Student Loan Crisis: High-Priced Colleges Support Beautiful Campuses (and Other Luxuries) on the Backs of their Students

IMG_0216By:  Donald L. Swanson

“Back when I was in school . . .”

This is a tired-old phrase, usually followed by tales of hardship.

The Olden Days

But here’s an opposite twist:  Back when I was in college (during the 1970s), you could actually pay your way through, with little-to-no debt, by working part-time jobs and summers and getting grants and scholarships; or by taking a semester (or two or three) off from school to make money for finishing.  “Cramming four years into six,” is the common (but not very funny) joke from back then about paying for school.

–For professional schools back then, add in (as in my case) a working spouse to make ends meet: we say that, while I earned my J.D. (“Juris Doctor” degree), she earned her P.H.T. (“Put Hubby Thru” degree).

Those days are gone!

The Student Loan Problem

Because I live in the professional world of bankruptcy, I see every now-and-then the fallout from student loans.  And the fallout is ugly.  It’s a picture of highly-educated people (mostly young) buried under a burden of student loans.  And in many cases it’s a debt they will never be able to repay — ever.  Heck . . . many can’t even keep pace with interest accruals, let alone make a dent in the principal balance!

And student loan debts can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, except for the most difficult of all hardship cases.

What is the culprit causing all this?  It’s the easy availability of student loans for the benefit of high-priced colleges.

Student loan programs developed over time with the best of intentions.  Who can argue with the benefits of making a college education at the best-of-all institutions available to everyone, regardless of financial means?  “No one!” is the unfortunate answer.

But the best of intentions can (and often do) go awry and produce unintended consequences.

A Diagnosis

Here’s what’s gone awry with student loan programs:  the true beneficiaries are high-priced colleges, not students.

The high-priced colleges, who revel in beautiful campuses and other luxuries, create a demand from tuition-paying students for luxuries.  And other colleges must-keep-pace or die.  Who wants to go to a college with low-quality facilities when luxuries can be enjoyed elsewhere?

And then there is the marketing-genius deception.  It seems, in many situations, that neither young college-bound students nor their parents can discern the difference between, (i) a college charging low-prices and offering limited scholarships, and (ii) a college charging outrageously-high prices but giving huge-percentage scholarships that result in a still-outrageously-high actual cost.  Student loans enable students to choose the still-outrageously-high-cost college.  Unfortunately, this marketing-genius deception merely feeds the beast and magnifies the problem.

An Ancient Proverb

Moreover, the following ancient proverb applies in full-force to the student loan crisis:  “The borrower is servant to the lender.”  Here are some real-life examples of how the proverb works for student loan debts:

–How about the young couple who met at a high-priced professional school and have been in the working world for several years.  Both are buried under a mountain of student loans.  One of them really, really wants to pursue a coaching career, instead of the schooled profession—but that’s not possible because student loans require continuation in the higher-paying career.

–How about the graduate from a high-priced school who works at a high-end salary in his/her schooled profession; but even with the high-end salary, the young professional is unable to pay accruing interest on student loans and can’t even begin to pay on principal.

–Or how about the older person who, feeling trapped in a dead-end job, is persuaded to spend large amounts on additional education at a high-priced college, only to learn the hard-way that this additional education provides little-or-no actual improvement in the student’s marketability.

–And what about the graduate who earns a sufficiently-high income to cover monthly student loan obligations but pines: “If I had known what my high-priced education would actually require in servicing student debt, I would never have taken that path!”

An Escalating Problem

But the high-priced schools from which these people graduated continue to charge their students outrageously-high amounts, continue to build gorgeous buildings and provide other luxuries, continue to invest huge sums into athletic teams, scholarships and facilities, and adamantly refuse to pursue an affordable-cost education model.

The upshot is that even traditionally-low-cost colleges (e.g., community colleges) are forced to compete in the luxury realm: are building fabulous campuses, are increasing their visibility, and are raising their tuition.  And the student loan crisis is hitting students even there.  This is a shame!

Dependency

Have you read the book, “The Millionaire Next Door”?  This book argues that adult children need to be economically self-sufficient, and it decries economic dependence of adult children on their parents.  In the student loan crisis, this argument is commonly applied to students and their parents.

I contend, however, that this argument is most-directly applicable to colleges and the providers of student loans.  Student loans have enabled a bent-toward-luxury among colleges—especially among high-priced colleges—and a related dependence of colleges on this economic support.  Most high-priced colleges (and now even low-cost colleges) are utterly dependent on the continued flow of easily-obtained student loans.  Such dependence always has prevented, and continues to impede, the development of affordability-based education models.

The Impact

Easy student loans have enabled and entrenched today’s unaffordable model of higher education.  And today’s higher education schools are dependent on such loans continuing.

Unfortunately, the ones who pay the ultimate price for such dependence are the loan-incurring students—not the dependent colleges.

Any ideas on what can be done about this problem?

Next Steps for a Court with Basic Mediation Rules: Mandated and Early Mediation

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The next steps

By: Donald L. Swanson

Here is a common experience in the bankruptcy courts (and other courts) where mediation is a new or little-used tool:

Attorneys have been practicing for years in this court without using mediation.  And mediation is slow to catch on.  Here’s why:

–Attorneys who practice in this court aren’t accustomed to using mediation, aren’t comfortable with inserting mediation into their case planning habits, and rarely even think of mediation as a possibility; and

–Judges in this court aren’t comfortable with the idea of mandating mediation by local rule or by order in a particular case.

            MANDATORY MEDIATION

The Voluntary Mediation Problem

The problem with voluntary mediation, in a new or little-used mediation program, is explained by these two conclusions from a study of empirical data:

–When the goal is to achieve a “regular and significant use” of mediation to resolve court cases, “[v]oluntary mediation programs rarely meet this goal because they suffer from consistently small caseloads.”

–By contrast, “judicial activism in ordering parties into mediation triggers increased voluntary use of the process.”

Moreover, according to the study,  “settlement rates” and a litigant’s perceptions of “procedural justice” are about the same in mandatory mediation as in voluntary mediation.

Three Examples of Mandatory Mediation Rules

Example No. 1.  Circuit Courts of Appeals.  All but one of the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals have a mandatory mediation program.  Data from these mandatory programs show them to be highly successful in achieving mediated settlements across all types of cases and regardless of levels of animosity or distrust between the parties.

Example No. 2.  Delaware Bankruptcy Court.  The Delaware Bankruptcy Court, and attorneys who practice there, have extensive experience over many years with using mediation to resolve bankruptcy disputes.  In 2013, the Delaware Bankruptcy Court intensifies its mediation program by adding this mandatory provision to its Local Rule 9019-5(a):

“all adversary proceedings filed in a chapter 11 case . . . shall be referred to mandatory mediation.”

It must be noted that the trajectory of changes to local mediation rules in the Delaware Bankruptcy Court is toward mandated mediation – and away from a voluntary system.

Example No. 3.  New Jersey Bankruptcy Court.  The New Jersey Bankruptcy Court, and attorneys who practice there, also have extensive experience over many years with mediation.  In 2014, the New Jersey Bankruptcy Court expands its mediation program by adding a “presumptive mediation” local rule.  This new rule 9019-2(a) provides:

“Every adversary proceeding will be referred to mediation after the filing of the initial answer to the adversary complaint, except [when a specified exception applies]”; and

“A contested matter . . . may also be referred to mediation . . . by the court at a status conference or hearing.”

In New Jersey, like Delaware, the trajectory of changes to local mediation rules is toward mandated mediation and away from a voluntary system.

EARLY MEDIATION

The Early Mediation Need – Generally

The study of empirical data referenced and linked above observes that mediation “tends to occur late in the life of a case.”  And it issues these findings about mediation timing:

“Holding mediation sessions sooner after cases are filed, however, yields several benefits,” including:

–“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.”

An Intensified Need for Early Mediation – In Business Bankruptcy

Superimposed over many disputes in a business bankruptcy is an urgent need to maximize value from a debtor’s operations or liquidation.  And this urgency often takes precedence over standard litigation processes like formal discovery and pretrial wrangling.  Accordingly, the need in a business bankruptcy for early and extensive mediation efforts can be particularly intense.

The role of mediation in the early stages of a business bankruptcy case needs to be different from the typical role of mediation that occurs at the end of a lawsuit:

–The role and goal of an early-mediation in a business bankruptcy is to set-the-stage and narrow-the-issues and create-a-direction and a focus for further progression of the case.

–That’s a much different role than a shortly-before-trial mediation in a one-and-done session at the end of a lawsuit, where the goal is to resolve all remaining disputes.

Here’s a link to an example of how mediation can be effectively utilized at the beginning of a Chapter 11 case.

An Example of an Early Mediation Rule

The Delaware Bankruptcy Court recently adopted a provision in its Local Rule 9019-5(j) that allows a defendant to opt for an early mediation of a preference case with less than $75,000 at stake.

Within 30 days after a response to the preference Complaint is due, the defendant in such cases may elect an early mediation of all claims raised in the lawsuit.  In cases where more than $75,000 is at stake, the parties may agree to participate in the early mediation process.

Action Item:

I am passionate about encouraging:

–Bankruptcy courts to adopt local rules on mediation and to expand the role and reach of mediation through mandatory and early mediation requirements; and

–Attorneys who practice is such courts to utilize mediation for resolving their disputes.

And I’d be delighted to discuss such matters with anyone interested in expanding the role and reach of mediation in a local court.

Puerto Rico Turns to Mediation for Assistance in Solving its Financial Crisis

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There are better ways to handle a crisis than what this artwork suggests.

By Donald L. Swanson

“Puerto Rico’s federally appointed financial oversight board scheduled mediation in debt restructuring talks between the U.S. Territory’s general obligation bondholders and holders [of other debts] backed by sales tax revenue.” The mediation “will run from April 10-13 in New York.”

–Reuters.com, March 31, 2017, at 11:09 a.m.

An hour later, March 31, 2017, at 12:10 p.m., Reuters.com publishes this more-detailed information:

The focus of the proposed mediation is “to resolve strife between” two groups of creditors: one holds $17 billion of general obligation debt, and and the other holds $18 billion of debt backed by sales tax revenue. Both sides claim ironclad legal rights to payment.

The next few weeks will be critical for Puerto Rico, whose $70 billion debt load is pushing its economy toward collapse.” And May 1 “marks the expiration of a freeze on creditor lawsuits.”

Some creditors prefer direct negotiations over mediation, citing delay concerns. Accordingly, the mediation proposal says that “creditors who object to mediation” can submit offers directly to the Oversight Board, which will then be shared with the mediator.

The following information is from an Elnuevodia.com article dated a day earlier — March 30, 2017, at 10:27 a.m.:

The proposed mediation . . . could start this week if the Island’s various creditors and municipal bond insurers agree.”

This mediation development “seems to be a total about-face” after various creditors “criticized” the Government and Oversight Board efforts thus far.

The letter “inviting bondholder groups to enter a mediation process” began receiving positive responses: several bondholder groups, for example, “have already stated their availability to enter a mediation process,” provided such a process is “non-binding.”

But some are skeptical of the mediation effort: “We see it as a delay tactic,” one source said, since the primary bondholders have not yet joined the process—which fact remains true as of “press time.”

Kudos and Congratulations

Kudos and congratulations to Puerto Rico’s Financial Oversight Board for this mediation initiative!!

[Note: Congress recently created the Financial Oversight Board to “provide a method” for Puerto Rico “to achieve fiscal responsibility and access to the capital markets.”]

Puerto Rico is now joining a long line of governmental entities who turn to mediation for assistance in resolving a financial crisis.

Additionally, kudos and congratulations are in order for the Board’s approach, noted above, for dealing with parties who prefer direct negotiations.  The approach is to have such parties submit offers directly to the Board, which then refers the offers to the mediator.  This is creative and clever!

Examples of Proactive Mediation Success for Governments

An example of mediation success for other governmental entities in financial crisis is the country of Argentina, which experienced a $100 billion debt default crisis in 2002.  Argentina reached partial resolutions of that crisis in 2005 and 2010, and it achieved a final mediated settlement in 2016.

The most famous example of mediation success for a governmental entity is the City of Detroit bankruptcy, in which a team of proactive mediators held hundreds of mediation sessions and helped resolve the seemingly intractable financial problems of a large city. Such a mediation process is declared to be “an ideal model” for restructuring efforts by other governmental entities.

Hopefully, Puerto Rico’s Financial Oversight Board will be able to successfully pursue the same types of proactive mediation processes that worked effectively elsewhere!

Can anyone provide further information on what’s happening with this mediation effort?

Structured Dismissal Negotiations are Ripe for Mediation: Until the Supreme Court Upends Precedent (In re Jevic)

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Ripe for eating

By: Donald L. Swanson

We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.”

–From concurring opinion of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, in Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443 (1953), on role and function of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Structured dismissals are [correction: were] a rapidly developing field in today’s bankruptcy world.  That all changed on March 22, 2017, when the U.S. Supreme Court puts the kibosh on structured dismissals in its In re Jevic ruling.

Negotiations in this rapidly developing field would be ripe for mediation.  But, alas, that will not happen, because of the In re Jevic ruling.  Now, the rule is simple:  distribute sale proceeds through the Bankruptcy Code’s priority scheme.

Necessity Produces Creativity

Creative processes, like structured dismissals, arise out of a need in bankruptcy to maximize value and distribute proceeds in an efficient and prompt manner.  Plan confirmation processes are, often, inefficient and expensive in the extreme.  So, when an opportunity arises to maximize value and distribute proceeds in a way that is quick, efficient and effective, practitioners gravitate to that opportunity.  Structured dismissals provide one of those opportunities.

Some History

Bankruptcy courts have been struggling for as long as I can remember with how to handle asset sales and the distribution of sale proceeds.  My first recollection of a bankruptcy sale issue relating to today’s structured dismissals is from 1982:

–a bankruptcy judge rules in 1982 that a bankruptcy trustee may not “serve as the handmaiden” of secured creditors in liquidating collateral.  Accordingly, a sale of assets should not occur in a Chapter 7 case, the judge says, when the only persons to benefit are secured creditors.

–The judge in 1982 explains: “Secured creditors by consent and the trustee by acquiescence cannot impose upon the [Bankruptcy] Court the duty to serve as a foreclosure or collection forum.”

The “handmaiden” phrase from 1982 stands the test of time.  It’s still good law today, especially in Chapter 7 liquidation cases: if all debtor’s nonexempt assets are fully encumbered, the Chapter 7 trustee must issue a “no asset” report.

But a bankruptcy sale of fully-encumbered property can still provide benefits to the bankruptcy estate in a business reorganization.  Such benefits might include keeping a business alive under new ownership, which will continue providing jobs and business activity and tax payments in the local community.

Additionally, parties in a bankruptcy often negotiate for ways to create benefits to the bankruptcy estate from a sale of fully-encumbered property.  One way is to carve-out a portion of the funds the secured creditor would receive from a sale and then gift that portion to priority wage claims or to unsecured creditors.

A Long-Standing Precedent

That’s what happened, for example, in the case of  In re SPM Manufacturing Corp., 984 F.2d 1305 (1st Cir. 1993).

–In the In re SPM case, a secured creditor would get all proceeds from the sale of debtor’s assets.  So, the secured creditors enters into a pre-plan settlement agreement for distributing proceeds from a bankruptcy sale.  The agreement would gift to unsecured creditors a portion of sale proceeds the secured creditor would otherwise receive.

–The bankruptcy court rejects this agreement because tax claims have a higher priority, aren’t receiving any of the gift, and remain unpaid.  The District Court affirms, and the case is appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

–The First Circuit reverses and approves the agreement.  Here is part of the First Circuit’s rationale:

The Bankruptcy Code’s distribution scheme “does not come into play until all valid liens on the property are satisfied.  . . .  Because [the secured creditor’s] claim absorbed all of SPM’s assets, there was nothing left for any other creditor in this case.  . . . creditors are generally free to do whatever they wish with the bankruptcy dividends they receive, including to share them with other creditors.”  [984 F.2d at 1312-13.]

This In re SPM ruling has been the law-of-the-land in the First Circuit for fourteen years.  And the ruling makes sense, as reflected by this fact: an online research tool [Casemaker] says this In re SPM decision, (i) has been cited 183 times, and (ii) has been “criticized” only once on unrelated grounds.

Overruled?

So . . . did the U.S. Supreme Court decide to overrule this long-standing In re SPM rule in its In re Jevic decision . . . without even mentioning it?!  Perhaps not: the In re SPM decision might be distinguishable (arguably, at least).  But In re Jevic’s “simple answer” of “no” suggests otherwise.

This result is unfortunate in the extreme for bankruptcy practitioners and judges striving to maximize and distribute value in an efficient and effective manner!!

In re Jevic: Once Again, the Supreme Court Screws Up Our Bankruptcy World — And Justice Thomas is Wise in His Dissent

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U.S. Supreme Court Opinion

By: Donald L. Swanson

I think it is unwise for the Court to decide” this issue because: (i) “Experience shows that we would greatly benefit from the view of additional courts of appeals on this question,” and (ii) “We also would have benefited from full, adversarial briefing.”

–Justice Clarence Thomas, dissenting in Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp. (In re Jevic)., Case No. 15-649 in United States Supreme Court (March 22, 2017).

On March 22, 2017, the United States Supreme Court issues its ruling in the In re Jevic case that, once again, screws up our bankruptcy world.

The U.S. Supreme Court has a history of rulings that screw up everyday life for bankruptcy practitioners and judges. One example is Stern v. Marshall, 564 U.S. 462 (2011). Who would’ve ever guessed that a minor pop-culture celebrity (Vicki Lynn Marshall, aka Anna Nicole Smith) could wreak such havoc in our bankruptcy world. In a case with a long history of bizarre facts and procedural wrangling, the Supreme Court in Stern v. Marshall puts extreme limitations on the jurisdiction and role of the U.S. Bankruptcy Courts. The Supreme Court, in Stern v. Marshall, made a narrow and inflexible ruling about bankruptcy court jurisdiction. And it did so on constitutional grounds, which means that Congress is incapable of changing (or minimizing the impact of) the decision. We’ve all been struggling with the result ever since.

Here is the essence of the majority decision in the new In re Jevic case, penned by Justice Stephen Breyer:

“We turn to the basic question presented: Can a bankruptcy court approve a structured dismissal that provides for distributions that do not follow ordinary priority rules without the affected creditors’ consent? Our simple answer to this complicated question is ‘no.’”

Yikes! Therein lies the problem for bankruptcy practitioners and judges: the Supreme Court is providing a “simple answer” to a “complicated question.”

Here is some griping:

–None of the Supreme Court Justices has any significant experience in practicing under the Bankruptcy Code, which is a specialized area of the law. Perhaps that’s why they fall back on a simple answer to a complicated bankruptcy question. And, perhaps, that’s why they keep screwing things up for us.

–And the Supreme Court had to ignore some technical rules for getting to this In re Jevic decision: hence, Justice Thomas’s statement that rues the absence of “full, adversarial briefing.” Here’s my translation of his absence-of-full-briefing statement: “The Supreme Court doesn’t have adequate information or an adequate understanding to make this decision.”

So, what are we supposed to do with the Supreme Court’s simple – and simplistic – answer? Keep in mind that structured dismissals commonly arise in large and complex reorganization cases. There is nothing simplistic about such cases. A simple answer is not merely unhelpful . . . it’s harmful. Perhaps the Supreme Court Justices, in the bankruptcy context, could follow the words of the medical profession: “First do no harm.”

Justice Thomas is precisely correct in his comment that the Supreme Court would “greatly benefit” from an opportunity for additional courts of appeals to weigh-in on the question. Structured dismissals are a relatively new development in the bankruptcy world and apply only in exceptional circumstances. There are lots of smart judges out there in the Federal system: bankruptcy judges, district court judges, bankruptcy appellate panel judges, and court of appeals judges. One of the benefits of those many and multi-layer judges is that many smart judges can evaluate and address and explain and rule upon issues and facts relating to an important legal question before the question ever gets to the U.S. Supreme Court. Then, the Supreme Court Justices can draw on the words and wisdom of those other smart judges in reaching a decision. For the Supreme Court to jump-in at this early stage, without the benefit of a fully-developed multi-layer analysis of this In re Jevic question, is unfortunate in the extreme.

As a result, this new In re Jevic opinion creates major questions about basic bankruptcy practice that are hugely important to the administration of bankruptcy cases.  For example:

What about first day orders and early/interim distributions mentioned in the majority opinion (which also violate the Code’s distribution priorities)?

–Are they actually okay or merely cited as a point of reference?

–Did the Court actually intend to bless critical vendor orders?

And what about an under-secured creditor gifting a portion of its collateral to the unsecured class as part of a structured dismissal–is that now prohibited . . . seriously?!

And how is the essence of this “simple answer” going to spill over into other complex contexts?

Ok. I’m done. Sorry about this rant!

A PricewaterhouseCoopers Déjà Vu: Mediation, Then Trial, Then Settlement During Trial

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Mediator’s report to the Court

By: Donald L. Swanson

The case is MF Global Holdings LTD. v. PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Case No. 14-cv-2197 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.  Hon. Victor Marrero is the presiding Judge.

This case concludes by settlement, last week, in the middle of trial.

Claims Asserted

Plaintiff asserts in this lawsuit that PricewaterhouseCoopers, as auditor, failed to detect and report a financial scheme that ruined the business of MF Global.

The case begins on March 28, 2014, with the filing of a Complaint asserting three separate claims against PricewaterhouseCoopers and requesting the following relief: “a money judgment” in amounts “to be determined at trial but not less than,” (i) $1 billion on a professional malpractice claim, (ii) $1 billion on a breach of contract claim, (iii) $10.9 million on an unjust enrichment claim, plus (iv) related costs and expenses, including attorney fees.

Mediation, Trial and Settlement

On February 6, 2017, Judge Marrero reschedules the start of trial from February 13, 2017, to March 6, 2017 (Doc. 136), so the parties can engage in mediation.

The mediation fails to achieve a settlement.  And the mediator’s letter to the Court dated February 21, 2017, (a photo of this letter is above) says:

“I write to inform the Court that the parties have engaged in private mediation.  The mediation was unsuccessful.  At this time, the parties are planning to proceed with trial as scheduled on March 6, 2017.”

Trial begins on March 6, 2017.

On Thursday, March 23, 2017, as trial is still in process, the parties announce a settlement of this lawsuit on undisclosed terms that are to “the mutual satisfaction of the parties.”

Déjà Vu

Last year, PricewaterhouseCoopers is being sued in a State Court in Miami, Florida.

This Florida lawsuit alleges that PricewaterhouseCoopers provided clean audit opinions to a company for six years until that company collapsed, and the lawsuit claims $5.5 billion in damages plus punitives.  This suit is reported to be “the biggest accounting negligence lawsuit ever to go to trial.”

As in MF Global, this lawsuit settles in the middle of trial for a confidential sum that is “to the mutual satisfaction of the parties.”  The settlement occurs on August 26, 2016.

Although I can’t access records in a Florida State Court, I’m confident this Florida case went through mediation before trial began.

Summary

Accordingly, we see a two-in-a-row déjà vu, where PricewaterhouseCoopers settles the same types of cases in the same way: through a mediation that fails to achieve a settlement, then trial begins and progresses for a time, with settlement occurring in the middle of trial.

Fundamental Proposition

I suggest that these two déjà vu cases illustrate a fundamental proposition: that mediation can provide meaningful progress toward a consensual resolution of a lawsuit, even when the settlement comes after mediation concludes and while the parties are battling-it-out in trial.

What do you think about this proposition?

Note: Information in the déjà vu section of this article is from a Financial Times news report dated August 26, 2016..

If I Were a Bankruptcy Judge, I’d be Promoting Mediation Now

 

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By: Donald L. Swanson

A Staffing/Caseload Problem

We have a staffing and caseload problem that’s waiting-to-happen in the bankruptcy world:

The number of bankruptcy filings is down, systemwide, and has been for several years. And budget pressures are on the increase.  As a result, bankruptcy vacancies (e.g., for judgeships, clerkships, panel trustee positions, clerk  of court positions, etc.) are not being filled.

So, when an economic recession recurs, we’ll have a staffing problem of major proportions throughout the entire bankruptcy system.  And this problem will manifest itself in burgeoning caseload pressures.

A Mediation Solution

Mediation is a time-honored and proven tool for dealing with caseload pressures.

About a year ago, I published a two-part article titled, “If I Were a Bankruptcy Judge, I’d be Promoting Mediation Now.” In light of the developing problem described above, I thought we should revisit the article. So, here it is.

Part One

If I were a bankruptcy judge [I’m not and have no aspirations to become one], I’d be doing everything in my power to promote mediation in my court—right now.

For example, I’d adopt local rules on mediation, establish mediation requirements for adversary proceedings and Chapter 11 plans, look for cases where mandatory mediation orders might be helpful–and issue such orders, etc. Here’s why: to manage my future workload when bankruptcy filings pick back up again.

Granted, we are currently in an off-season for bankruptcy cases—filings are at low levels—and we’ve been here for a while. During this off-season, bankruptcy court support staff numbers are declining throughout the system, and judge vacancies are remaining unfilled.

However, history shows that this off-season will not last forever. The day will come [and, perhaps, soon] when bankruptcy court workloads will return to heavy levels. When that day arrives, support staff hirings and new judge appointments will take time to ramp back up.

So, I’d be promoting mediation now and getting attorneys accustomed to mediation as a standard dispute resolution tool in my court. Then, I’ll be ready for an increased work load when the season changes.

My view on this point is intense because I’ve seen bankruptcy seasons change before—okay, okay, I’ve been at this bankruptcy thing long enough to have seen seasons change many times.

Action Item. We should all be encouraging our local bankruptcy courts to adopt local rules on mediation, establish mediation requirements for adversary proceedings and Chapter 11 plans, look for cases where mandatory mediation orders might be helpful–and issue such orders, and get the local bar accustomed to using mediation as a standard dispute resolution tool.

Part Two

Here’s how a season change worked, as I recall, in the early 1980s: we are at the early stages of an economic recession, back then. The local Bankruptcy Court has one judge, one secretary and a few people in the Clerk’s office.

As the economic recession intensifies, the local Court’s workload explodes. Motion days occur frequently and are filled with a dozen-or-so hearings scheduled for every hour, all day long. To deal with case-load pressures, the local Bankruptcy Judge takes to ruling from the bench on affidavit evidence, without written opinion, at the end of every hearing. He simply issues and explains his ruling orally and moves on to the next matter, with a terse “Motion granted” or “Objection overruled” journal entry to document the action. He rarely takes a motion day issue under advisement for writing an opinion. He simply doesn’t have time to do so.

The Judge takes occasional grief from appellate courts for lack of written explanations, but he continues doing what’s needed to keep pace with workload demands.

During those days, a mediation-ish process develops among attorneys in this Judge’s Court. All attorneys in a dispute must appear at a hearing—if you don’t show, you lose. So, we all spend lots of standing-around time at every motion day, which leads to hallway discussions among opposing attorneys, who start settling their disputes while waiting for their hearing.

As time moves forward, most disputes scheduled for hearing on a motion day actually resolve by settlement in this way. There’s no sense waiting who-knows-how-long for a hearing and a ruling from the bench on a dispute the Judge will know nothing about until we explain it to him at the hearing.

Ironically, the judge actually serves a mediator-type role during this time: he brings disputing parties together, gets them talking about their disputes, helps them recognize a need to settle, and encourages them toward settlement (albeit, he does so in an indirect and round-about sort of way). Let’s call this old process, “hallway mediation.”

The hallway mediation days are gone. Telephone hearings and electronic filings killed them. While shortcomings in the hallway mediation circumstances are obvious, those of us who practiced there have a respect and nostalgia for the mediation-ish processes that flourished in that environment.

Action Item. We should all be encouraging every bankruptcy judge to promote bankruptcy mediation now, as a way to prepare for future days when the bankruptcy season arrives again.

What do you think about this developing problem and about mediation as a solution?

Mediator Neutrality: An “I believe . . . ” Test

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No neutrality here — she’s on their side

By Donald L. Swanson

A mediator is, by definition, a “neutral.”

Neutrality seems to be a straight-forward concept: it means not-taking-sides.

But not-taking-sides is, apparently, not all that simple. Check out this excellent article and this fine series of essays on the subject.

Efforts to define or explain “neutrality” often get bogged down. Sometimes, new explanations of what “neutral” means create more ambiguity or uncertainty than already exist.

Non-Neutral Behavior

Here are some examples of behavior that run afoul of the neutrality standard.

–Mediator: “My law partner is an expert in this area. So I’ve asked him to critique your expert’s report. Here’s how he says your expert’s opinion is faulty.”

–Mediator: “Here’s a list of terms that everyone else has agreed upon. This is a great deal, and you must accept these terms.”

–Mediator: “Your legal position is way off base on this issue, and you are going to lose at trial.”

Each of these examples is from an actual anecdote from attorneys talking about bad experiences in mediation.  In each of these examples, the mediator is viewed as taking the other party’s side.

An “I believe …” Test for Mediator Neutrality

Whenever a mediator says something like the following quote, the mediator’s neutrality is compromised:

“Here’s what I believe about the merits of your case: [___fill in blank____].”

An expression of personal opinion on the merits of the dispute is “taking-sides.”

There are probably a million-or-so ways a mediator can convey the same type of message, while still maintaining position of neutrality: i.e., without giving a personal opinion on the merits.

For example, a mediator could say:

–“The other side’s position is . . . [then fully and faithfully explain that position].”

–“The other side says this about your expert’s opinion: . . . ”

–“Here’s one of the risks you run–that the judge will accept the other side’s version of the facts. And here is the evidence they’ve identified . . . ”

–“If you lose on that issue, here are the range of results that have been identified . . .”

–“I know you are confident in your case at trial. But your opponent is also confident. And here’s why . . .

–“Here is a risk that each side runs: that the judge will get it wrong, from your perspective. And ‘getting it wrong’ happens, as reflected by reversals that commonly occur on appeal.”

All of these examples are neutral responses that don’t take sides.

A mediator might even say to a party in caucus something like: “My experience is that judges rarely . . . ”

–Such a statement can be a neutral observation that helps the parties but doesn’t take sides: it’s talking about objective experiences, and not about the mediator’s opinion.

Such responses can be used by a mediator to clearly and effectively convey hard truths, without the mediator injecting his/her own opinion on the merits of the dispute.

Analogies

The following are some analogies that illustrate neutrality (good analogies) or provide a contrast with neutrality (bad analogies).

Good Analogies

The best analogies for what mediator “neutrality” means are from informal contexts. For example:

–a parent handling a squabble between siblings, when the parent avoids taking sides in the spat, is a good neutrality analogy.

–a friend trying to help solve a misunderstanding between two buddies, without taking sides, is also a good analogy.

Bad Analogies

Judges, referees and umpires, however, are bad analogies for mediator neutrality.  Here’s why:

–because the job of every judge, referee and umpire is to make decisions on the merits of disputes, and every decision on the merits favors one side over the other

Hopefully, every judge, over the course of a bench trial, will leave an impression of impartiality, even-handedness, and good judicial temperament.  But it won’t be an impression of neutrality.

–At the end of trial, the judge will make a decision that is anything but neutral.  A judge’s judgment will almost always favor one side over the other.

Similarly, every basketball referee will make decisions on who fouled whom.  None of such calls is neutral.

–Some of the decisions will be close calls: e.g., when a violent collision occurs during a drive to the rim.  Is that a charge on the offense, a foul on the defender, or a no-call?

–Hopefully, over the course of a game, the cumulative effect of a referee’s calls will leave an impression of impartiality and consistency, but every call favors one side over the other.

Likewise, every strike / ball call by an umpire favors one team over the other.  It’s not a neutral call.

–But consistency on the location of the strike zone will leave an impression of impartiality and fairness.

Mediator Neutrality

A mediator makes many decision and many communications over the course of a mediation. Most of such decisions and communications are about handling the mediation process and managing the parties, their conflict, and their negotiations.  And some decisions and communications will convey hard truths to the parties.

But a neutral mediator must not convey an impression of taking-sides by offering an “I believe . . . ” opinion on the merits of the dispute.

An  often-perceived exception occurs when a party asks, in caucus, for the mediator’s candid opinion on the merits of the dispute. But even in this context, the mediator who weighs-in with such an opinion is on dangerous ground.  See, e.g., this article.

Conclusion

Neutrality is an essential quality of a mediation. A mediator can be active and forceful and convey hard truths– and still remain neutral. It’s the “I believe…” input on the merits of the dispute that compromises neutrality.

What do you think about this “I believe . . . ” test?

 

Is Offering Opinions and Solutions a Bad Idea for Mediators?

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When conflict management gets out of control (photo by Marilyn Swanson)

By: Donald L. Swanson

“Leadership is a perpetual exercise in managing conflict.”

–Morris Shechtman, 2003

A 2016 report on a mediation study evaluates and compares the effects on conflict of:

(i) mediators who elicit solutions from parties in conflict, and

(ii) mediators who offer opinions and solutions to the parties in conflict.

Mediator Eliciting Solutions from Parties in Conflict

This “eliciting” characterization refers to mediators who:

–ask parties what solutions they would suggest
–summarize the solutions being considered
–check in with parties to see how they think these ideas might work for their conflict circumstances

Parties in conflict who work with an “eliciting” mediator tend to give positive reports on:

–listening and understanding each other in the mediation
–jointly controlling the outcome
–the other side taking responsibility and apologizing
–changing their own approach to conflict
–the mediator acting properly by not,

–controlling the outcome
–pressuring them into a solution
–preventing issues from coming out

The study finds that an “eliciting” strategy works better than other strategies in,

–achieving settlement agreements between parties in conflict
–avoiding a return to court for agreement enforcement.

Mediator Offering Opinions and Solutions

This characterization refers to mediators who,

–offer their own opinions
–offer their own legal analysis
–advocate for their own solutions

Parties in conflict who work with an “offering” mediator tend to give negative reports, that:

–the agreement does not work well
–they are not satisfied with the outcome
–they would not recommend mediation to others
–they have not changed their own approach to conflict.

A Study Conclusion

Accordingly, the study offers this conclusion:

–Mediators who offer their own opinions and advocate for their own solutions run counter to the goals of self-determination and better understanding between parties in conflict.

Consistent With Experience

As I reflect back upon my own experience as counsel for mediating parties, this finding seems well-founded.

I remember, for example, many years ago when a mediator begins a multi-party mediation with a declaration of how a certain issue should be handled and how an agreement on that issue should be structured.

–The other parties agree.  But my client and I do not agree — we view the mediator’s suggestion as a bad idea.

–However, the mediator dismisses our view out-of-hand, ignores our expressions of concern, and pressures us at-the-end to go along with his approach.

I am still irritated — to this day [I’m pressing harder on the keys as I type right now!] — with the memory of that experience. I view the mediator as out-of-line in presenting and pushing his solution without any concern or regard for what we thought [not that I’m bitter about it or anything . . . ].

What do you think about these findings and conclusion of the study?

 

Lessons From a Defective Settlement Agreement: Being Approved . . . and Then Falling Apart

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A defective document

By: Donald L. Swanson

There is “no mutual meeting of the minds concerning the terms” of the mediated and Court-approved settlement agreement. Therefore, the agreement “is not an enforceable contract.”

In re Singh, Case No. 15-02159, Doc. 33 (Bankry. N.J., Oct. 5, 2016).

Procedural Background

Two adversary proceedings are filed in the Chapter 7 case of In re Bhavesh Singh, Case No. 15-20348 in the New Jersey Bankruptcy Court. One adversary is a dischargeability action filed by a creditor against the Debtor (Case No. 15-02085), and the other is a fraudulent transfer action filed by the Chapter 7 Trustee against both the Debtor and his spouse (Case No. 15-02159).

A mediation occurs on June 15, 2016, and results in a global settlement of all issues in the two adversary proceedings. The settlement provides for, (i) periodic payments by Debtor and his spouse, (ii) a release upon completion of such payments, and (iii) entry of a $152,000 non-dischargeable judgment in favor of the creditor and against Debtor, if payments aren’t made as agreed.

On July 8, 2016, the Bankruptcy Court enters a “Consent Order” approving the settlement.

The Default and Further Litigation

Initial payments under the settlement aren’t made when due. So, the creditor files a Motion for entry of the $152,000 judgment. Debtor responds by making initial payments and filing a Motion to enforce the settlement agreement. Debtor argues that the causes for payment delays were out of his control and that any delinquencies are de minimus.

The Bankruptcy Court cites New Jersey contract law that, (i) mutual assent is a primary requisite to formation of a contract, and (ii) when a misunderstanding between contracting parties on a material term of agreement exists, there is no mutual assent and, therefore, no contract.

The Ruling

The Bankruptcy Court determines that language of the settlement document is simplistic, containing neither a cure provision nor a default provision. And the Court concludes that the settlement document is unworkable:

–“There was no mutual meeting of the minds concerning the terms” of the mediated and Court-approved settlement agreement. Therefore, it “is not an enforceable contract.”

–“Accordingly, this Court will enter an Order vacating” the prior Order that approves the settlement agreement.

Such conclusion is based upon the following findings:

–“All of the parties urge this Court to accept certain terms of the agreement and discard others. . . . To do so, would require this Court to re-write the parties’ agreement for them.  This Court cannot provide the material terms to the parties’ agreement.”

–“The parties made too many mistakes” in preparing their settlement agreement, “without fleshing out more of the material terms.”

–“The Court recognizes the difficult situation this decision puts the Trustee in . . . but unfortunately that benefit cannot override the deficiencies” in the settlement agreement.

The Lessons

Language used to memorialize the terms of a mediated settlement agreement is exceedingly important. And great care must go into the preparation of such language.

I’ve argued for many years that all parties to a mediation should begin, in advance of the mediation session, to prepare a settlement document. They should not wait for the conclusion of a long and arduous mediation session, when everyone is tired and grumpy, to begin drafting that document.

Surely, all parties to every mediation have an idea, in advance of the session, what the general outline and structure of a settlement might look like—or, at least, some of the provisions they will want to have. So, they should be considering and evaluating and preparing those critical provisions, in advance, to assure that all are included and the language is adequate.

In fact, each party should have a preliminary draft of a settlement agreement, with critical terms already prepared, in-hand when their side walks into the mediation session.

–And even better-yet, they should have initiated discussions with opposing parties about such a document.

Such advance actions and preparations might have prevented difficulties in the In re Bhavesh Singh case.

Postscript

More recently, the parties reached a new settlement agreement, which was approved last week by a Bankruptcy Court Order dated February 28, 2017 (Doc. 41, Case No. 15-02159).