Maryland’s highest court has approved sweeping changes that will drastically change how companies purchase the rights to legal settlement payouts, effectively remaking how a controversial industry does business with some of the state’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.
In particular, companies interested in buying payments belonging to recipients of so-called structured settlements will now need to file significantly more information so that judges can better decide whether a proposed deal is in a recipient’s best interests. The changes, approved Thursday, will slow down the court-approval process and discourage what judicial officials called the “rubber-stamping” of some petitions.
“There were no guidelines before,” said Judge Alan M. Wilner, who chairs an advisory committee that last month proposed the additional rules. “The judges were left with whatever the [company] was telling them, which was next to nothing. Often, the [settlement recipient] wasn’t there in court, so I don’t know . . . whether the judges who were having these things before them even knew what kinds of findings they had to make.”
That disconnect, abetted by what Wilner called procedural “gaps,” allowed firms to “take improper advantage of vulnerable recipients of structured settlement payments.”
Wilner cited as the impetus behind the changes a report published by The Washington Post in August that exposed how structured settlement companies have made millions by targeting Baltimore victims of lead-paint poisoning. Some of those victims, many of whom were African American, poor and cognitively impaired, sold rights to their lucrative structured-settlement payments for dimes on the dollar.
Many personal injury lawyers, including Baltimore lawyers who represent victims of lead-paint poisoning, recommend these agreements. Rather than traditional settlements, they dispense payments in regular intervals across decades, so vulnerable clients don’t immediately spend compensation meant to last a lifetime.
But these agreements unwittingly gave rise to dozens of companies that seek recepients willing to sell those payments for a fraction of their face value. To protect these people, Maryland, like dozens of other states, passed legislation that called on state courts to decide whether the deals were in recipients’ best interests. It also mandated that the seller receive independent profesional counsel.
Judicial officials are expressing significant concern over that advice, offered by what Wilner derided as “supposed independent professional advisers.” One counselor, The Post found, almost exclusively advised one company’s customers. These professionals must now attend hearings in the cases, as well as divulge how often they have worked on that firm’s petitions.
“Companies, or at least some of them, supply lists of individuals they have worked with in the past from which the payee can choose,” Wilner wrote in a letter to the Court of Appeals, recommending the changes. “At least some of the [purchasing] companies, we were told, ‘advance’ the fees to the advisor, which they recover as a credit against what is paid for the transfer.”
To help judges ascertain the seller’s cognitive capacity, the changes require all recipients to appear in court at the hearings. Their counselor must also submit biographical information about them, specifying whether the seller had sold payments in the past — and at what rate — as well as whether he or she was a victim of lead-paint poisoning or alleged to be cognitively impaired.
Patricia LaBorde, president of the National Association of Settlement Purchasers, has in the past expressed concern that such changes would unduly burden people who needed to get money quickly. On Monday, she said the judiciary wasn’t the best avenue to change judicial procedures earlier established by legislation.
“In general, the best solution is a legislative one,” she said. “Changes need to be made in Maryland, and I think it’s most appropriate that it’s handled by the legislature.”
State lawmakers have said they are planning to file proposed legislation in January.