Posts Tagged ‘litigation’

The Future of Policing

Author: Lee Jay Berman

police_brutalityYears ago, I mediated a case involving alleged police brutality. I’ve mediated several of them, but this one stood out from the rest. The plaintiff (the alleged victim) was African American and fairly muscular. The two officers, the defendants, along with the department, were Caucasian.

His story was that they took him to be a burglar, coming out of an apartment building late at night. They were sitting in their patrol car, when he came out the front door. When he turned to walk away from them toward his car, right away he heard their rapid footsteps coming down the sidewalk behind him. Anticipating what was coming, he dropped to his knees, and still facing away from them, he put his arms up, then laced his fingers behind his head, into what he called the international position of submission. He said he didn’t want to cause the officers any more alarm than he felt they were already feeling.

The rest of his story was that they took a billy club to his shoulders, back, and back of his head, cuffed his hands where they were behind his head, and dragged him backwards down the sidewalk by the handcuffs, and intentionally slammed his head against the patrol car when shoving him into the back seat.

The officers’ story, I’ll never know. They didn’t come to the mediation. Their commanding officer and someone from internal affairs or human resources was there, and perhaps a union representative (it’s been many years now). Their story was that the arrest was done by the book, and that the plaintiff was faking his injuries. They insisted that his injuries were consistent with self-inflicted wounds, though after his release, the hospital report was inconclusive.

At the mediation, we learned two significant facts. First, that there had been a history of racial strife in that neighborhood for a couple of years between the largely Caucasian police division, and the largely African American population. And second, that the plaintiff owned a healing clinic, and had devoted his life to helping people reduce stress and anxiety and find more inner peace through everything from meditation to counseling to somatic techniques like yoga, massage, and reiki.

When I asked him what he’d like to see happen that day at the mediation, he said that he felt very sorry for the officers. When I reminded him that he was the victim, he agreed, but said that he had been meditating on it, and couldn’t imagine the huge amount of fear, stress, and anxiety that these two officers must be under on a constant basis, in order for them to have treated him the way that they did.

Being a mediator, it’s not my job to determine who I think is telling the truth, or who is right or wrong. It’s my job to help them find the best possible mutually agreeable solution. My personal take on it is that in every case, I try my best to dig as deep as the participants will let me, in order to uncover their deepest interests or needs, and be as creative as I can to help them get those resolved, often in a way that money alone can’t.

In this case, he offered to accept enough money to pay his lawyer for having to file the case (because the department hadn’t been responsive when he tried to reach out to them directly), and then to offer to treat the two officers in his center. He wanted to prove to them, and to the department, that he and his team of professionals could so significantly reduce the stress level of these officers, that it would change their lives. Then, being an entrepreneur, he added that if he could do that, maybe the department would send more of the officers from that division, which could, in turn, reduce tensions in the entire neighborhood.

We could never get the department’s brass to sign off on the proposal, mostly saying that they couldn’t agree to anything that would single out the two officers and create the perception that they did anything wrong. I used all of my persuasiveness, and so did the plaintiff’s counsel, who was himself incredibly enlightened and collaborative. He explained that absent such a creative solution, the price to settle the case would multiply, given the risk that a jury might side with his client. But we could not overcome the department’s strong interest in defending and protecting their own. They saw that as their job, and it’s hard to argue with that.

In hindsight, I feel like we missed a turning point back then. Obviously, this week’s recent events bring this all to light again. But when I look at the rash of civilian killings by police, and the barbaric targeting of the Dallas police officers, I see an opening. I see tragic events that might create just enough public outcry and awareness, to allow people in important positions to see the overriding need for healing and decompression and creating a bridge of peace in our communities.

Fortunately, I am not alone. In Los Angeles, a group called the Institute for Nonviolence in Los Angeles, in concert with Mediators Beyond Borders and the Southern California Mediation Association, have been holding very successful meetings throughout the city called, Days of Dialogue – the Future of Policing in Los Angeles. Every city should have such a program. And those in Los Angeles, should pick one out and attend it.

We need to take back ownership of our country, and that begins one city at a time. And by ownership, I don’t mean government control, police power, or civil disobedience. I mean that We The People need to step in and help each other to have dialogue. Please think about what you can do for your part. I certainly know what my role is.

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Court closes ADR ProgramI approached SCMA with the idea of doing a Town Hall in 2003 when the mediation community was divided like the red sea over the Rojas v. Superior Court Case.  That case pitted the confidentiality of the mediation process (and the evidence of mold discovered during a mediation, and its eventual remediation) against the needs of the families who had mold spores in their lungs and no way to prove liability, short of breaking the confidentiality of the underlying mediation.  That year, SCMA and CDRC, the two largest mediation groups in California wrote opposing amicus briefs to the State Supreme Court.  As a commercial mediator, I could see both sides of the issue having merit and thought that the best thing for the mediation community to do was to practice what they preach and come together to have a facilitated dialogue about the issue of the extent to which mediation confidentiality should extend.  After leading two years of public hearings on the state Senate Bill regarding mediator credentialing during the mid-90’s, I was very comfortable leading this kind of discussion and thought it would be good for everyone.  Since that time, SCMA has hosted a Town Hall most every summer.

This year, the reported closing of the Los Angeles Superior Court’s ADR program is a huge issue in the legal and ADR world, so a Town Hall style dialogue among mediators and advocates alike is really important.  The LASC mediation program was the largest in the world, and by administering some 25,000 mediations per year, was the envy of most other legal communities.  One of the largest benefits that the program provided, in addition to the obvious docket clearing benefit of a 50% resolution rate, was that it took the pressure off of counsel to risk appearing weak if they suggested mediation to opposing counsel by having the court order cases into the program so that counsel could save face.  One can only wonder how many of the cases that would actually benefit from a good private mediation will have that opportunity, as trial counsel simultaneously need to be zealous advocates for their clients in an adversarial proceeding.  I believe that proposing a mediation – an attempt to settle – is one of the hardest things to do for a trial lawyer. And the more their style leans toward intimidating, the harder it is for them to be congenial or appear open to settlement.

The reason that the local mediation community is divided over this is that at different stages in a mediator’s career, the program can be really helpful, almost a saving grace, or it can be the evil, undermining effect that keeps them from making a living.  You see, the LASC mediation program operated with a collection of some 2,000 trained mediators willing to mediate cases under $50,000 for the court on a volunteer basis for the first three hours.  The problem was that the court never respected the $50,000 cut-off intended by the original deal, which became SB 401, and eventually CCP 1775. As a result, the court deemed it fair game that ALL general civil cases were eligible for “free” mediation (for the first two hours of mediation time in every case, which quickly morphed into 3 hours by the late 1990’s).  This meant that for beginning mediators who were fresh out of training, the court was a great place to go and volunteer and get experience mediating with represented parties.  For intermediate level mediators, it was a great opportunity, and still one worth volunteering for, to raise their number of cases mediated and begin to develop relationships with trial lawyers on both sides of the aisle, as well as institutional parties, like insurance companies and corporate counsel.  But for more advanced mediators, looking to build a practice and pay the mortgage and feed their families, the court program soon became unfair competition, building on the backs of volunteer mediators, and by sending cases over $50,000 into this free program, potentially taking cases that would otherwise go to the private sector into the court’s jurisdiction by offering them free mediation. Today’s Tea Party should have had a fit over this.

As we look at it today, the possibility that this program appears to be going away on June 30, the only certainties we have is that the legal and ADR communities likely won’t have the court’s help in getting parties to the mediation table, and the likelihood of finding volunteer mediators for litigated cases will be little or none.  What we won’t know until this evening at the Town Hall being hosted by the Southern California Mediation Association is how the mediators and the bar will react to these changes.  Undoubtedly, some mediators will applaud them and say it’s about time, where others will mourn them and say that they feel like the mediators who are “in” practice already will have an even greater advantage over those trying to break into the profession.

In the end, I look forward to moderating a civil and productive dialogue will help generate creative ideas for continuing to promote mediation in litigated matters, and that as a community of peacemakers, we will find a way to serve those cases that might otherwise go un-served.  As a room full of mediators, I am certain we will find a way.

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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.

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Senator Max Baucus (D) of MontanaAs a mediator, I have a hard time watching how our country is operating right now, both internationally and domestically.  I see this every day in the micro context of my mediation cases and in the macro context of our headlines.  And yet people just keep trying to get ahead by attempting to suppress each other without recognizing that they are actually working against their own best interests.

For example, in “Obama Offers to Use Some G.O.P. Healthcare Proposals,” New York Times reporter David Herszenhorn writes, “Mr. Obama announced his plans to work on the Republican suggestions in a letter to Congressional leaders of both parties.  But his main point was one Republicans did not welcome:  that Democrats would press ahead with comprehensive legislation over the minority party’s objections.”

The reason we have so much litigation in America (especially in California) is that defendants so rarely understand that their actions often guarantee a lawsuit.  When one party suppresses another to the point of pain or powerlessness, the injured party feels he or she has little choice but to retaliate.  Plaintiffs choose litigation because it may be the only legal way to inflict suffering – loss of control, unfavorable publicity, monetary awards, punitive damages, etc. – of the caliber the defendant will understand and respond to.

As a result, defendants are often responsible for creating the emotional monster on the other side of the table. When plaintiffs believe every other door has been slammed in their faces, they become enraged enough to flex their muscles in the only remaining venue where they stand a chance of having a level playing field.  Of course, the same is true in the other direction, with plaintiffs sometimes overreaching, leaving the defense with no choice but to go to trial, and fight back with a vengeance.

What makes mediation work is the introduction of a neutral third party.  Having an unbiased person at the table can bring big picture perspective into the room when all others are mired in the fog of their power games and can’t or won’t see another approach.  Perspective is a mediator’s greatest qualification.

That’s why President Obama can’t be the mediator of all the controversial congressional reforms:  healthcare, job creation and financial system accountability, to name a few.  He has a dog in the fight and he’s one party’s (read: extreme’s) leader.  If he were serious about leading, he’d appoint a neutral person who could bring with them reason and perspective.  A real neutral, who wouldn’t be a politician campaigning for re-election, would turn off the cameras, close the door, and encourage everyone to disclose his or her needs, pressures and underlying interests in the privacy and confidentiality of the mediation process.

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