Archive for April, 2010

Larry King + Shawn Southwick E! entertainmentOne of this week’s most talked about legal issues is whether or not Larry King will divorce his wife Shaun Southwick.  See “Larry King Divorce ‘Full Steam Ahead”.  Last week the media speculated about the state of Tiger and Elin Woods’ marriage.  The week before it was all about Sandra Bullock and Jesse James, and the week before that Charlie Sheen and Brooke Mueller.  Next week another couple with a marriage in crisis will take the spotlight amid accusations of cheating, disclosures of prenuptial agreements, divisions of millions in assets and child-custody battles.  Like many failed marriages, however, when the focus goes away the discussion about those matters will remain toxic.

Every day, famous and unknown families are torn apart by divorce.  Here’s a story that didn’t make headlines.  While it did not have a happy ending, the couple involved are still speaking to each other and making joint decisions about their children’s care.

He was a professor, she was a surgery nurse, and their girls were three and five.  Just like most folks in their forties, they had a house, individual retirement accounts, some stocks, some love and some anger.

This couple chose co-mediation, where they met with a pair of mediators:  she was a family law attorney and he was trained in psychology.  After the mediators facilitated rational conversation and give-and-take, the couple agreed on everything from dividing their belongings and support issues to a collaborative parenting plan for the girls.  They spent less than $2000 for the entire process, and more importantly, they remain civil and friendly to each other.  And they decided the outcome.  They retained control of their own lives.

Some people still choose to get divorced the old-fashioned way – where they let their emotions overtake their logic.  They fight over everything, including things they don’t even care about.  All they really care about is hurting the other one as the conflict escalates.  This method requires lawyers and judges.  One such young couple had $30,000 in community property and no kids.  When they finished fighting, her legal bill alone was $40,000.

Couples with children who choose to fight do damage in another way, too.  Their kids are watching and learning how to engage in conflict from their parents’ example.  These kids will grow up thinking it’s normal to have parents who don’t have the skills to get along and who have to be carefully seated separately at graduations and weddings (stealing the spotlight at their kids’ events).

Some may say that a couple’s approach to divorcing depends on whether it ends by mutual agreement or by deceit and betrayal.  I submit that it’s the other way around – that the way they approach divorce depends on their choice of process.  Maybe like other contracts, there should be a marriage contract with a pre-dispute mediation clause in it, meaning, “We love each other now, let’s agree now that if anything ever goes wrong, we’ll use mediation to sort it out civilly.”

It’s a mediator’s job to keep a divorcing couple on the civil path, where it’s a lawyer’s job to advocate for their client’s interest above all others.   The only thing divorcing couples have to do – celebrities or not – is make the choice to go the more civil path, and then let their mediator help them keep it there.  They should make this decision for themselves and for their children.

Nobody knows how many celebrities use mediation to divorce, mostly because mediation is confidential, but judging by the magazine covers in the supermarket, far too few consider it.  Maybe it’s because the financial cost of the divorce isn’t as daunting to them.  Maybe it’s because they have an ulterior motive for having their names on the front pages for an entire week.  Most of the couples in the news lately, however, have small children who are going to have to live for years with the consequences of their parents’ decisions about their break-ups.  I hope at least one of them reads this post and looks into mediation.  As you read this, you may know a couple who is in need of this advice.  It could save them a lifetime’s worth of regret.

What do you think about the viability of a prenuptial mediation agreement?

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
Share

ABC.com file photo of facebook front pageLane New, a 16-year-old Arkansas boy, convinced a local prosecutor to file misdemeanor harassment charges against his mother Denise for allegedly changing his Facebook password without his permission and posting personal information about him on his Facebook page.  Denise explained that she was exercising her parental rights because some of her son’s posting reflected what she believed was reckless behavior, including driving 95 miles-per-hour one night after a fight with a girl.  Denise is going to court on May 12.  See:  “Arkansas Teen Accuses Mom of Facebook Harassment

As always, there is a story behind this conflict, although the facts are few.  Denise went through a divorce five years ago and after she wrestled with mental health problems, Lane moved in with is grandmother with Denise declaring that she could not adequately supervise him at the time.

After reading and being shocked by her son’s Facebook posts, Denise evidently decided to take strong measures by locking him out and impersonating him, including posting some things of her own and conversing with his friends.

Clearly this is a mother and son who suffer from a difficult relationship and little, if any, ability to communicate.  But there were many choices available to Denise.  When faced with choices, we have an opportunity to pause and consider, not just the short term relief we may feel by venting our own frustration, but the long term effects of our actions in this moment.  Upon discovering the disturbing posts, Denise had time to consider her actions.  Unfortunately, instead of pausing to allow herself a moment to think strategically, it looks like she reacted emotionally and probably drove a wedge between her son and her that will be very difficult to heal.

In this conflict, Mom’s real interest seems to be the safe care and protection of her son.  Her son seems concerned about his privacy, independence, and the respect he wants to be afforded as a young adult.  Mediation would help them address these issues, matters the criminal court would consider irrelevant.  And it would result in an agreement born from their better understanding each other and from their realization that the others’ motives aren’t as evil as they first feared.

Ironically, Facebook’s slogan, “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life” in this case was the opposite.  Lane and his mother turned to facebook precisely because they were unable to connect and share with each other.  While I believe that Facebook and other social media outlets have many advantages and are excellent communication tools, they are, unfortunately, a poor conflict-resolution forum.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
Share

oprah winfrey courtesy afro.comOprah Winfrey last week settled the defamation case brought by Nomnuyo Mzamane, the former headmistress of Winfrey’s girl’s school in South Africa.  “Winfrey made certain remarks following a 2007 sex-abuse scandal at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.  Mzamane’s lawyers claimed that, because of Winfrey’s visibility and popularity, she could easily sway the public to believe that her statements were fact rather than allegations.” said Afro.com.  However, “Winfrey’s defense for her statements was that she was exercising her right to free speech and she was just voicing her opinion about the incident.”  See “Oprah Winfrey Settles Defamation Lawsuit”.

What’s remarkable about their settlement is that Winfrey and Mzamane met together on the eve of trial without their lawyers to craft what their representatives described as a peaceful resolution to their mutual satisfaction.

Once a lawsuit is filed, litigants don’t usually meet together without their lawyers to try to reach a settlement.  Few lawyers would even advise it, and that’s not because the lawyers are always anxious to display their courtroom skills.  Normally, by the time a dispute makes it to trial, the parties have exhausted their own abilities to settle the controversy.  “According to the suit, there were several comments which drew the ire of Mzamane.” said Afro.com.  What it takes is someone who hears a statement like that and understands that the parties need to come together face to face, and it takes a person such as Oprah Winfrey with above average communication skills to accomplish what few can do on their own.

This is not to say that litigants meeting to talk about their cases isn’t wise.  But after months of litigation, people tend to become even more polarized, which is why having an experienced mediator there to facilitate the communication, keeping them on track as they talk about settlement, is often a good idea.  That’s the main reason mediation exists.  But most people need a skilled communicator who is not emotionally involved to facilitate the kind of peaceful conversation Winfrey and Mzamane had.

Mediation is the process of sitting down with the person or company with whom you have a dispute and talking about possible solutions.  Successful mediation involves brainstorming, negotiating, talking about the problem with the goal of resolving the dispute cooperatively, collaboratively, with the help of a professional, unbiased third party who brings experience and creativity.  And here’s the best part: the litigants retain control of the outcome, instead of turning it over to a judge or jury.  It is the peaceful way to resolve a dispute, the civil way, and I would argue, the new American way.

From all indications, I believe that Oprah would agree with me.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
Share

“I don’t care if it’s Tiger Woods, Bernie Madoff, or Toyota, if an apology comes late it’s going to be seen as phony,” Atlanta lawyer Jimmy Faircloth told the Los Angeles Times recently.  Faircloth is among a number of litigators representing plaintiffs suing Toyota for alleged acceleration incidents involving its automobiles.  Most lawyers agree the Toyota acceleration litigation will be long, complex, involve multiple jurisdictions and reach “historic proportions.”  See “Lawyers Circle Toyota

I beg to differ with Faircloth, because I believe it is never too late for a sincere apology.

Here’s the dilemma:  Most product manufacturers that allegedly cause injury are advised against apologizing because it could be viewed as an admission of wrongdoing.  Most injured parties require something more than an apology to be made whole.  Defendants realize that no matter what, they are still on the hook for monetary damages, so why bother.  Besides, they think that no matter what they say, it won’t ever be enough.  Just ask Faircloth.

So why apologize?  I submit that it is almost always the right thing to do – both ethically and strategically.  From a strategic perspective, people (plaintiffs) will fight longer and harder in the absence of an apology.  And why is that?  Because absent expressions of real remorse or empathy from the alleged wrongdoer, the aggrieved person has no choice but to fill that vacuum with his or her own worst imagination.  Couple that with the frustration of not having expectations of an apology or empathy met, and you have a recipe for explosion.

Wouldn’t a sincere apology from the Pope regarding the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal ease a good deal of the public’s outrage about the Church’s handling of the incidents?  Without that, people fill that void by assigning to the Church feelings of apathy, indifference, even tacit acceptance, and it is that array of feelings to which people are reacting.

Akio Toyoda Apology from knx1070.comIn Toyota’s case, company President Akia Toyoda apologized publicly.  He said the important words, “I am sorry for any accident Toyota drivers have experienced … and I will do everything in my power to ensure such a tragedy never happens again.”  You can listen to his entire apology here:  http://aiminst.com/toyoda.

Is he sincere?  Only time will tell, but the world will be watching Toyota’s production quality very closely, and skeptically, to see.

Litigants don’t have the opportunity to offer or hear apologies such as the one Toyoda made to Congress and the world.  In civil litigation for monetary damages where lawyers and witnesses do all the talking, apologies are almost never a part of the equation (except sometimes on TV dramas).

Mediation is different, however.  In mediation, litigants come together for the express purpose of talking about their disputes in an environment that both encourages and facilitates apologies as part of resolution.  For some parties, hearing the words “I’m sorry” is part of being made whole.  For defendants, having the opportunity to say and mean those words can lift a burden they may have carried for years.

I have seen apologies work wonders for all involved in sexual harassment and discrimination cases, medical malpractice cases, product liability and personal injury cases.

Once, in a sexual harassment suit I mediated, after the plaintiff told how the harassment had affected her entire life, the defendant shocked us all when he literally confessed. “I did it,” he said.  “I did everything she just described.”  He could only do that because of the protections provided by mediation.  He went on to apologize, explaining that he thought they were all just goofing around, that everyone in their workplace flirted with everyone, that he never dreamed his actions affected her the way they had  and that if someone had ever made his wife feel the way she was describing, he would want to strangle the guy.  He apologized sincerely, asked for her forgiveness, and wanted to know what he could do to make it better.  Those are the three components of a real apology.  More important, his words gave that plaintiff exactly what she needed.  The modest amount of money she accepted meant less to her than the apology.

In a medical malpractice case, when the plaintiff talked of losing her elderly mother, the hospital’s risk manager answered, not by denying liability, but by telling her own story of loss – her elderly father in a hospital.  Upon hearing that, the plaintiff felt she had someone on the other side who understood her.  We were able to resolve that case in about 30 minutes with just one monetary offer.  Read more about this at http://aiminst.com/advopen.

So, my advice to Faircloth — and all who are skeptical about the motives behind apologies — is that the words “I’m sorry” mean something, no matter how long you have to wait to give or receive them.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
Share