By Rudolph Kass
Shortly after taking my seat as an associate justice of the Appeals Court, I received a notice of deposition. The subject concerned the competence of a testatrix whose will signing I had witnessed while still in practice. In doubt how a judge should behave in those circumstances, I consulted the then Chief Justice, Allan M. Hale, a bottomless source of pragmatic wisdom. His instructions were: “Go answer the questions and don’t make any rulings.”
I recalled that episode, which involved a degree of behavior modification, when asked by an editor of this journal what, if anything, I had to impart about my translation from appellate judge to mediator and arbitrator. That role change occurred after I reached the constitutionally mandated retirement age for judges.
An appellate judge comes upon a controversy when it has already gone to an advanced state of development: the parties and their counsel have not resolved their differences – if they have even tried; the case has gone to trial; a jury or judge has found the facts; and one side has won. The record is fixed. Except for the rare instance when a losing party challenges the findings of fact (generally a Sisyphean task), the appellate judge engages in analysis to refine the questions in the case and applies the fruits of legal research, life, and professional experience to produce an opinion of what the law is and, by its application, to decide who wins the case. In that effort, the appellate judge has the comfort of collaboration – and sometimes loyal opposition – of the other judges on the court.
The mediator enters upon a dispute in its nascent stage. With rare exceptions, the case has not been tried, and the appellate judge turned mediator is re-introduced to the certainty paradox that characterizes a trial: that the only certainty about a trial is the uncertainty of the result. At the mediation stage facts are still unsettled. This permits the parties enthusiastically to demonize one another – and they generally do.
Mediation theory holds that the role of the mediator is to help the parties size up their vital interests so that those parties reach an accord. Chances are, however, that when counsel for the parties choose a former judge to be their mediator, they want that mediator to voice some judgment about the strength of the parties’ legal positions. There may be a time for that but one quickly learns that at the beginning of the process, the ex-judge mediator, like the judge-deponent, better not make any rulings. The atmosphere is more favorable to settlement if one side may plausibly argue the world is flat and the other that the world is round. Mediation is a search for the mutually unsatisfactory but acceptable resolution – unsatisfactory in the sense that each party will walk from the mediation with less than that to which it thinks itself entitled but can accept upon reflective assessment of the risk of losing the case, the legal expenses even if victorious, and the disruptive wear and tear that litigation imposes. This is not to say that mediation is unprincipled. The relative claims and defenses are grounded in law and those considerations weigh heavily in resolution of the controversy. The legal answer is not the sole answer. In a particular context it may not be a constructive answer and it is wise, as Professor Austin W. Scott was wont to observe when teaching the law of trusts, to rise above principle: for example, when parties reasonably anticipate a course of mutually beneficial commercial relations ahead of them.
In appellate presentations there is a premium on candor on the part of counsel. Judges will give more weight to arguments from lawyers who are playing straight with the court. In mediation there is theater and posturing as parties make offers and counter offers that they do not seriously expect will be accepted. For the translated judge this takes some getting used to and calls upon the patience reserve. One develops a sense when the dance step converts to real negotiation.
In the comparative calm of the appellate process, the emotional state of the combatants is not a factor. The mediator, by contrast, sees emotion – often it is anger – on display and it is very much a factor that the mediator must strive to understand. The mediator’s response is that anger, however justified, is corrosive and obstructs arriving at a solution to the problem that produced the controversy in the first instance. It is fair to ask when confronted with anger and its twin, an immovable position, what did the party come to mediate? Was it not to solve a problem by a method other than a shoot out?
As the mediation reaches the climactic stage, the ex-judge begins to resume aspects of her/his former role. While still not a decision maker, the mediator becomes more directive, appraises legal positions more definitively, describes worst case scenarios and what the mediator thinks are a party’s vital interests. To the extent that parties are stuck in fixed positions, the mediator may suggest elements of a resolution other than an exchange of money. What does the former judge miss at this juncture? Not sitting one foot higher than everybody else in the room.
The former judge is likely to be conscious of the duty of the trial judge managing the case, if it has reached a judge, to keep the case from stalling or moving sideways. It would be presumptuous for a mediator to suggest how a trial judge should manage scheduling issues but if the parties appear to be getting close to settlement, it may be permissible for the mediator, with the consent of the parties, to so report to the trial judge. That said, the confidentiality statute, G.L. c. 233, §23C, which governs mediation, imposes circumspection on any communication between a mediator and a judge. The window in the wall that separates the mediation room from the courtroom is very small.
Occasionally parties come to mediation after entry of judgment in a trial and with the case on the path to appeal. The circumstances for a mediated settlement are now more difficult because one party has tasted blood and the other is behind the 8-ball. Yet, if the stakes are large, the winning party has an incentive to scale down its recovery in return for certainty; the losing party has an incentive to reduce the dimensions of its loss.
The Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit screens cases in which mediation may be productive and invites the parties to mediate with a retired judge. Some years ago the Massachusetts Appeals Court experimented with a similar program. The number of cases that settled did not warrant the expense of maintaining the needed space and personnel. Instead, the court consigned cases which might have been candidates for mediation to the tender mercies of a summary disposition panel.
When listening to argument before the Appeals Court, was I ever tempted to inquire whether the parties would like to take a last shot at mediation? Hardly ever. There are cases involving family business disputes, domestic relations issues, neighbor against neighbor quarrels (e.g. about overloading a common driveway easement) where I would think it likely that a victory for one side will only further poison relations between the contending parties. But there they are. The lawyers have briefed the case, they rise to argue. Sometimes parties just need an authoritative decision. A court’s decision is a better way than dueling.
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After receiving the LL.B. from Harvard Law School in 1956, Rudolph Kass broke into the practice of law with Jerome L. Rappaport and from 1961, practiced with Brown, Rudnick, Freed & Gesmer, of which he became a partner. In 1978, Governor Dukakis nominated Kass to the Appeals Court, on which Kass served from 1979 through 2003. Following his retirement from the court, he has embarked on a third career as a mediator and sometime arbitrator under the banner of The Mediation Group (www.themediationgroup.org) and REBA Dispute Resolution (www.reba.net), as well as doing other law related odd jobs, such as acting as a master.