How Mediation at the End of a Case is Wasteful

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A Wasteland

By: Donald L. Swanson

When mediation occurs early-in-a-case, instead of late, “cases are more likely to settle, fewer motions are filed and decided, and case disposition time is shorter, even for cases that do not settle.”

–B. McAdoo, N. Welsh & R. Wissler, “What Do Empirical Studies Tell Us About Court Mediation?” (2004)

A lawsuit consists of these overlapping phases: (i) pleadings, (ii) discovery, (iii) dispositive motions, (iv) pretrial steps, and (v) trial with final verdict or judgment.

The study linked above concludes, obviously, that an early-in-the-case mediation is more effective than a late-in-the-case mediation.

Wasteful

Nevertheless, the customary time for mediation is late-in-the-case: as discovery winds down, pretrial steps are in process, and trial is in the offing. Unfortunately, this late-in-the-case time (without an early mediation effort first) is about as wasteful as can be imagined. Consider this:

–A huge amount of time, effort, energy and fees are spent before a late-in-the-case mediation begins, and avoiding many of such costs can be a powerful incentive to settle in an early-mediation; and

–If the optimum time for mediating is early-in-the-case, then all the time, effort, energy and fees spent between an unused early/optimum time and the late/customary time is a pure and unmitigated waste!

A Faulty Rationale: More Time is Needed

One faulty rationale for end-of-the-case mediation is that the parties need more time to, (i) recognize the risks of their legal position, and (ii) come to grips with the reality of what it takes to resolve the case. Here are two examples of how this rationale is faulty.

1. A lack of opportunity. I remember representing a business defendant who gives ten reasons why they are not responsible for the bad things that happened. The months-long discovery process turns into a ten-step effort that proves each and every one of the reasons wrong. No early-settlement overtures occur in the case from either side, and my client appears ready to engage in meaningful settlement discussions only after all ten reasons are refuted. In retrospect, however, I’m pretty sure that, (i) they knew or suspected, all along, that they were in the wrong, and (ii) would have jumped at the end-of-case settlement terms, had those terms been available early in the case.

2. A lack of imagination. I remember representing a plaintiff against a business defendant that had clearly breached standards of care. But defense counsel refuses, in numerous different contexts, all early settlement overtures (he blames his client for the refusals). We settle at the end with defendant paying much more than defendant would ever have had to pay in an early-stage settlement. The early-refusals cost defendant dearly! I’ve often wondered why all early olive branches were rebuffed . . . and attribute it to a lack of imagination from the other side.

Another Faulty Rationale: Exhaustion Helps

Another faulty rationale for end-of-the-case mediation is the exhaustion element: when parties are weary of paying fees, weary of the time and energy consumed by the lawsuit, and concerned about risks of losing, they become more-inclined to settle. But this exhaustion element bears an unreasonably high price to pay for getting into a better mood for settling the case.

Bankruptcy Experience 

This early-mediation idea is now institutionalized in the Delaware Bankruptcy Court. In 2013, the Delaware Court establishes an early-mediation program for preference cases (see this article).

And it should be noted that early-mediation benefits are particularly in-play for bankruptcy reorganization disputes. Reorganization cases are best served when many disputes are resolved as quickly as possible. The business needs of a debtor, typically, cannot survive long and protracted battles. A debtor, simply, cannot afford to fight every battle all the time. So, early-mediation can be critical to the success of the reorganization process.

Conclusion

Early-mediation is optimal for resolving legal disputes, especially in bankruptcy cases. But end-of-the-case mediation is what usually happens (without any attempt at early mediation).  This is wasteful and needs to change!

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