A recent New Jersey case is yet another example of why parties need to be careful when they pick a mediator.
And why there should be higher standards of mediator training – perhaps especially for judges.
Information about this case comes from the always interesting Business Conflict Management Blog by Peter Phillips in New Jersey.
According to Phillips’ blog, the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division recently approved for publication a decision in which a party to a mediation successfully sought to enforce a settlement agreement that was not fully reduced to writing. For purposes of this blog, the issue of whether the agreement was evidenced in writing is not particularly relevant.
What is relevant is that the plaintiff seeking enforcement of an alleged agreement, “supported the motion with a certification of their attorney and the mediator,” who also was deposed and testified at the hearing. A retired (and unnamed) New Jersey Superior Court Judge was the mediator.
As Phillips blogs, “(t)he trial judge on the motion found his former colleague’s testimony “highly credible.” Imagine that!”
The mediator submitted an affidavit and testified in support of a party’s motion. A mediator. Even though, as the court pointed out that both statute and rule, state that a mediator “may not disclose any mediation communication to anyone other than a participant in the mediation session,” and referred to that bar as “an evidentiary privilege.” The court justified the decision to allow the mediator’s affidavit and testimony because the privilege can be waived by the parties.
Even though the plaintiff unilaterally breached the confidentiality rule and statute, the court allowed (and relied on) the mediator’s evidence, perhaps because the defendants deposed the mediator. The trial judge ruled that confidentiality had been waived. But we don’t have any information about why or how.
Phillips succinctly sets out the concerns about this case:
What was the movant doing attaching a certification of the mediator to their opening papers, in open breach of statutory confidentiality obligations? What on earth was the former judge-cum-mediator doing executing a certification for that purpose? What was the trial judge doing putting himself in a position to rule on his former colleague’s credibility? Or the admissibility of his testimony as set forth in his certification? Was the opponent to the motion required not to depose the prospective witness and then argue no waiver?
The judge/mediator by allowing a party unilaterally to attach his certification and opinion about whether there was agreement in this case appears to have breached two of the cardinal rules of ethical mediation to not breach the confidentiality of the mediation and to not breach the duty of neutrality.
As Phillips writes, this case is a reminder a Mediation 101 lesson: Never Never Never Violate Mediation Confidentiality.