Parties involved in litigation should always keep an open mind about mediation at every stage of litigation.  Cases that resolve without having to go through a trial or arbitration can potentially save the parties a lot of time and money in litigation.  This article touches on five items parties need to understand about mediation.

1. Mediation is non-binding.
Mediation is a voluntary process in which litigants (or even parties prior to litigation) agree to use a private third-party to help settle the case. People sometimes confuse mediation with arbitration. Arbitration is when parties agree to use a private third-party to hear their case, much like a judge, to make decisions about the case, and eventually decide the case. Arbitration can be binding on the parties, and the arbitrator actually decides who is right and wrong as a matter of law. On the other hand, a mediator is not deciding any issues about the case, but is simply hearing both sides’ positions, and then works with the parties to see if there is a potential resolution that the parties would both agree to. The mediator has no ability to decide issues of the case, or make any binding rulings about the case. The mediator is only an unbiased third-party attempting to get the parties to consider a possible resolution to the case.

2. Mediation takes place with a private mediator –usually not the court.
The parties voluntarily agree upon the selection of a mediator. Usually the mediator has expertise in the area of the law that the case involves so that he or she can move quicker into the substance of the parties’ disagreement. There are many retired judges or lawyers that work as mediators. Some mediators are active practicing lawyers that also have a mediation service established.
The mediation usually takes place at the mediator’s office. Normally the mediator has the parties in separate rooms, and the mediator walks between the two rooms. There are many mediations during which the parties will not see other side the entire day.

3. Negotiations during the mediation are privileged and cannot be used against either party during litigation.
California law prevents any of the negotiations or potential admissions made during mediation from being brought up in court or during litigation. The rationale for this rule is that the courts want people to be able to negotiate during mediation, this involves some give and take. Therefore, in order to assist the mediation process, any of the discussions or negotiations during mediation are prevented from being used against the other party. This allows parties to discuss items more freely during mediation in hopes of having a better chance at resolving the case. However, it should be noted that if a party makes an admission during mediation, the other party can still conduct discovery after the mediation and bring that admission into the case through the standard discovery process. So parties should follow their counsel’s advice about which facts to share during the mediation process. But rest assured, the fact that one party agreed to offer a certain amount to settle the case during mediation, this offer to settle cannot be brought up to the jury later in the case as a way to establish liability.

4. The mediator’s only role is to get the case settled.
The mediator is not there to make friends, tell you if he believes you more than the other side, or make a value judgment about the case or people involved. His or her role is simply to get the case resolved. This usually means that for a successful mediator both sides don’t like the mediator. This is because the mediator was able to move two opponents to agree to a resolution of the case, and to get to this point usually means that both sides are unhappy with the resolution.

5. Even if the case does not settle at mediation, it could still be a successful mediation.
The parties need to understand that mediation is a process and it is hard to settle cases in one day – even a long day – of mediation. Sometimes it is clear during the mediation that the parties cannot settle the case. Sometimes it takes the mediator working with the parities for weeks after the mediation to arrive at a settlement. If the case does not settle, it is also beneficial for the parties that during the course of a mediation to realize that maybe they are still too far apart to agree to a settlement and there needs to be further discovery and motions filed to narrow down the issues that are being litigated.

It is not often that the California Employment Law Report can opine outside of the boundaries of the state of California, but I am going out on a limb on this one. I came across what I would recommend to every employer as a way to reduce litigation. In the book, End Malaria, a new book published by the Domino Project, the chapter, Three Words From Ann Landers, written by Scott Stratten of UnMarketing, has the following recommendation:

Take these three words that Ann Landers recommended as a test and try them with your team for one day (I dare you):

Good.True.Helpful.

If what you’re about to say or email to someone doesn’t meet two out of those three criteria, reword it or don’t say it at all.

Instead of saying “Late again, eh?” you can say “Mike, you’re a valuable member of this team, and when you’re late it hold up everyone’s progress. What can I do to help you?

Scott says that people using his recommendation don’t even need to use all three criteria – just two. Companies spend so much time thinking about what type of messages they send their customers through marketing and sales campaigns, but do they spend even 10% of that effort into thinking about how to communicate with its own employees? Give it a try, and I bet the payoff will show up in higher employee retention, higher morale, and less lawsuits.

We are nearly at the point were everything we do is recorded.  Think no one knows where you are?  Wrong, your phone’s GPS can be used to track your location without you knowing about it. 

Parties to lawsuits have not realized this new phenomenon either.  In almost every case I have litigated in over the last two years the parties’ emails have played a critical role.  Why is that?  First, almost all communications are done through email.  Email drafted three years ago, and produced in the course of litigation has a lot of credibility because it recorded the facts as they existed at the time the writer sent the email.  It is is very hard to dispute those facts. 

Is This Good Or Bad?

It is good because it is that much easier to catch a lair these days.  It is also bad, because if you do not take the time to accurately draft an email – and your words could have two meanings – it could come back to bite you.  Seth Godin had some good advice today, and provided 8 tips that are well worth a review:

1. Change your settings so that email from you has a name, your name, not a blank or some unusual characters, in the from field. (ask a geek or IT person for help if you don’t know how).
2. Change your settings so that the bottom of every email includes a signature (often called a sig) that includes your name and your organization.
3. Change your settings so that when you reply to a note, the note you’re replying to is included below what you write (this is called quoting).
4. Don’t hit reply all. Just don’t. Okay, you can, but read this first.
5. You can’t recall an email you didn’t mean to send. Some software makes you think you can, but you can’t. Not reliably.
6. Email lives forever, is easy to spread and can easily show up in discovery for a lawsuit.
7. Please don’t ask me to save a tree by not printing your email. It doesn’t work, it just annoys the trees.
8. Send yourself some email at a friend’s computer. Read it. Are the fonts too big or too small? Does it look like a standard email? If it doesn’t look like a standard, does this deviation help you or hurt you? Sometimes, fitting in makes sense, no?

It is also worth remembering how useful email can be as a tool to record facts as they exist on a certain day and time.  It is very easy to send yourself an email to record a discussion that took place – and this email will have a lot of credibility should that discussion ever be the center of lawsuit.