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Avoiding Mediation Hazards, and getting to YES!

The expectations of the parties and their counsel or insurer coming into a mediation session play an important role in how successful the mediation process will be. Some cases come to mediation on the eve of or even after a trial, while others arrive before suit is filed or perhaps even before the parties have consulted with counsel about their dispute. In some cases, little-to-no negotiation has taken place. In others, extensive negotiations have taken place and have reached an impasse with specific parameters, or offers or demands being recognized and defined. When to go to mediation is important for both the parties and their counsel to consider.

How can the expectations of the participants impact the mediation process and the overall prospects of success, at both the essential initial stages as well as at its conclusion? And how can parties, counsel, and the mediator all take steps to avoid the pitfalls of misunderstood or unfounded pre-mediation expectations of the other side? In this article we’ll review some real-life examples of expectation pitfalls, consider what the impact to the mediation could be, and offer ideas on how to avoid the hazards which can negatively impact your chances of settling.

Over the years, I have experienced many situations which could have been avoided, if they had been identified early in the case, such as:

– a case comes to mediation with a high six-figure demand, where no offer has been made, when the defendant advises the mediator in an initial private caucus that they have authority only up to $10,000 for settlement;

– a case comes to mediation where at the beginning of the mediation session a prior settlement demand is increased significantly by the plaintiff, or a prior offer by the defendant is reduced, whether justified or not;

– a case comes to mediation where the parties have had prior negotiations, and where settlement offers and demands were made, but an impasse was reached. Now at the mediation session, one or both sides indicate they are starting at a zero offer, or at the initial demand made before negotiations began;

– a case comes to mediation where counsel or the parties have had a so-called “off-the-record” settlement discussion which set some informal expectations, but at the mediation session – either after a more formal discussion with their clients or not – a change is made from previous informal representations;

– a case comes to mediation where a party previously indicated off-the-record that a certain amount would likely settle their case, then at the mediation, makes a formal initial starting demand significantly higher than the off-the-record amount;

– a case where mediation has been suggested and deemed beneficial by the parties, where the plaintiff indicates they will not attend without a formal offer, perhaps of a minimum amount, or where the defendant will come only if the plaintiff lowers their demand to a certain number.

These scenarios can have very negative impact to the mediation session, the work of the mediator, and any future collaboration between the parties. Some general reactions I have heard from parties in these scenarios show the problematic effect:

“If I knew that was the other side’s position, I would never have come to mediation.”

“They should have told me that before coming today; they’ve wasted my time and my client’s time. I’m going to demand they pay my expenses and our share of the mediation costs.”

“They are not acting in good faith! I’ll never negotiate with them now on this case. I’ll see them in court!”

“I am going to assert a 93A and 176D claim over this bad practice and low offer.”

“We only came to the table when we were told a certain number or range would likely settle this case, and now they are starting with an unrealistic demand. We are finished here.”.

“If that is their position, I am raising my demand [or lowering my offer].”

“Mr/s. Mediator, you have to remind counsel, and tell their client as well, that we were told off-the-record that [a certain amount] would likely settle this case.”

“Until the other side puts their last pre-mediation demand [or offer] on the table, off-the-record or not, we are not going to begin negotiating.”

“I will never mediate with this attorney and/or insurer again.”;

“I will never go to mediation again without a significant pre-mediation offer [or more reasonable settlement demand].”

“I will never use you again Mr/s. Mediator, if you can’t get the other side to commit to a realistic starting number.”

Parties, counsel, insurers, and mediators need to know how to avoid the hazards in the examples above.

Here are some ways to remedy the common hurdles:

– The parties and/or their counsel should communicate clearly with the other side their reasonable expectations of one another before coming to a mediation session, or in many cases, before agreeing to the mediation process, to avoid surprises or unfounded expectations.

– Carefully consider the downsides of changing previously expressed settlement demands or offers on the day of the mediation. If such revisions are merited or sought, consider advising the other side well in advance of the mediation session, and provide rationale for such changes so the opposing side has the opportunity to digest and review the proposition and are not surprised at the mediation.

– As best possible, reach an understanding of what the starting demand and offer will be at the mediation session to avoid surprises. Agree on what effect “off-the-record” conversations will play, if at all, at the mediation session.

– Consider having a pre-mediation conference with the mediator should some of these issues arise so the mediator might assist you in sculpting an agreed-upon mediation process to best fit the needs and expectations of all participants.

– Many cases that settle have come to mediation without pre-mediation settlement demands or offers having been made. However, parties and their counsel or insurers may well consider whether and to what extent pre-mediation negotiations, offers, demands, or other parameters may be needed in a particular case to increase the likelihood that a mediation session will be most productive and successful.

– In certain cases, the parties may need to set parameters or expectations before coming to mediation. Recognize that pre-mediation conferences or telephone calls to negotiate parameters and/or expectations before the formal mediation session begins, can mean the difference between settlement or trial.

The good news is that experienced mediators have the skills to deal successfully with all of the issues, pitfalls, and avoidable frustrations noted above. Being informed of issues in advance, an experienced mediator can arrange for pre-mediation conferences so that false expectations won’t torpedo the session ahead. Even if these issues rear their heads only when the session begins, a seasoned mediator will use his skills to help the parties navigate these choppy waters, and steer everyone’s attention to the merits, strengths, and weaknesses of the case, the true needs and interests of the parties, and the benefits of a negotiated resolution. Avoid the prolonged time, expense, frustration, and uncertainty of further litigation and trial and come to the table with founded expectations….there’s a very high likelihood you will get to YES.