. Charities, friends and relatives want a piece. It’s easy to spend money sitting in the bank. And then at some point there is nothing left to deal with what in some cases is a lifetime of needs. My favorite structured settlement example was an elderly fellow I represented who was pushed over in a grocery store, broke his hip and ended up in a nursing home that at the time cost about $1100/month. He would have run out of money from his savings in about two years. Instead of getting a small lump sum settlement for what happened, the insurer provided a structured settlement that paid $1400/month for the rest of his life. The cost was minimal, given his age and the magic of actuarial science. He died 15 years later, but never had to worry about his nursing home bills. Keep the focus on this example and what it represents, and the structured settlement industry merits a bright and expanding future.
S2KM: What lessons, if any, do the Spencer v. Hartford and Macomber v. Travelers class action settlements provide for the structured settlement industry?
Dehner: Transparency. As long as underlying economic realities are known and disclosed to those involved, I don’t see an issue. One can argue about Spence and Macomber should ultimately have been decided, but there is an easy solution to the issues that underlay both cases – being up front and clear in documentation and negotiation as to what was going on. When we wrote "Structured Settlements and Periodic Payment Judgments" in 1986 (since updated 49 times), our negotiation chapter talked about how a good structured settlement negotiation should be about how much a claimant would receive when over time. It was not about negotiating an amount first, and then finding out what it would buy. Focusing on what payments will be received when (and the reliability of the financing mechanism) and disclosure of who does what and receives what are consistent with best practices, and should not be subject to later court challenges about what participants earned how much in the process.
S2KM: What impact, if any, would the expanded use of 468B funds in single event tort cases have on structured settlements?
Dehner: It would simplify matters for a defendant, of course, but would require clear IRS or statutory guidance that is missing now. It would give greater leverage to the claimant than exists now, so the defense side understandably is reluctant to embrace the tool generally, and absent clear guidance on the efficacy of single-claimant 468B funds, there is no point in the rhetorical debate that rages about this issue.
S2KM: Assuming federal malpractice reform legislation is enacted, should periodic payment of judgments be included?
Dehner: Of course. Read the recent paper of the Irish judiciary, or the UK Government’s papers that led to widespread use of periodic payment judgments there as a matter of course. Or just think about what the law really accomplishes at its best – matching compensation with actual need. This is not about favoring the defense or plaintiff side of the bar. And it is not about who wins and loses. This is about trying to make sure as well as possible that injured persons receive compensation that meets their needs. If it lowers cost, fine. If it increases cost, fine. I would argue that this is unknowable, but it is obvious to a rational individual that trying to match compensation against need is better than the equivalent of a lottery, where some people lose completely, others win it big, and many get a lump sum that does not last enough to get them through their lifetimes.
S2KM: Are there any opportunities for the structured settlement industry to benefit from proposed changes (including budget decreases) for Medicare, Medicaid and/or Social Security?
Dehner: Yes, and one can expect both further pressures for Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement at settlement time, as well as increasingly sophisticated settlement planning. Our book tries to keep abreast of these rapidly changing areas and how attorneys and other participants in the structured settlement industry can do a good job for their clients (and not make serious mistakes in the process).
S2KM: From an historic legal perspective, what impact have structured settlements and periodic payment judgments had on the U.S. tort system?
Dehner: The rule thought to be enunciated first in England in Fetter v. Beale that an injury should be compensated with a single one-time payment – the lump-sum system – has been met with deviation when it matters most – in workers compensation systems, in vaccine cases, in other applications. And even in England, the lump sum award system is slowly disappearing based on statutory changes. Structured settlements in the US have continued to chip away at lump sum thinking in America. History should show that structured settlements and periodic payment judgments will prove to be a far better alternative to the jackpot theory of litigation. Do we really want injured people to go to courthouse casinos for justice?