Mediation “Dream Team” Appointed in Puerto Rico — But With a “Voluntary” Limitation and Impediment

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Puerto Rico’s location on the map

By Donald L. Swanson

On May 21, 2017, the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico files its “Petition” initiating a proceeding under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act. This proceeding is described as a pseudo-bankruptcy and is pending in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Puerto Rico (Case No. 17 BK 3566).

Mediation Order Appointing “Dream Team”

On June 14, 2017, the presiding Judge in the Puerto Rico case enters an “Order and Notice of Preliminary Designation of Mediation Team” (Doc. 74). This Order appoints a five-member team of mediators that’s widely recognized as a mediation “Dream Team.”

This Dream Team “is led by Chief Judge Barbara Houser” of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Texas. The other four members are:

–Judge Thomas L. Ambro of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit;
–Judge Nancy Friedman Atlas of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas;
–Judge Christopher Klein of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of California; and
–Judge Victor Marrero of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The mediation Order appears to follow the approach, made famous by the City of Detroit bankruptcy, of appointing a mediator team to help shepherd along the bankruptcy proceeding of a governmental entity. The mediation Order appears to be a very good step!

“Voluntary” Limitation

To quibble on one point, however, the mediation Order contains this limiting provision:

–“Participation in mediation sessions will be voluntary.”

Why would a presiding Judge appoint a five-person mediation Dream Team but permit them to mediate only when disputing parties volunteer to do so?

Detroit Bankruptcy – A Contrasting Example

Participation in mediation efforts, back in the City of Detroit bankruptcy, are anything but “voluntary.” Consider these earliest mediation steps in the Detroit bankruptcy (Case No. 13-53846 in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan):

July 18, 2013 — Detroit files its Petition under Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code.

August 13, 2013 – Presiding Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes enters a “Mediation Order” (Doc. 322), which provides:

“After consultation with the parties involved, the Court may order the parties to engage in any mediation that the Court refers in this case”; and

The Judicial Mediator “is authorized to enter any order necessary for the facilitation of mediation proceedings” and “may, in his discretion, direct the parties to engage in facilitative mediation on substantive, process and discovery issues.”

August 16, 2013 – The Judicial Mediator, Chief Judge Gerald Rosen of the U.S. District Court for Eastern District of Michigan, issues his “Order to Certain Parties to Appear for First Mediation Session” (Doc. 334), which identifies 12 parties and says:

“IT IS HEREBY ORDERED the above-named parties shall appear for an initial mediation session before the Honorable Gerald E. Rosen, Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, in his Courtroom, . . . on Tuesday, September 17, 2013 at 11:00 a.m.

The mediator team in the City of Detroit bankruptcy, led by Judge Rosen, aggressively and effectively exercises the broad authority granted to them. And their efforts prove to be successful.

Mandated Mediation – A Common Tool

Moreover, mandated mediation is a commonly-used tool in many courts, both state and Federal, throughout these United States. In the U.S. circuit courts of appeals, for example, every circuit but one has a mandatory mediation provision. And studies show these mandatory provisions to be highly successful in achieving settlements.

Empirical Studies – And Puerto Rico’s Experience

Furthermore, empirical studies show that “voluntary” mediation programs commonly suffer from limited use.  Such study results are consistent with Puerto Rico’s pre-filing experience: “voluntary” mediation initiatives made little-to-no headway.  So, the “voluntary” limitation in this case might even leave the Dream Team with little-to-do beyond imploring parties to mediate their disputes.

Conclusion

The presiding Judge in the Puerto Rico case takes a major step by establishing a mediation system and appointing a mediation Dream Team. But the Judge limits mediation efforts, at the outset, to “voluntary” participation. This “voluntary” limitation on the Dream Team’s efforts is likely to impede and impair the effectiveness of the Dream Team’s mediation efforts.

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