Ethics Issues in Mediation: Confronting the Maze of Confidentiality and Privilege

By Ginsey Varghese

With a rise in litigation about mediation, likely linked to its  increasingly common use, it is important to take a closer look at the ethical issues facing both the mediator and advocate in a mediation.

What are the ethical obligations of mediators to parties when engaged in “shuttle diplomacy” in private caucusing? How does blanket confidentiality in mediation agreements intersect with attorney-client and work product privilege? In disputes following mediation, will courts pierce the confidentiality of mediation? Can mediators be subpoenaed to testify?

These hairy contours of the law and mediation were addressed in an interactive panel hosted jointly by CPR, Practical Law, and Jenner & Block, LLP on January 8, 2018.  The panel was moderated by Steven Skulnik (Editor) of Practical Law, and featured Noah Hanft (President and CEO) of CPR, Bernadette Miragliotta (Managing Counsel) at American Express Company and Richard Ziegler (Partner) at Jenner & Block, LLP (pictured in the order, from left to right below).

use webinar

Almost 400 people attended the session via webinar, and another several dozen in person at Jenner & Block’s New York offices. The discussion was extremely engaging as the moderator, Mr. Skulnik, steered panelists’ conversations around realistic hypotheticals with live polling and immediate feedback from the audience.

The session began discussing a mediator’s duty of confidentiality in private caucus. Mr. Ziegler stated, “An effective mediator must review with the parties exactly what the mediator can say in caucusing with the other side.” All the panelists agreed, adding that mediators must be tactful in their language conveying information to guard the confidentiality of each side.

In a discussion about whether mediators should suggest specific dollar amounts for offers or demands, Ms. Miragliotta stressed that this should be avoided as it is essential that parties feel like it is their mediation…that they own the process and the settlement. It is not beneficial for parties to feel rushed into an outcome over which they do not feel ownership, she added.

Another important consideration  discussed is that there is no single uniform body of law on mediation across the 50 states jurisdictions and federal jurisdiction, and only 12 jurisdictions have adopted the Uniform Mediation Act.

As Mr. Hanft explained, knowledge on the applicable law or the necessary “magic words” in a particular jurisdiction when enforcing a settlement or protecting confidentiality in a post-mediation dispute is paramount. He also offered practical guidelines to ensure a settlement is more likely to be enforced.

The panelists deliberated a range of other topics: the complexities of Attorney-Client Privilege and Work Product Doctrine in a mediation; post-mediation disputes that commonly arise including settlement enforcement; mediation confidentiality issues in malpractice or non-party disputes; and best practices for mediator and advocates, among others.

As Jenner & Block’s Ziegler summarized, “Confidentiality in mediation is not ironclad.”

The final takeaway? When in mediation, be mindful of not crossing ethical lines and not inadvertently waiving attorney client privilege or work product protection.

An audio stream of the panel discussion is available In CPR’s member’s only Resources Library HERE (you must be logged in to view).

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