Gorsuch on Mediation

By Russ Bleemer

U.S. Circuit Court cases referencing mediation aren’t unusual. Since most cases settle before they get to a courthouse, and long before they reach the appellate levels, the intervention of a third-party neutral is commonplace part of the recounting of the case histories that ultimately appear before appeals courts.

But it’s comparatively rare for a U.S. Circuit Court to write and rule on mediation mechanics.

Last night’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Tenth U.S. Circuit Court Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, of Denver, has written about the mechanics and effects of mediation in his decade on the bench at the circuit’s home in Denver.

In Hand v. Walnut Valley Sailing Club, Case No. 11-3228 (10th Cir. April 4, 2012)(available at http://bit.ly/2jVWsO7), a unanimous Tenth Circuit panel strongly backed mediation confidentiality in an order and judgment written by Gorsuch—a rare pronouncement on mediation and how it works by a federal circuit court.

For fans of mediation, it’s an instructive and fun read for its support of the ADR process, even though the appeals court’s support of a district court dismissal because a litigant abused mediation confidentiality rules was focused on a pleading technicality.

In the unanimous, three-judge panel order, Gorsuch details a move by the plaintiff, a member of the defendant sailing club, to tell “at least” 44 club members and others why a mediation of the plaintiff’s suit against the club failed.

The email sent by the plaintiff “disparage[ed] the club’s positions and relat[ed] all the details of the mediation, including what the mediator said and the amount of the club’s settlement offer,” the order states.

The plaintiff, according to the Gorsuch judgment, had complained to Kansas’s governor “that a storage shed owned by [the] sailing club didn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.” The club revoked the plaintiff’s membership, and the plaintiff filed suit.

The plaintiff had claimed ignorance of the mediation confidentiality law, but in dismissing the case, Gorsuch pointed out that the issue hadn’t been briefed in the district court.  The Tenth Circuit order says that the plaintiff’s contention that his lack of knowledge of the law was in an accompanying affidavit wasn’t sufficient where “both sides’ briefing, all prepared by retained counsel, proceeded on the premise that he knew the mediation was supposed to remain confidential. [The plaintiff] argued merely that the club’s request for dismissal was a disproportionate sanction.”

That was the sole issue, Gorsuch wrote, that the appeals panel saw as “worthy of mention,” noting that without the briefing, the issue couldn’t be considered.

But that conclusion followed the Tenth Circuit panel’s strong endorsement of mediation confidentiality. “Our review confirms that the district court did not abuse its discretion,” wrote Gorsuch, adding that the plaintiff

committed a serious violation of the confidentiality rule. He didn’t just share a few tidbits about the mediation with a friend, he revealed extensive and prejudicial details about the mediation to over forty people, many likely witnesses in the case. And he did so not accidentally but intentionally. In his deposition, [he] explained that he “absolutely” disclosed mediation information because he believed club members “had a right to know.”

Earlier in the order, Gorsuch reiterated the U.S. District Court holding that his panel was affirming, boosting the ADR process and noting that the plaintiff’s disclosures

“demonstrated complete disrespect for the confidential mediation process.” [Citation omitted.] In discussing the importance confidentiality plays under the congressional scheme created by the Alternative Dispute Resolution Act of 1998, see 28 U.S.C. § 652(d) (requiring district courts to “provide for the confidentiality of the alternative dispute resolution processes and to prohibit disclosure of confidential dispute resolution communications”), the court recognized that an assurance of confidentiality encourages parties to participate in mediation with candor and is essential to the success of mediation programs. The need for confidentiality, the court said, is particularly strong where a mediation program is, as here, mandatory, “because participants are often assured that all discussions and documents related to the proceeding will be protected from forced disclosure.” [Citation omitted.]

Still, the Gorsuch-written Hand order isn’t a published opinion and comes with a caveat:  “This order and judgment is not binding precedent, except under the doctrines of law of the case, res judicata, and collateral estoppel. It may be cited, however, for its persuasive value consistent with Fed. R. App. P. 32.1 and 10th Cir. R. 32.1.”

***

Gorsuch also had to address the effect of a mediation settlement agreement in A.F. v. Espanola Public Schools, No. 14-2139 (Sept. 15, 2015)(available at http://bit.ly/2ki2QAa).

The case was mediated as per the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and settled.  But the IDEA’s procedures contemplate moves for further relief under other statutes, but only after the act’s procedures have been exhausted.

Both parties took advantage of the mediation step in the act, according to the 2-1 Gorsuch opinion.  The case settled.

Then, the plaintiff filed suit on behalf of her daughter under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, making the same allegations in federal court that she had made in her original administrative complaint, and which were successfully resolved in mediation.

The Gorsuch opinion affirmed a district court decision that said the plaintiff hadn’t exhausted her remedies under the IDEA scheme for the second suit.

The plaintiff claimed that because she had mediated her claim under the IDEA procedure scheme, the procedures’ application to her new claim had been exhausted, or were inapplicable.

Gorsuch’s opinion didn’t take issue with the mediation results itself, and even agreed that the plaintiff’s court case could proceed under the other statutes, so long as it followed the IDEA procedures required for the other laws.

But the opinion said that the IDEA procedure enabling the subsequent suit also required exhaustion of the claims, under the statute’s plain terms.  The mediation wasn’t enough. For those claims using the statute to launch the plaintiff’s subsequent lawsuit, the opinion said, more is required for exhaustion of the IDEA resolution procedures than the mediation for the first IDEA claim.

A dissent stated that a more reasonable interpretation of the IDEA is that a mediated resolution constitutes exhaustion for the pursuit of other permitted claims.

The author edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for the CPR Institute.

See also: “Gorsuch on Arbitration”

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