NY State Bar Assoc Issues New Ethics Opinion Confirming that Lawyer-Mediator Acting as Third-Party Neutral is Not in Lawyer-Client Relationship or Providing Legal Services

By Mark Kantor

Kantor Photo (8-2012)

The New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics issued on Friday its Ethics Opinion No. 1178 addressing the ethics obligations of a lawyer acting as a mediator (https://www.nysba.org/CustomTemplates/SecondaryStandard.aspx?id=98793).  According to this new Opinion, a lawyer-mediator acting as a neutral is not acting in a lawyer-client relationship or providing legal services (“In so concluding, we expressly supersede N.Y. State 678 (1996) insofar as that opinion says that the provision of mediation services by lawyers constitutes the practice of law. ****  Only when a lawyer-mediator engages in services beyond providing neutral services, such as filing papers in court, does the lawyer-mediator cross the line into providing legal services.”).  Therefore, much of the New York Rules on Professional Conduct for New York-qualified attorneys are not applicable to mediation services that do not cross that line.

Thus, the N.Y. Rules of Professional Conduct (the “Rules”) that apply when a lawyer represents a client do not necessarily apply in the context of a lawyer providing mediation services, including Rule 1.5 concerning fees, Rule 1.6 concerning confidentiality, and Rule 1.7 concerning conflicts, although lawyer-mediators should be aware that certain rules will continue to apply even in the absence of an attorney-client relationship.  See Rule 5.7, Cmt. [4].

I quote the entirety of the Opinion at the end of this post.

New York State Rule 2.4, which expressly addresses lawyers as third-party neutrals (including as arbitrator and as mediator), remains of course directly applicable.  That Rule requires the lawyer/third-party neutral to inform unrepresented parties that the lawyer serving as the neutral is not representing them and, where appropriate, to explain to the party the difference between a third-party neutral and a lawyer representing a client.  Rule 2.4 provides that:

(a) A lawyer serves as a “third-party neutral” when the lawyer assists two or more persons who are not clients of the lawyer to reach a resolution of a dispute or other matter that has arisen between them.  Service as a third-party neutral may include service as an arbitrator, a mediator or in such other capacity as will enable the lawyer to assist the parties to resolve the matter.

(b) A lawyer serving as a third-party neutral shall inform unrepresented parties that the lawyer is not representing them.  When the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that a party does not understand the lawyer’s role in the matter, the lawyer shall explain the difference between the lawyer’s role as a third party neutral and a lawyer’s role as one who represents a client.

Newly issued Opinion 1178 also offers advice on issues commonly faced by lawyer-mediators navigating the line between legal services and mediation services, including confidentiality, meeting with parties separately, entering into an alternative fee arrangement, and memorializing an agreement reached in the mediation.

  1. In addition, even though the confidentiality provisions of Rule 1.6 would not apply, a lawyer-mediator may be governed by other confidentiality obligations found in substantive laws (such as statutes or court rules) or private sources (such as ethics codes promulgated by mediation groups).  See Rule 2.4, Cmt. [2] (“the lawyer may be subject to court rules or other law that applies either to third-party neutrals generally or to lawyers serving as third-party neutrals.  Lawyer-neutrals may also be subject to various codes of ethics”); Rule 1.12, Cmt. [3] (lawyers who serve as third-party neutrals “typically owe the parties an obligation of confidentiality under law or codes of ethics governing third-party neutrals”); N.Y. State 1026 ¶ 7 (2014).
  2.  Accordingly, as long as the lawyer-mediator follows Rule 2.4 (and any other applicable rules or laws), the lawyer-mediator would be free to conduct the mediation in the way the lawyer-mediator thinks best, including meeting with the parties separately, and contracting for and structuring her fee however the lawyer-mediator would like.
  3.  We also note that the lawyer-mediator may assist the parties with memorializing in writing the terms to which they agree during the mediation.  Such an aide memoire or Memorandum of Understanding is a common product of the mediation process.

The context of Ethics Opinion 1178 is a lawyer who wishes to act as a mediator in divorce disputes.  However, the scope of the Opinion itself arguably extends to third-party neutral services more generally, and certainly to mediation outside the divorce context.  Since the description in Rule 2.4 of third-party neutrals expressly encompasses arbitrators as well as mediators and the rationale for Opinion 1178 includes the adoption of that Rule to distinguish third-party neutral services from the delivery of legal services, one may easily construe Opinion 1178 to apply to a lawyer’s service as a neutral arbitrator as well.  However, the direct conclusions of the Opinion speak only to mediation services.  I invite comments and corrections in that regard from others who may know more on this subject.

Hat tip to Jill Gross at that wonderful blog Indisputably for bringing this development to the attention of the ADR community yesterday (http://indisputably.org/2019/12/new-nys-ethics-opinion-lawyer-as-third-party-neutral/).

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Ethics Opinion 1178

New York State Bar Association
Committee on Professional Ethics

Opinion 1178 (12/13/2019)
Modifies NY State 678 (1996)

Topic:  Lawyer as third-party neutral

Digest:  A lawyer-mediator engaged in providing third-party neutral services is subject to Rule 2.4 but not the Rules that govern the representation of clients.  As such, the lawyer-mediator is generally free to conduct the mediation in the way the lawyer thinks best, and to charge whatever fee may be appropriate, provided always that the lawyer fully discloses to the parties that the lawyer is acting as a disinterested mediator and not as counsel to any party, including the consequences of that difference.  In the event of an agreement, the lawyer-mediator may memorialize the parties’ understanding in a document and may appear as counsel for one party (but not both) in filing a divorce action if the other party gives informed consent confirmed in writing.

Rules:  1.5, 1.6, 1.7, 1.12, 2.4, 5.7

FACTS

1. The inquiring lawyer intends to become a mediator and plans to focus on mediating cases involving parties who would otherwise seek a contested divorce.  The lawyer-mediator anticipates that the parties may find that meeting individually to discuss the issues that need to be resolved in order to submit their agreement to the court would be beneficial given the antagonistic position between them.

2. The lawyer-mediator intends to charge an upfront, flat rate for the mediation services. The goal of those services is for the parties to resolve all of the issues necessary for the parties to be in a position to submit an uncontested divorce package.  In the event that the parties discontinue using the lawyer as a mediator before all of the issues are resolved, the contract will provide that the parties will pay the lawyer-mediator an hourly rate for the services performed, charged against the upfront payment with any unused amount returned to the parties.

QUESTIONS

3. In connection with setting up a mediation practice, the inquiring lawyer poses several questions:

(a) May the lawyer-mediator meet with the parties individually to inform them of the various issues that need to be resolved in order to have a divorce granted in New York?
(b) May the lawyer-mediator enter into a contract with the parties to provide mediation services?  If so, may the contract provide for the payment of a flat rate by the parties in the event resolution is reached that results in an uncontested divorce packet but otherwise provides for the payment by the parties on an hourly basis if the parties discontinue the lawyer-mediator’s services before all issues can be resolved?
(c) What disclosures does the lawyer-mediator have to provide to parties to the mediation concerning her role as mediator?
(d) May the lawyer-mediator prepare documents, including a divorce action representing the parties, if the parties reach agreement?

OPINION

4. Generally, lawyer-mediators are not engaged in the representation of a client and are not providing legal services to the parties to the mediation.  See N.Y. State 999 ¶ 2 (2014); N.Y. State 1026 ¶ 6 (2014).  Thus, the N.Y. Rules of Professional Conduct (the “Rules”) that apply when a lawyer represents a client do not necessarily apply in the context of a lawyer providing mediation services, including Rule 1.5 concerning fees, Rule 1.6 concerning confidentiality, and Rule 1.7 concerning conflicts, although lawyer-mediators should be aware that certain rules will continue to apply even in the absence of an attorney-client relationship.  See Rule 5.7, Cmt. [4].

5. Instead, Rule 2.4 is directed to lawyers acting as third-party neutrals and provides:
(a) A lawyer serves as a “third-party neutral” when the lawyer assists two or more persons who are not clients of the lawyer to reach a resolution of a dispute or other matter that has arisen between them.  Service as a third-party neutral may include service as an arbitrator, a mediator or in such other capacity as will enable the lawyer to assist the parties to resolve the matter.

(b) A lawyer serving as a third-party neutral shall inform unrepresented parties that the lawyer is not representing them.  When the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that a party does not understand the lawyer’s role in the matter, the lawyer shall explain the difference between the lawyer’s role as a third party neutral and a lawyer’s role as one who represents a client.

6. In terms of the required disclosure under Rule 2.4(b) stated above, we have noted that “[t]he precise content of the required conversation, and the exact information the lawyer-mediator will have to disclose to a party about the lawyer’s role, may vary from one mediation to another.”  See N.Y. State 878 (2011).  Comment [3] to Rule 2.4 provides some guidance:

Unlike nonlawyers who serve as third-party neutrals, lawyers serving in this role may experience unique problems as a result of differences between the role of a third-party neutral and a lawyer’s service as a client representative.  The potential for confusion is significant when the parties are unrepresented in the process.  Thus, paragraph (b) requires a lawyer-neutral to inform the unrepresented parties that the lawyer is not representing them.  For some parties, particularly parties who frequently use dispute-resolution processes, this information will be sufficient.  For others, particularly those who are using the process for the first time, more information will be required.  Where appropriate, the lawyer should inform unrepresented parties of the important differences between the lawyer’s role as a third-party neutral and as a client representative, including the in-applicability of the attorney-client evidentiary privilege.  The extent of the disclosure required under this paragraph will depend on the particular parties involved and the subject matter of the proceeding, as well as the particular features of the dispute resolution process selected.

7. “Thus, unless all mediating parties are represented by counsel in the mediated matter, a lawyer-mediator must explain whatever needs to be explained to assure there is no confusion about the lawyer-mediator’s role and the difference between a lawyer’s role on behalf of a client and a mediator’s role as a neutral.”  See N.Y. State 878 (2011).

8. There may also be times when it is not possible for the lawyer-mediator to provide an effective explanation regarding the difference between the role as a lawyer-mediator compared to a lawyer’s role when representing a client.  As we noted in N.Y. State 736 (2001), matrimonial mediation may be undertaken in many circumstances, but sometimes “the complex and conflicting interests involved in a particular matrimonial dispute, the difficult legal issues involved, the subtle legal ramifications of particular resolutions, and the inequality in bargaining power resulting from differences in personalities or sophistication of the parties make it virtually impossible to achieve a result free from later recriminations or bias or malpractice, unless both parties are represented by separate counsel.  In the latter circumstances, informing the parties that the lawyer ‘represents’ neither and obtaining their consent, even after a full explanation of the risks, may not be meaningful; the distinction between representing both parties and not representing either, in such circumstances, may be illusory.”

9. In addition, even though the confidentiality provisions of Rule 1.6 would not apply, a lawyer-mediator may be governed by other confidentiality obligations found in substantive laws (such as statutes or court rules) or private sources (such as ethics codes promulgated by mediation groups).  See Rule 2.4, Cmt. [2] (“the lawyer may be subject to court rules or other law that applies either to third-party neutrals generally or to lawyers serving as third-party neutrals.  Lawyer-neutrals may also be subject to various codes of ethics”); Rule 1.12, Cmt. [3] (lawyers who serve as third-party neutrals “typically owe the parties an obligation of confidentiality under law or codes of ethics governing third-party neutrals”); N.Y. State 1026 ¶ 7 (2014).

10. Accordingly, as long as the lawyer-mediator follows Rule 2.4 (and any other applicable rules or laws), the lawyer-mediator would be free to conduct the mediation in the way the lawyer-mediator thinks best, including meeting with the parties separately, and contracting for and structuring her fee however the lawyer-mediator would like.

11. We also note that the lawyer-mediator may assist the parties with memorializing in writing the terms to which they agree during the mediation.  Such an aide memoire or Memorandum of Understanding is a common product of the mediation process.

12. Beyond this, however, that lawyer-mediator may not cross the line between acting as a neutral arbiter and acting as counsel to the parties.  N.Y. State 1026 ¶ 10 (the lawyer performs legal services when the lawyer drafts and files divorce papers in court on behalf of the parties).  In that event, all of the mediation services would then be covered by the Rules as the non-legal mediation services would not be distinct from the legal services.  See Rule 5.7.  Nevertheless, Rule 1.12(b) expressly permits the lawyer-mediator, at the conclusion of the mediation, in the event of an agreement between the parties, to represent one of the parties in filing a divorce action in court, provided the other party gives informed consent, confirmed in writing.  At that point, the erstwhile mediator owes all the duties accompanying the attorney-client relationship under the Rules to the represented party.  Rule 1.7(b)(3) forbids a lawyer from representing adverse parties in a proceeding, even with informed consent, and so the lawyer-mediator may not represent both parties in the filing of a divorce action.

13. In so concluding, we expressly supersede N.Y. State 678 (1996) insofar as that opinion says that the provision of mediation services by lawyers constitutes the practice of law.  That opinion was issued before adoption of Rule 2.4, which specifically governs a lawyer’s provision of neutral services and which had no equivalent in the predecessor N.Y. Code of Professional Responsibility.  We have earlier so hinted:  Following adoption of the Rules, we noted the possibility that our conclusion under the Rules might change on this issue. In N.Y. State 979 (2013), we said that there were conflicting opinions concerning whether the provision of mediation services was the practice of law and that “[t]he case that such services are not the practice of law was arguably bolstered by New York’s adoption of the Rule specifically governing a lawyer’s service as a mediator.”  We now make explicit that Rule 2.4 ousts our conclusion in N.Y. State 678 that the provision of mediation services invariably constitutes the practice of law.  Only when a lawyer-mediator engages in services beyond providing neutral services, such as filing papers in court, does the lawyer-mediator cross the line into providing legal services.

CONCLUSION

14. A lawyer-mediator engaged in providing third-party neutral services is subject to Rule 2.4 but not the Rules that govern the representation of clients.  As such, the lawyer-mediator is generally free to conduct the mediation in the way the lawyer-mediator thinks best and to charge whatever fee the lawyer-mediator thinks appropriate and must provide disclosure to the parties concerning the lawyer-mediator’s role as a mediator compared to that of a lawyer representing a client.  If, however, the lawyer-mediator engages in an activity that constitutes a legal service, that legal service would not be distinct from the non-legal mediation services and the Rules would then apply to both the legal and non-legal services provided by the lawyer-mediator.  At the conclusion of the mediation, the lawyer may represent one (but not both) of the parties in filing a divorce action, provided the other party gives informed consent, confirmed in writing.

(08-19)

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_______________________________________________

Mark Kantor is a CPR Distinguished Neutral. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, Mark was a partner in the Corporate and Project Finance Groups of the Firm. He currently serves as an arbitrator and mediator. He teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center (Recipient, Fahy Award for Outstanding Adjunct Professor). Additionally, Mr. Kantor is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management.

This material was first published on OGEMID, the Oil Gas Energy Mining Infrastructure and Investment Disputes discussion group sponsored by the on-line journal Transnational Dispute Management (TDM, at https://www.transnational-dispute-management.com/), and is republished with consent.

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).

How Far Can the Bench Go? The ABA on Judges’ Independent Research

By Elena Gurevich

Last month, the American Bar Association ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, which develops model ethics standards for attorneys and judges, took on the judiciary’s use of the web in trial work.

The committee published Formal Opinion 478, “Independent Factual Research by Judges Via the Internet,” highlighting how “a vast amount of information available on the Internet exposes judges to potential ethical problems.” Released Dec. 8, the opinion is available at http://bit.ly/2mOetAr.

The formal opinion may have implications for alternative dispute resolution. It defines the term “judge” as “anyone who is authorized to perform judicial functions, including an officer such as a justice of the peace, magistrate, court commissioner, special master, referee, or member of the administrative law judiciary.” See Model Code of Judicial Conduct, Application § I(B)(2011).

The question is whether it can be inferred that arbitrators fall into this category as well, subjecting their neutrals’ roles to the opinion’s rules.

The general rule, the opinion notes, is Model Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.9(C).  The rule states: “A judge shall not investigate facts in a matter independently, and shall consider only the evidence presented and any facts that may properly be judicially noticed.” A comment to the rule says the ban on investigating facts “extends to information available in all mediums, including electronic.”

In the opinion, the committee stresses a distinction between the “legislative facts”—defined as “general facts which help the tribunal decide questions of law and policy and discretion”—and “adjudicative facts,” which are facts “concerning  the immediate parties—who did what, where, when, how, and with what motive or intent.”

The opinion notes that “research of legislative facts does not raise the same due process concerns as research of adjudicative facts.”

The ABA provides guidelines in the opinion for independent Internet factual research by judges. These guidelines are designed to help judges decide whether to independently investigate facts on the Internet.

They include (1) assessing whether additional information is necessary to decide the case, and (2) whether the judge is corroborating or discrediting facts, or filling in factual gaps in the record—and, where, in the case adjudicative facts, it would be improper to do so.

But there is still a possibility that a judge can misjudge—pun intended—a situation when it comes to verifying sources. For example, a third guideline states that when a judge is “seeking general or educational information that is useful to provide the judge with a better understanding of a subject unrelated to a pending or impending case . . . [then] the inquiry is appropriate. Judges may use the Internet as they would other educational sources, like judicial seminars and books.”

A fourth and final guideline looks at a judge seeking background information about a party or subject matter of a case.

The question with these guidelines is what if, while doing research unrelated to a case, a judge stumbles upon and reads something that is related? The research might start as a need for a better understanding, but the moment a judge obtains that information it can affect his or her judgment.

The ABA underscores that the key inquiry for the judge is “whether the information to be gathered is of factual consequence in determining the case.”  The opinion, which illustrates its points with hypothetical examples, continues, “If it is, it must be subject to testing through the adversary process.”

The opinion also equates general background learning on the Internet to “attending judicial seminars or reading books”, but warns that it can be of service “so long as there is reason to believe the source is reliable.”

And here lies another problem: the definition of “reliable.” To different individuals, it is all a matter of perspective.  To some prominent judges, Wikipedia has been a reliable source. See, e.g., Lubavitch-Chabad of Illinois Inc. v. Northwestern Un., 772 F.3d 443 (2014)(7th Cir. 2014)(available at http://bit.ly/1xu1bZt).

For judges, the dangers are not only on the World Wide Web, but even in the court’s computerized records systems, where judges are essentially urged to rely on their skill and capability in order to get the search right. The committee quotes Illinois Judicial Ethics Opinion 2016-02, which cautions judges that

the particular judge’s competence to navigate the computerized court records is essential . . . only facts which are ‘not subject to reasonable dispute’ are the proper subject of judicial notice. The judge must be confident that his or her review will lead to accurate information. For example, indexes of computerized court records are likely to contain individuals with the same name; is the inquiring judge capable of finding the appropriate records and accurately matching them to the party in question? Judges must be aware of their own skills and, more importantly, their limitations.  . . . [Emphasis is in the opinion.]

The bottom line is that judges are walking a fine line every time they are taking on a case. After all, it is very easy to make a mistake when it’s only one click away.

The opinion also notes that Model Rule 2.9(D) requires judges to make sure the court staff and officials do not perform improper independent investigations.

The ABA’s website explains that the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility “periodically issues ethics opinions to advise lawyers, courts and the public in interpreting and applying ABA model ethics rules to specific issues of legal practice, client-lawyer relationships and judicial behavior.”

ABA Formal Opinions have been cited as persuasive when courts around the nation interpret state-adopted Rules of Professional Conduct.

Formal Opinion 478 and previous ABA ethics opinions are available on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility website under “Latest Ethics Opinions,” or directly at the link above.  For more analysis, see Debra Cassens Weiss, “May judges search the internet for facts? ABA ethics opinion sees problems,” ABA Journal (Dec. 8)(available at http://bit.ly/2DpkC1a).

The author is a CPR Institute intern.