Does a Divorce Mediator Always Recommend Mediation?

Does a Mediator Always Recommend Mediation?

Andy Flink and JoAnne Donner CDFA

            As mediators, we are frequently asked about how a mediation session works.  By the time we finish explaining the process, everyone has the same response…..that it’s a terrific alternative to litigation and when two people are embroiled in conflict it’s their best option.  But is mediation always a good idea?  Do we always recommend mediation to parties in dispute?  You might be surprised to know that every so often, deciding to mediate two willing parties in a squabble turns out to be a bad idea.

If both sides are openly willing to mediate, why would there be a situation that, after anywhere from one hour to ten hours, everyone wonders why we bothered to meet in the first place?  Here are a dozen reasons why mediation can be unproductive and when it may have been best not to meet at all:

  1. Missing Information.  Rarely is a case resolved in mediation where there is a lack of discovery or incomplete, unverified financial information. There is already mistrust in the room; this simply adds to it.
  2. Lack of respect.  Knowing how to “act” in a mediation session is important.  We tell mediation coaching clients to pause and consider everything the other side is asking for and offering.  If for no other reason than to appear that you are being respectful and considerate of their position, whether or not you really are.  Parties in mediation have a tendency to “show their hand” through body language, tipping off the other side that respect is merely a song by Aretha Franklin.
  3. Unrealistic expectations. “I get everything and you get nothing.”  Once we mediated a case where the plaintiff demanded a 90/10 split as equitable division because “He was the one who worked all the time.”  This kind of extreme thinking is not unusual but can send negotiations into the no-settlement zone.
  4. Bad timing. Fortunately, courts send almost every case through the mediation process.  Unfortunately, it might be before the disputing parties have completed discovery or are emotionally ready to consider settlement.
  5. It’s a fishing expedition.  The other side shows up for the sole purpose of learning everything they can about what the other side’s position is and why.  They have no intention of settling…and sometime during the day you figure this out.
  6. Subject-matter expertise. When a divorce mediator is asked to do landlord/tenant  mediation or a personal injury lawyer represents a client in divorce mediation, it may not work very well.  Typically, there is no substitute for experience and expertise in a specialized niche.
  7. A missing party.  Virtual communication technology is impressive, but when one party is 3,000 miles away in Seattle and the mediation session is in Atlanta, phone or Skype doesn’t always reveal subtle cognitive or behavioral clues.  It may be difficult to know what the long-distance party is really thinking, since much of what mediators look for are not only verbal cues, but physical ones as well.
  8. Schedule conflicts.  You’re seven hours into a mediation working towards a resolution and suddenly one of the parties declares they have a prior commitment.  While they had plenty of opportunity to reveal this information earlier in the day they chose not to, sending the mediation into a tailspin.
  9. Lack of motivation.  A party prefers to maintain the status quo and strongly resists settlement.  Sometimes this occurs where leverage is solely on one side of the table, or where one party has “everything to gain” and “nothing to lose” by keeping financial and emotional circumstances the way they are for as long as possible.
  10. Polarity or a desire for vengeance.  Rarely do couples in divorce mediation get to divorce at the same time for the same reasons.  One party may feel a need for the other party to “pay dearly,” whether or not this serves their best interests.  When vengeance is a prime motivator, the ability to be fair and reasonable is dramatically compromised.
  11. Inflexibility.  Regardless of the truth, one party sees the facts in a completely different way than the other.  If one party’s parents funded the purchase of the marital home, they may insist that they are entitled to 100% of that asset with no consideration paid to the facts, the law, or equitable division guidelines.  Parties’ perceptions become their reality and, frequently, no matter what the facts are they refuse to alter their position.
  12. History of high-conflict.  Relationships that have been controlled by antagonism,   intimidation, emotional abuse, or domestic violence, can make mediation the wrong       choice.  While mediators are trained to effectively address power imbalances, when one party’s emotional or cognitive competencies are significantly impaired due to past abuse,  a suitable and durable outcome is unlikely.

For mediation to work, it takes a desire for a timely, cost-effective resolution that will keep the dispute out of court.  Key motivators are a willingness to cooperate and to focus on a fair result for both sides.   For couples who will play by those rules, and who want what’s best for the children and the future of the re-defined family, mediation can be the right way to navigate the pitfalls and possibilities of divorce resolution.

Seven Tips for Selecting an Investigator to Conduct A Fair, Unbiased and Professional Workplace Investigation

  From WinWinHR.com (October 13, 2012).

I spoke this week at the HR Star Conference here in Atlanta and at the conference had a great discussion   with some HR professionals on the importance of conducting fair, unbiased and professional workplace investigations.  One of the HR managers mentioned that her company recently received a complaint from a current employee complaining that he was being subjected to a racially hostile work environment.  As I regularly conduct third party, neutral investigations into allegations of workplace misconduct and serve as an expert witness on workplace issues, our conversation turned to the benefits of using an independent investigator as compared to conducting the investigation internally by HR or by the employer’s regular legal counsel.

We all agreed that promptly investigating allegations of workplace misconduct, like discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and hostile work environment, is not only a good business practice but is also important legally.  An employer demonstrates (to its employees and enforcement agencies) good faith and adherence to anti-discrimination and fair treatment policies and laws by promptly investigating issues.  However, unless the investigator is independent and, perhaps more importantly, perceived as independent every conclusion drawn by the investigator is going to be questioned by employees and potentially by enforcement agencies and perhaps plaintiff’s counsel.

A recent  jury award of $313,206 to an employee who sued alleging retaliation demonstrates the importance of the perception of a fair and impartial investigation.  In discussing the jury’s award after the case several jurors said that they considered the plaintiff to have been the victim of an unfair and biased investigation process.  Here is an excerpt from a newspaper article discussing the case:

“A grievance is supposed to be investigated fairly, without any bias,” said juror Debi Mitchell. “This was not a fair and impartial investigation … I’m glad we got to show that their behavior was wrong. I hope they can change the way they treat employees and create a better work environment.”

It is also important for employers to recognize that if they choose to use their regular legal counsel (either in-house or outside counsel) to conduct a workplace investigation that their regular legal counsel could become a fact witness in any future litigation.  If the investigating attorney becomes a fact witness, any applicable attorney-client privilege would likely be waived.  Moreover, the attorney and his or her law firm would be conflicted out from the ability to represent the employer in the litigation.

Recognizing the importance that an investigation be impartial and objective and anticipating that the complaint has the potential to end up in litigation, the person selected to conduct the investigation should:

  1. be someone the parties view as impartial;
  2. be familiar with applicable employment laws and the employer policies;
  3. have the time available to devote to conducting a prompt and thorough investigation;
  4. have investigation experience and good interviewing skills;
  5. be someone with good communication skills who will be an effective and credible witness should the complaint result in litigation;
  6. recognize the importance of confidentiality and be able to maintain confidentiality; and
  7. be able to deliver a complete and accurate report.

Lorene Schaefer is an experienced litigator, former general counsel, and highly sought after workplace investigator.  Contact Lorene directly at lorene@onemediation.com .

Is Divorce Mediation for You?

Mediation is a process.  It is a journey.  It is not a journey that is for everyone…until they are ready.

A recent blog hits on three “red flags” that divorce mediation may not be a process that is right for you.   Sometimes mediation is a process that is right for couples once the individuals “are ripe” for resolution.   What does that mean?   Parties that succeed in mediation often have these characteristics, among others:

  • A desire to get out of the current state of affairs and move forward to something that is more certain.
  • A firm awareness that reconciling the marriage will not occur.
  • A strong interest in having some control over the outcome rather than awaiting a trial court’s decision, which may not be favorable or that does not best fit your family’s needs, culture, etc.
  • A sufficient measure of confidence in what the legal landscape of divorce entails for their particular case.
  • Strong preparation in budgeting, inventorying assets and debts, and making decisions about the children that are for the children (vs. the wants, needs, desires of the parent).
  • A willingness to accept change.

In the context of divorce, not every party in the marriage attains these qualities at the same time (or ever).  However, when both parties reach a critical point of acceptance, mediation indeed may be a process that serves them well.

Mediation at the EEOC: A Management Attorney’s Advice

Workplace disputes are complicated, whether they involve legal liability, typical politics, or what initially appears as an ongoing debate on who drank the last bit of coffee without putting on a new pot.  When the dispute involves matters of discrimination, harassment, and/or retaliation, the matter may involve the employee and the employer spending time with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The EEOC is the federal agency charged with enforcing certain civil rights laws in the workplace.  Annually it publishes the number of charges it has received and the kinds of claims that were made.  Tens of thousands of charges are made each year.  As part of the processing of these charges and investigation of the claims, the EEOC has the opportunity to offer the employer and employee mediation in which it – the EEOC – will also be a party (albeit sometimes a silent party) to the mediation session.

Mediation is a time where the parties may be able to work out their differences, set things back on course, or otherwise resolve the dispute.  A recent article from a management-side attorney offer employers advice on whether to mediate through the EEOC’s process and the prospect of “settling.”  The article begs the question of whether mediation is a useful prospect if the employer (or perhaps any party) is not willing to do something, give up something, or say something as a fixed and unmovable position.

Mediation, however, sometimes is the place where information may be obtained early enough in the process to re-evaluate staunch positions…and make informed and wise decisions before further damage occurs or dollars, time, and resources are spent…on either side of the “v.”

What Goes On At Divorce Mediations? Sample Agenda Here.

Mediation is a confidential process.  This confidentiality can make mediation seem mysterious, inaccessible, and even scary when it involves divorce.  Save family lawyers and divorce mediators, most individuals facing divorce are uncertain about the divorce process that occurs in open court.

The unknown is often feared.  Thus, the secrecy of mediation, generally viewed as a positive attribute, can be its own worst enemy particularly in the divorce context.   Dispelling some of the mystery, a sample agenda for a divorce mediation can be accessed here.

To learn more about divorce mediation, there are mediation coaches and frequent seminars offered by One Mediation.  Call 404-720-0599 to register for upcoming seminars or to schedule an appointment with a mediation coach.

Is Instructing an Employee Not to Discuss an Investigation a Violation of Title VII?

by Lorene F. Schaefer, Esq.

It seems that at least some offices of the EEOC may be adopting the position that employers are in violation of Title VII if they have policies that warn employees who participate in an internal investigation that they could be subject to discipline or discharge for discussing the investigation.  In a letter dated August 3, 2012, the Buffalo, NY office of the EEOC notified an employer that it was expanding its investigation into a discrimination charge and giving the employer an opportunity to respond. Here is the relevant excerpt from the letter:

“You have admitted to having a written policy which warns all employees who participate in one of your internal investigations of harassment that they could be subject to discipline or discharge for discussing “the matter,” apparently with anyone.

EEOC guidance states that complaining to anyone, including high management, union officials, other employees, newspapers, etc. about discrimination is protected opposition.  It also states that the most flagrant infringement of the rights that are conferred on an individual by Title VII’s retaliation provisions is the denial of the right to oppose discrimination.  So, discussing one’s complaints of sexual harassment with others is protected opposition.  An employer who tries to stop an employee from talking with others about alleged discrimination is violating Title VII rights, and the violation is “flagrant” not trivial.  In this case, telling the ___ women who complained of harassment that they were not to tell others about the alleged harassment is enough to constitute a harm under Title VII.  There does not have to be a separate adverse action.  In addition, your written policy is so broad that a reasonable employee could conclude from reading it that she could face discipline or charge for making inquiries to the EEOC about harassment if that harassment is being or has been investigated internally by your organization.”

Obviously, this letter from the Buffalo office is not law and the analysis stated therein may be limited to the Buffalo office and perhaps even to this specific charge.  This letter does, however, highlight some of the challenges and potential pitfalls for employers as they investigate claims of discrimination or harassment in today’s dynamic legal environment.

My understanding is that other offices of the EEOC may be taking similar positions.  I would be interested in hearing from readers who have experience with this issue in other offices of the EEOC.

Insights for Employers

Good employers recognize the importance of having compliance programs that ease the filing of employee complaints and provide for prompt, thorough and impartial investigations.  Employers who establish, disseminate and enforce anti-harassment policies and complaint procedures and conduct prompt, thorough and impartial investigations and take appropriate corrective action are afforded an affirmative defense to sexual harassment complaints.

In my blog last week, I suggested that, in light of the NLRB’s controversial decision in Banner Estralla Medical Center, the need for speed in a workplace misconduct investigation was increased.  If the EEOC intends to take the position that an employer’s confidentiality instruction to an employee during a harassment investigation is itself a violation of Title VII, then the need for a very prompt and well-planned investigation where employees are interviewed quickly (without an opportunity to coordinate their stories) becomes even more critical.

For those employers who conduct internal investigations in-house, ensuring that their investigators keep their skills up-to-date is also crucial. For employers who do not have professional staff with the experience, knowledge, and expertise to conduct legally defensible workplace investigations, I suggest they proactively identify an outside investigator who possesses these qualifications.  Workplace investigators are kind of akin to plumbers – you hope to never to need one, but when you do need one you need a good one and you need them fast.

Minimizing Legal Costs? An Expert’s Tips

This article gives fourteen tips from an experienced divorce attorney on simple things that clients can do to minimize legal expenses in divorce.  Simple.  Practical.

Workplace Investigations In Caselaw

Think that workplace investigations aren’t that important?  Think Again!

Federal courts are taking close looks at how employers handle indications that harassment, retaliation and discrimination is occurring in the workplace.  These cases highlight the importance of prompt, effective, and impartial investigations into reports of misconduct in the workplace, particularly when the allegations involve discrimination or other civil rights claims.

Below is a listing of several federal cases that have been rendered that involve workplace investigations:

Are Workplace Investigations Fair?

U.S. employers are becoming more regulated in how they manage employees.  With this increase in regulation, risk management practices to increase compliance and to mitigate liability risks also are increasing.  Depending upon the state an employer is in, workplace investigations may be statutorily mandated or simply an incredibly wise step in response to workplace misconduct reports or complaints.  But, can a workplace investigation really be fair?

A recent article offers some tips to increase actual and perceived fairness surrounding workplace investigations.  While some of these suggestions include additional workplace processes (such as hearings), it correctly points out that investigations should be done promptly and focus on “the evidence.”  Seems simple, right?

Equally simple, it would seem, is that investigations be performed by individuals who have training or experience doing them.  A case in point is a 2011 lawsuit where an employer allowed some of its executives, who had no training, perform an investigation into sexual harassment allegations.  Stewart v. Trans-Acc, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44414, at *50 (S.D. Ohio, April 25, 2011).  The employer lost a major defense by failing to provide a reasonable investigation.

Workplace investigation training is critical and offered three times each year by One Mediation’s workplace investigators who have collectively litigated Labor and Employment matters for over 25 years.  The next seminar is September 29, 2012 in Atlanta, with limited space.

 

Divorce & Finances: How Do You Make This Work?

The costs of the divorce process can be as daunting as accounting for all of the financial matters, debts included, and month-to-month cash flow issues.  The bottom line is that being informed, prepared, and organized are critical.

As for getting organized and prepared, there are fantastic resources offered by the Institute of Certified Divorce Financial Analysts.

Another comprehensive resource, even though it is not based in the U.S., can be found here.

In addition to good legal counsel, look also for local divorce seminars and “divorce coaches” who can provide advice to you on therapists, children’s issues,  and financial professionals.  Getting good advice from professionals is priceless.