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Mediators share ADR session 'horror' stories

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Indiana Lawyer Focus

As alternative dispute resolution continues to increase in use and attorneys and their clients more regularly look outside the courtroom for options other than litigation, tales of challenging – sometimes shocking – scenarios are being shared, along with tips that helped mediators survive and even succeed in the scariest sessions. With Halloween approaching, experienced Indiana mediators recently shared some “nightmare scenarios” that they’ve encountered that might provide a laugh or lesson for their colleagues.

Mediating with the dead

casey-james-mug.jpg Casey

Evansville mediator James Casey handled an estate-related ADR session, and the 40-something-year-old son of the man whose estate was being discussed appeared with a box that he held throughout most of the session. The mediating lawyer didn’t think anything of it since many parties bring in evidence or items they believe might help the mediators understand the value of an estate.

At one point, the man referred to his dad and then showed Casey that the box was full of his dad’s ashes. That didn’t become a problem until later when “dad started having strong opinions and disagreeing with counteroffers on the estate.” Eventually, Casey said he and the lawyers realized they had to mediate as if the father was in the room, so they started trying to direct comments to him and eventually “got dad to come around so that everyone seemed happy with the position reached.”

Pulling a resolution from a hat

Casey shared another story involving a mediation between two brothers who had a strong German heritage. The brothers were given property by their parents, but they couldn’t get along with each other and decide who retained ownership. A division of property was orchestrated, and Casey tried to mediate privately with each brother. However, even when they initially agreed on a preference, one of the brothers would change his mind and disagree. “Clearly, the only reason was that he wanted what his brother would have and to make his brother unhappy.”

Eventually, they labeled the property divisions A and B and drew them randomly out of a hat, with the brother having the earliest birth year able to pull from the hat first.

This isn’t trial

abeska-tim-mug.jpg Abeska

Tim Abeska of South Bend mediated a case in which opposing counsel for the plaintiff used the joint session as a venue to deliver what was essentially an opening statement at trial, complete with hyperbole and negative comments about the defendant. This tactic completely poisoned the “settlement atmosphere” and the mediation quickly ended as a failure.

Mediating with a 6-year old

Carmel mediator Elisabeth Edwards mediated for a divorcing couple three times and couldn’t get the parties to stop arguing. At one point, the session reached a moment when she literally had to hold her hands up and tell the two to stop talking to each other that way. Edwards said it’s like mediating with a 6-year-old, except she has more control over her own child of that age. At times, she had to block the door to stop participants from packing up and leaving the room so that she could keep the mediation moving.

edwards-elisabeth-mug.jpg Edwards

That’s the key overall to making these emotional impasses turn into resolutions, she said: keeping everyone in their chairs to calm down and continue discussing possible resolutions. “If you stop, everyone gets entrenched in their positions, and it’s more difficult to persuade them of what’s middle ground.”

Feuding neighbors

Janet Mitchell of Fort Wayne said two of the most ferocious mediation participants she’s ever worked with were a sheriff’s deputy and his elderly neighbor who were locked in a decades-old series of feuds. Their antics, which included surveillance and structural markers, affected their livelihood and health, not to mention reducing their neighbors’ property values. Mitchell co-mediated with them three times over a period of six months. At the first mediation session, she had them bring along support people, had them sign strict behavioral rules for mediation, had them leave weapons out of the mediation building, had them sit at tables that were two tables wide and provided both parties easy escape access with plenty of breaks to help calm high blood pressure concerns.

No weapons were brought to the second session, and no blood pressure breaks were requested. At the third session, however, the elderly neighbor stood up with fists raised and said: “Let’s settle this here and now!” The deputy stood up immediately with fists raised. Mitchell got them out of the “fight or flight” response by asking them to sit down, and she calmly reviewed the agreements they had made along with timelines and other details. Mitchell has found she can lead an emotional disputant back to civility by talking about dates, times, and the series of events.•
 

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  1. It really doesn't matter what the law IS, if law enforcement refuses to take reports (or take them seriously), if courts refuse to allow unrepresented parties to speak (especially in Small Claims, which is supposedly "informal"). It doesn't matter what the law IS, if constituents are unable to make effective contact or receive any meaningful response from their representatives. Two of our pets were unnecessarily killed; court records reflect that I "abandoned" them. Not so; when I was denied one of them (and my possessions, which by court order I was supposed to be able to remove), I went directly to the court. And earlier, when I tried to have the DV PO extended (it expired while the subject was on probation for violating it), the court denied any extension. The result? Same problems, less than eight hours after expiration. Ironic that the county sheriff was charged (and later pleaded to) with intimidation, but none of his officers seemed interested or capable of taking such a report from a private citizen. When I learned from one officer what I needed to do, I forwarded audio and transcript of one occurrence and my call to law enforcement (before the statute of limitations expired) to the prosecutor's office. I didn't even receive an acknowledgement. Earlier, I'd gone in to the prosecutor's office and been told that the officer's (written) report didn't match what I said occurred. Since I had the audio, I can only say that I have very little faith in Indiana government or law enforcement.

  2. One can only wonder whether Mr. Kimmel was paid for his work by Mr. Burgh ... or whether that bill fell to the citizens of Indiana, many of whom cannot afford attorneys for important matters. It really doesn't take a judge(s) to know that "pavement" can be considered a deadly weapon. It only takes a brain and some education or thought. I'm glad to see the conviction was upheld although sorry to see that the asphalt could even be considered "an issue".

  3. In response to bryanjbrown: thank you for your comment. I am familiar with Paul Ogden (and applaud his assistance to Shirley Justice) and have read of Gary Welsh's (strange) death (and have visited his blog on many occasions). I am not familiar with you (yet). I lived in Kosciusko county, where the sheriff was just removed after pleading in what seems a very "sweetheart" deal. Unfortunately, something NEEDS to change since the attorneys won't (en masse) stand up for ethics (rather making a show to please the "rules" and apparently the judges). I read that many attorneys are underemployed. Seems wisdom would be to cull the herd and get rid of the rotting apples in practice and on the bench, for everyone's sake as well as justice. I'd like to file an attorney complaint, but I have little faith in anything (other than the most flagrant and obvious) resulting in action. My own belief is that if this was medicine, there'd be maimed and injured all over and the carnage caused by "the profession" would be difficult to hide. One can dream ... meanwhile, back to figuring out to file a pro se "motion to dismiss" as well as another court required paper that Indiana is so fond of providing NO resources for (unlike many other states, who don't automatically assume that citizens involved in the court process are scumbags) so that maybe I can get the family law attorney - whose work left me with no settlement, no possessions and resulted in the death of two pets (etc ad nauseum) - to stop abusing the proceedings supplemental and small claims rules and using it as a vehicle for harassment and apparently, amusement.

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