Recently I represented a party in a dispute over some business equipment. This case would have been better resolved by the parties either directly communicating with each other or communicating and negotiating with each other through their lawyers. But before that could be done, one party opted to file a complaint in federal court and as a result, we were engaged in court proceedings.
Fortunately, a preliminary motion allowed us to get before the court and the judge before the complaint was even answered. After the first court appearance and oral arguments on the motion, a status conference was scheduled a month later to check progress.
Courts are limited to problem solving
I saw this as a good opportunity to work with opposing counsel and the assigned judge to address some of the underlying factors and straighten things out in a fair and appropriate way that could satisfy the interests of both sides. Unfortunately, as I found out at the subsequent status conference, the judge did not see things the same way. He clearly saw this matter through a very narrow lens, that of what had been presented to him in the complaint and the immediate subject matter of the motions filed. He advised the parties that the court was not a vehicle for equitable problem solving and that if my clients wanted to expand the court’s involvement, we needed to file another action or bring a counterclaim. The court’s concern was only what was before it, which was returning certain properties to their owner, in this case the plaintiff. It was not the court’s concern that the rest of the problem, how things worked in this industry and certain other properties also being returned to their rightful owner, the defendant, would not be addressed by the court.
In my response to the Judge’s inquiry, I requested that the court take a broader view of the full context of the circumstances. But based on the judge’s stern admonition, I quickly understood that the court was not interested in discussions about equitable and appropriate solutions or judicial economy. Recalling what an early mentor had taught me about knowing when to stop talking in a court proceeding, I held back on my argument.
At first I was upset, recognizing that resulting court-based conclusion of this matter was one that would satisfy the plaintiff’s interests but while leave my client disenfranchised. The solution the court would give us was incomplete and there was a certain amount of inequity and unfairness to it. But then I realized that while the judge may have had the discretion to expand the court’s role, his decision not to do so was a correct one, as a matter of law and jurisdiction. As he pointed out, it was not the federal court’s job to be a problem solver helping the parties work out their issues and smooth out their business relationship. The court’s job was limited to applying the law to the undisputed facts in front of it and make a ruling. This is something that lawyers grasp, but that leaves most non-lawyers and clients scratching their heads in wonder.
Sometimes, the law and the court rules limit the court’s ability to reach a conclusion that achieves full justice and fairness. As counterintuitive as it may sound for lay people, the rulings of the courts do not always give people the most complete and appropriate resolution. To get these things, sometimes people have to go elsewhere, and utilize processes that are still rooted in the law and true to the spirit of the law, but neither limited by the letter of the law nor shackled by civil procedures.
This is where processes like Mediation, Collaborative Law, early Case Evaluation and Conciliation, offered by private providers outside of the litigation process and court system, can play an important role in better satisfying all the interests of all the parties. These approaches are not limited by the limitations on the court’s authority. The only limitations on these processes are those of the parties involved, their ability to work collaboratively and think creatively to come up with more complete solutions to their disputes. If the parties, assisted by lawyers trained in these processes and neutral facilitators, can work together and use these processes, they can achieve things that most courts cannot provide, and tailor resolutions according to their circumstances and needs.
Sometimes, courts teach us more by what they don’t do than by what they can do.