More Ways To Commit Legal Malpractice As A Mediation Advocate

From Settle It Now Negotiation Blog

If you didn’t already understand how to protect your mediated settlement agreement from challenge, you do now.

But wait a minute!  Is that what you want?  

What if your client entered into the agreement only because its opponent made a material misstatement of fact?  What if one of your co-defendants challenges your settlement agreement as not having been made in good faith, thus exposing your client to potential liability for indemnity or contribution?  Can you win the "good faith settlement" motion without the testimony of the participants in the mediation?  

In a comment on yesterday’s post, Los Angeles mediator Joe Markowitz noted that:

Parties are entitled to walk out of a mediation with a whole range of outcomes, from a completed settlement agreement, to a term sheet, to an oral understanding, to a promise to think over the other side’s last offer, to a promise to see the other side in court! As long as both sides understand what they are getting at the conclusion of the mediation session, there should be no basis for a malpractice claim for any of these outcomes. If the parties choose to use a term sheet with no language in it indicating that they have settled their case, they just need to understand that any party can renege on the deal after the mediation. In some cases, that may be what the parties want, to give them some time to think the whole thing over

Joe’s comments put the emphasis in mediation advocacy back where it belongs — on the fully informed assent of the parties and on the strategic plans of litigation counsel.  

So here’s yet another way to commit legal malpractice as a mediation advocate:  don’t fully understand the implications of mediation confidentiality on the final resolution of your client’s dispute.  I’ll just bullet point ways to protect yourself and your client below and ask others to chime in with their recommendations:

  • if your client is relying upon the veracity of its opponent’s representation in entering into the deal, write that representation into the agreement or deal points, i.e., "Party A and Party B both understand that Party A is entering into this agreement based upon the following representation/s: ………………………………  "  Then you can include any other language that makes sense in the context of the agreement.  You can provide that Party B’s production of documents confirming its representations to Party A is a condition precedent to Party A’s obligations under the settlement agreement.  If your client simply needs protection down the line in the event FACT X proves to be untrue, you can include a liquidated damage clause in the agreement or provide for an expedited means of resolving any dispute resulting from the falsity of FACT X ; or, you could provide that the falsity of FACT X will render the settlement agreement null and void; 
  • you could avoid the problems created by the strict enforcement of mediation confidentiality  by agreeing with your opponent (in writing!) that the neutral-facilitated settlement negotiation is not a mediation to be governed by Evidence Code section 1115 et seq. but a settlement conference governed by Evidence Code section 1152 et seq.  This option would be a useful one to a defendant who is settling the action separately from co-defendants who might bring a motion challenging the good faith of your settlement.  
  • Less drastically, you could simply include in your settlement agreement a provision by which the parties agree that the mediation confidentiality protections as codified in section 1119 will not apply in the event a co-defendant challenges the good faith of the settlement.  Remember that the mediator is considered incompetent to testify so that your waiver of mediation confidentiality in the event testimony is needed to oppose a challenge to the good faith of your settlement may not permit the mediator to testify at the hearing (or to offer a declaration in opposition to the motion) as well he or she — a neutral party — shouldn’t.

You’re a litigator.  There are probably hundreds of ways to skin this particular cat.  The keys are knowing and understanding the law of mediation confidentiality and thinking through all of the implications it might have on your clients’ rights or interests down the line.  That’s what we litigators do and we shouldn’t abandon those strategic considerations just because we believe we’re settling this case for good and it will never come back to haunt us or our clients again.

Remember, you are in control of the process.  If you don’t like mediation confidentiality, tailor a confidentiality agreement to suit your circumstances.  You will, of course, have to "sell" your proposal to your opponent.  The  best time to do that might well be at the end of the mediation rather than at its commencement.  By that time, your opponent is pretty darn committed to the resolution of the lawsuit.  His client is already planning on ways he can more profitably spend his time and money other than on further litigation, attorneys’ fees, and court costs.  The plaintiff is, I guarantee you, already spending the settlement monies or planning the celebration back at the office and wondering whether this might lead to the promotion he or she has been waiting for.

                        author

Victoria Pynchon

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… MORE >

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