By Stephen P. Gilbert
I conducted a mediation several years ago between two companies in the healthcare field, one a small high-tech company (“Company A”) and the other a much larger conglomerate. The smaller company had invented certain cutting edge technology (“Technology A”), which held great promise but required a substantial investment of money and personnel (scientists and engineers), each of which Company A had little of, to finish the R&D work and bring Technology A to market.
Company A had entered into a joint development agreement with the conglomerate to conduct the R&D work and, if possible, commercialize the technology, which Company A hoped would be used in some of the conglomerate’s products. The agreement provided that if Technology A were commercialized and used in the conglomerate’s products, the conglomerate would pay a running royalty to Company A. The few scientists and engineers of Company A worked closely with the scientists and engineers of the conglomerate and disclosed significant confidential information to them to aid in the R&D work. The conglomerate also loaned substantial capital to Company A (covered by a promissory note) because Company A was operating on a shoestring. The agreement contained a stepped dispute resolution clause: in case of a dispute, executives of the two companies were to confer to try to resolve the dispute; if that did not work, they would go to mediation; and if that did not work, to arbitration.
A year or two after entering into the joint development agreement, the conglomerate acquired a small company (“Company B”), which had developed its own technology (“Technology B”), which, with sufficient and successful R&D work, could be used instead of Technology A in the conglomerate’s products. Both Technology A and Technology B were also potentially useful in third-party products, not just the conglomerate’s products.
Sometime after acquiring Company B, the conglomerate terminated the joint development agreement, requested payment on the promissory note (as it had the right to do) and eventually started marketing products incorporating Technology B.
Company A accused the conglomerate of purposely trying to harm Company A and prevent commercialization of Technology A. The actions of the conglomerate to which Company A pointed included acquiring Company B, terminating the joint development agreement, demanding payment of the debt, and using Company A’s confidential information to help develop and commercialize Technology B. Company A said it would now have to try to raise money to pay the debt and at the same time would have to try to find a new R&D partner, since it still could not afford the R&D work required (nor did it have sufficient personnel) to commercialize Technology A.
Company A said commercialization of Technology A would now be substantially delayed or altogether prevented and that it might have to cease operations. It noted that the conglomerate would not have to pay any royalty for using Technology B in its products because the conglomerate owned that technology through its acquisition of Company B and, if the conglomerate wished to do so, it could license Technology B to third parties without worrying about competition from Technology A, since Technology A was not yet ready to be commercialized (and might never be).
After reviewing the two confidential mediation statements and speaking ex parte with each side prior to the mediation session, it seemed settlement was possible but getting there would not be easy.
There were about ten people from each side present at the joint mediation session: Company A had business people, investors, technologists, and outside counsel; the conglomerate had business people, in-house lawyers, and outside counsel. There were no technologists from the conglomerate present. I suspected this mediation was make or break for Company A; I doubted it had the money to litigate against the conglomerate.
Each side made a short, polite opening statement, and we then split up for caucus sessions. I started with the Company A team. It was the first time I was speaking in a caucus session with anyone on the Company A team other than its outside counsel. Company A did not mince words: it was positive that all of the conglomerate’s actions had been part of a long-term plan to harm it and delay commercialization of or kill Technology A. Everything it said about the conglomerate was laced with anger.
I went to see the conglomerate team. The conglomerate felt it had done nothing wrong. That was the same message that had been conveyed to me by its outside counsel during my discussions with them before the mediation session.
One of the conglomerate’s in-house counsel who was present had been involved with the joint venture when he was a junior member of the conglomerate’s legal department (he was now significantly higher up in the department). I asked what he had done with respect to the joint venture, and it became apparent he was a goldmine of information. He had participated in drafting the joint venture agreement, had helped “administer” that agreement for the conglomerate, knew about the substantial money it had spent and R&D efforts its technologists had made on Technology A, knew (at a high level) about the technical problems that had been encountered, and knew (at a detailed level) how the decisions to abandon the technology and terminate the agreement had been made. He also knew about the “wall” the conglomerate had put in place between its people working on Technology A and those working on Technology B.
During the pre-mediation session ex parte discussions, I had asked each side that, if possible, people familiar with the joint venture relationship be at the mediation, but the depth and breadth of this individual’s knowledge was more than I could have hoped for. I asked if he would feel comfortable sharing some of this information with the other side, and I also asked lead in-house and lead outside counsel if they would feel comfortable with his doing so. They asked why; I said I thought it might be helpful, added that I didn’t see any downside (since all the information would likely be disclosed during discovery if mediation didn’t work), and received yesses from everyone. Then I went to see the Company A team.
I told them I had had a helpful discussion with the other side and asked if they would be interested in hearing some information directly from the other side (since I could never do as good a job as the conglomerate’s people could of imparting the information). The Company A team said it saw no downside, and I asked both sides to reconvene for a joint session.
It was less than two hours since the original joint mediation session had started. I asked the in‑house counsel who had given me all the information to address the other side. I said that in particular what might be helpful for the other side to hear was the history of the conglomerate’s effort to develop Technology A, the problems it had encountered, and how it had come to make the decisions to abandon Technology A and terminate the agreement.
The conglomerate’s in-house counsel began by recounting the history of his involvement and then turned to the R&D efforts that had been made and the money that was spent. At first, the Company A team just listened but soon started asking questions, which the in-house counsel answered without hesitation. I didn’t speak again until there seemed to be a logical break point, at which time I suggested we have lunch.
After lunch, he was asked more and more questions by a few members of the Company A team, some rather pointed. Others from the conglomerate’s team started to chime in. It was a lively, sometimes loud discussion. I said little except to suggest breaks when I felt it was appropriate and to remind everyone it would be better if people spoke one at a time so everyone could hear what was being said. We broke for dinner and agreed to reconvene the next morning.
The next morning, the Company A team started by discussing what it would like to see in a settlement. Bargaining ensued. Agreement was reached late afternoon, and a heads of agreement (which provided for subsequent negotiation of a comprehensive agreement) was negotiated and executed, after which we all shook hands, each side thanking the other for participating and congratulating it on reaching agreement.
It was then that the key decision-maker of Company A shared with me and with the key decision-maker of the conglomerate the following. At the end of the first day, while the Company A team was returning to its hotel, he said to his team that in view of what they had heard from the conglomerate’s in-house counsel who had spoken at length and provided answers to their questions, they might have been wrong about what had happened and about what they had been sure was the conglomerate’s bad faith. His team sat at dinner that evening talking about what they had heard and came to agree with him. Once that happened, their feelings of anger dissipated and they started to focus on how to resolve the dispute.
We were lucky to have in attendance a smart individual from the conglomerate’s side who had sufficient first-hand knowledge of the entire situation and could present information (including answering probing and pointed questions from the other side) in a non-confrontational, believable way. There is no way of my knowing, but I think it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to have reached settlement at that time if the anger Company A felt and had expressed to me so strongly had not been removed.
Stephen P. Gilbert (www.spgadr.com) is a CPR Distinguished Neutral, CEDR Accredited Mediator, American Arbitration Association Commercial Master Mediator, Fellow of the College of Commercial Arbitrators, Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, Fellow of the American College of e-Neutrals, Member/Panelist of the Silicon Valley Arbitration & Mediation Center, and was a computer programmer, a chemical engineer, and a patent attorney.