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Mediation Vignette: The Farmer

Early June, driving home from a mediation in northern Indiana. The sun is setting on the right, throwing Hopper light and shadows on the white farm houses and red barns on the left. With no-till planting, it’s hard to tell when the corn and beans are in. It all looks like last season’s stubble. Now and then, though, a conventionally tilled and disked field, black coffee dirt, tiny green rows beginning to form. Only thing moving on either side of this interstate is one lone tractor a quarter of a mile into one of the fields, moving steadily and kicking up dirt behind like a water skier.

Years ago, practicing law in a small county seat town, I represented several farmers like the one on that tractor. One, I remember, Ted, was about 45, the third generation of his family to farm the same 1000 acres. I was handling a real estate closing and the farmer and I and the farmer’s accountant were walking from my office across the courthouse square to the bank. As we were walking, the three of us, Ted looked around and said: “My Dad always told me you’re known by the company you keep and look at me, walking across the town square with an attorney on one side and an accountant on the other.”

The case today didn’t settle: a complicated multi-party dispute involving two competing groups of corporate farming operations and a farmer-turned corporate farm manager, who allegedly left the employ of one of the corporations to use confidential information and trade secrets in another. The corporate groups had brought a lawsuit against the former farmer. He had two lawyers, the two corporate groups had two lawyers each, and the ten individual party shareholders had four lawyers among them.

There was some unity of interest among one of the corporate groups, one group of shareholders and the manager, so in one of the many separate caucuses there were often six lawyers, one outside expert, four or five of the officials and shareholders and, in the middle, the manager. He was the focus of the session, of the negotiations. The others were involved, but regardless of the outcome of the mediation or the litigation, their businesses and positions would continue. The manager’s job, however, and much of his life, was hanging in the balance.

At one point I was standing in a far corner of the large conference room, the manager sitting in the middle; the attorneys, experts, corporate official and shareholders were all around, talking by him, around him and through him, debating this legal point, that negotiation strategy, predicting this potential good outcome, that possible bad one. All the talk seemed to blur together in one hum and he stood out alone, in the middle, as though a spotlight was trained upon him Above the hum I heard him say, to no one in particular…”Why won’t someone tell me what’s going to happen?”

Names and details in these vignettes have been changed or altered to protect
and preserve confidentiality and privilege.


John R. Van Winkle

John R Van Winkle is a full-time mediator from Indianapolis Indiana. He is a former Chair of the American Bar Association’s Section of Dispute Resolution and the author of “Mediation; A Path Back for the Lost Lawyer” MORE >

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