Eugene Driker: Private Practice (“Civilian”) Mediator in Detroit’s Bankruptcy

 

By Donald L. Swanson

Get this: all six mediators in the Detroit Bankruptcy are sitting or retired federal judges -except one.

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Eugene Driker is the lone exception.  He is the only private-practice mediator in the group – or, as Mr. Driker describes it, “I was the civilian.”  That makes him an example and hero for all private practice (“civilian”) mediators out there.

Mr. Driker is a lawyer, a litigator, a business counselor. He’s a Detroit native who earned his B.S. and J.D. credentials at Detroit’s Wayne State University.  And he’s practiced law in Detroit for 55 years – mostly as a commercial litigator.  He’s a professional that people turn to when their stakes are high – when their company’s existence is on the line.

Mr. Driker is also a mediator.  Over the past decade, he’s mediated more than 150 cases, mostly commercial cases in Detroit’s Federal Court.  And he finds the mediator role to be “very gratifying.”  He describes the mediator role as a combination of “psychoanalyst, rabbi, minister, priest.”  A large part of the role, he says, is “listening” and “hand holding”: a mediator must “listen to people unburden themselves.”

“Most mediations,” he says, “take a day or two or a week: they’re short term affairs.”  But the short term affairs model went out the window when he began mediating a boundary dispute under an 1854 treaty, involving a Native American Tribe, a city, a county, a state and the Federal Government.  This boundary dispute mediation covered 23 sessions and lasted 2 years.

So, it’s not surprising that Eugene Driker is the first person Detroit’s lead mediator turns to for service as deputy mediator.  The lead mediator is Gerald Rosen, Chief Judge of Detroit’s Federal District Court.

Mr. Driker tells the story that he’s on a bicycle ride when his cell phone rings.  The District Judge is on the phone and asks Mr. Driker to serve on the Detroit mediator team.  Mr. Driker puts first-things-first (i.e., checks with his wife, Elaine), and then accepts the position.

The Detroit mediation process takes 15 months of intense and 24/7 work to achieve “unexpectedly beneficial results for creditors and the City,” Mr. Driker says.

At the beginning of the process, Mr. Driker’s mediation efforts focus on Detroit’s pension issues.  The initial problem for mediation of the pension plans, he says, is a widely disparate view of the facts.  The City’s Emergency Manager, for example, says the shortfall in proper funding of the two pensions totals $3 billion (with a “b”).  The pensioners vehemently dispute this number and believe the City has “cooked the books” to get there.

And pensioners are offended by the inference that “greedy municipal unions have bankrupted the City!”

Nevertheless, the parties are able to reach a voluntary solution through mediation.

Here are some newspaper quotes from Detroit’s lead mediator, Judge Rosen, about Mr. Driker’s service as a deputy mediator:

  • “He’s been invaluable in these mediation sessions: he has a great sense of humor, the right quip.”
  • “On a great team, he’s been the all-star.”

Mr. Driker’s public comments, by contrast, are modest and attribute credit to others: e.g., regarding pension board negotiators, he says:

  • “Those were very heroic leaders and deserve praise for stepping up.”

All such quotes are precisely what we’d expect to hear about and from a seasoned / skilled mediator.

Footnote:  This is the first of a series of five articles about the Detroit mediation process, based on interviews with Eugene Driker, a Deputy Mediator in the Detroit Bankruptcy.

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