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Negotiating Justice in Community Mediation

by Victoria Pynchon
May 2008

From Settle It Now Negotiation Blog

Victoria Pynchon
Nearly every condominium complex harbors an outlaw -- the man, woman, couple or family who refuse to follow the rules.  The young couple who blasts the woofers off their stereo system at 3 a.m.  The elderly woman who doesn't clean up after her dog.  The raucous family that plays "Marco Polo" in the community pool after midnight.  

Offended and outraged, other homeowners make demands on their volunteer board who contact the (often unresponsive) management company.  The HOA board does its best.  It issues warnings to procure compliance.  To no avail.  Eventually, someone reads the CC&R's.  They learn that the Board has enforceable legal duties and the homeoweners actionable legal rights. 

Many of these disputes make their way to the Los Angeles County Bar Association's Dispute Resolution Center in West Hollywood.  And some of them make their way to me. 

Welcome to community mediation -- the non-zero sum, value-based, rights-seeking, joint session transformative dispute resolution process.  We're well trained and we're free.

But can we deliver justice?

 

Attorneys, the Law, Mediation and Justice 

Maybe it was just my G-g-g-generation, but I went to law school primarily because I was interested in the delivery of justice.  Although my primary involvement in the 20th Century 's civil rights movements was as a Vista volunteer at an activist women's center in San Diego in the early 1970's, I wasn't simply pursuing my own narrow self-interests when I applied to law school.   

As early as I can recall -- long before I'd conclude that 1950's and '60s women were oppressed -- I'd already developed a deep longing for the reconstruction of adult relationships along the lines of fairness.  This must be a typical childhood longing premised upon our predicament of being physically small and powerless.  An "unjust" world that rewards only power would not ensure our survival while a world in which everyone is valued and treated fairly would.     

Couple a child's sense of justice with televised images of "the law" aiming fire-hoses at peacefully demonstrating "Negroes" and you get a life-long commitment not simply to the "rule of law" but to the necessity for that "rule" to be premised upon justice.   

Are Negotiated and Mediated Resolutions Trumping Justice?   

These are just a few of the reasons it troubles me so when scholars suggest that mediated and negotiated resolutions to litigated disputes are unjust.  See yesterday's post here and the article that prompted it, Justice Trumps Peace (etc.) here.  If mediation is truly what its critics contend it to be -- a full-frontal assault upon the rights gained by marginalized citizens during the Civil Rights era -- I'm in serious moral trouble here. 

Consider this contention in Justice Trumps Peace

“ADR rhetoric” reinforce[s] a conservative challenge to “the law and reform discourse of the 1960s, a discourse concerned with justice and root causes, and with debates over right and wrong.” “The rights theme, consistent throughout earlier debates over legal resources,” was conspicuous by its absence in “the policy discussion on alternative dispute resolution.” . . . . 

Laura Nader . . . not[ed] that ADR’s “process of communication” ethos took necessary rough, ideological edges off claims, and fostered what she called “coercive harmony.” Nader argued that ADR was permeated with “conformist ideology,” which was employed to “suppress the realities of class, gender, and racial antagonism” endemic to American society, and as such, it comprised an “unreal law movement.” Nader contended that ADR’s emphasis on conciliation meant that critical considerations of “blame or rights” were “avoided and replaced by the rhetoric of compromise and relationship.” She concluded that “cultural notions of justice are factored out.” 

This tendency to screen-out unpleasant, divisive, but nonetheless vital social concerns supports Fiss’s characterization of ADR as a “sociologically impoverished universe,” in which critical issues of class, race and gender are subsumed to construct “a world composed exclusively of individuals.”

Can Justice be Negotiated?

Cheyney Ryan, a philosophy professor at the University of Oregon, contributed a short piece to the must-have Negotiator's Fieldbook entitled Rawls on Negotiating JusticeJohn Rawls, Ryan explains, is the seminal philosopher of justice in the 20th century.  "From the start," writes Ryan,

Rawls asked us to think of justice as  a matter of agreement.  He suggested that we think of the principles guiding a just society as the ones that individuals would agree to -- with the crucial proviso that they do not know where they themselves would end up in society, on the top or the bottom.  They would thus act from behind a "veil of ignorance . . . Given this constraint, no individual could tailor the principles of justice to his or her special talents or circumstances, which is why Rawls called this approach "justice as fairness."  Rawls suggested that the principles that would be agreed to would be ones that were deeply committed ot basic human rights and had a strong presumption in favor of economic equality.  Inequalities would only be tolerated if they most greatly benefited the least well off.

According to Ryan, Rawls concluded in his later writings that the reciprocity inherent in bargained-for resolutions and negotiation's search for mutual advantage were insufficient to ensure justice.  Rawls therefore shifted the basis of his theory from the search for rational resolutions to the implementation of reasonable ones.  "The question to ask of principles of justice," posited Rawls, was,

what were the most reasonable ones for people to agree to given the nature of our society and the nature of who we are?  Justice, thus reconceived, lost the harsh individualism that Rawls' earlier theory seemed to possess.  The stress on reasonableness meant that people taking others into account was an essential part of what justice was all about.  His theory also moved away from his earlier hyper-abstraction, insofar as we talk of what is "reasonable" invariably refers not to some hypotheitcal persons with hypotheical aims but to real people -- in this case, us, here and now.

Negotiating Justice in Community Mediation 

Condominium owners John and Betty Jones (not their real names) were being driven to distraction by their neighbors who arrived home at 2 a.m. only to commence what felt like a Pekinese rodeo in their upstairs apartment.  The ">indominable Kathryn Turk who convenes mediations for LACBA's Dispute Resolution Services in West Hollywood managed to procure the attendance of an HOA Board member with full authority to "settle" the case.  Unfortunately, the "outlaw" homeowner refused to attend.

John Jones had practically memorized the CC&R's governing the Board's duties and the homeowner's rights.  His wife repeatedly broke into tears as she described sleepless nights spent on the living room couch where the upstairs neighbor's early morning antics were the least disturbing.  The volunteer Board member was sympathetic but at a loss for solutions.  She'd contacted "management" and sent warnings to the miscreants, all to no avail. 

Only punitive measures would do at this point, said Jones. The CC&R's called for sanctions to be imposed on rule-breakers but lacked a means of implementation and enforcement.  The HOA representative indicated that she not only had the Board's authority to settle the matter, but to impose any necessary and reasonable rules to flesh out the CC&R's inadequate policies.

"We want monetary sanctions imposed," Jones was saying, "sanctions that can be made liens against the property just as HOA dues can be." 

"What about notice?"  I asked.  "And  a hearing?  There's nothing in the rules about the procedure for imposing sanctions."

"24 hours!" shouted John.  "If they don't comply, a $500 sanction to be made a lien against their property.  And another $500 for every day they continue to violate the noise restrictions contained in the CCR's."

Not knowing about Rawls' veil-of-ignorance-just-rule-making principle, I nevertheless wondered aloud whether Mr. and Mrs. Jones understood that the bylaws they were suggesting could be used by their scofflaw neighbors as easily as they could be pursued by the Jones.  

"Oh."

Silence.

"What set of rules do you think would be fair?" I asked.

Two hours later, we had achieved what my Con Law professor would have called "procedural due process" -- a set of rules that would likely pass Constitutional muster that came from the parties -- not from the mediator.

Whether justice and fairness are, at some level, hard-wired into us (see Brain reacts to fairness as it does to money and chocolate) or culturally controlled, it seems that Rawls' conception of "justice and fairness" based upon reasonableness and enlightened self-interest might flow more or less naturally from a mediated dispute resolution forum where the parties, rather than the mediator, are in control.

Biography


Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all types of business torts and contract disputes.  During her two years of full-time neutral practice, she has co-mediated both mandatory and voluntary settlement conferences with Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Alexander Williams, III and Victoria Chaney.  As a result of her work with Judge Chaney in the Complex Court at Central Civil West, Ms. Pynchon has gained significant experience mediating construction defect litigation.  Ms. Pynchon received her J.D., Order of the Coif, from the U.C. Davis School of Law. 



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