For mediation to be successful, it is considered essential that the involved parties trust the mediator. Yet little research has been done to determine whether any particular mediator behaviors help to engender party trust. RSI intends to change that. With a generous grant from the Rackham Foundation, we are undertaking an exploration of the intersection between mediator behaviors and party trust.
Two Potential Phases
During this exploration, we will observe mediations, code mediator behaviors, survey parties before and after mediation, interview mediators and collect outcome data. The purpose will be to test the mediator behavior codes, data collection instruments, research protocols and hypotheses to determine whether research of this type can provide useful information.
If we find that our research is fruitful, RSI will undertake a full research project to determine which, if any, mediator behaviors impact party ratings of trust in the mediator and other procedural justice components, and whether mediation resulted in agreement, among other factors. Our ultimate goal is to provide mediators and trainers with concrete information about behaviors that are more likely to engender party trust in the mediator and result in a satisfying, successful mediation. This project will lay the foundation for work toward that goal.
Seeking Site for Observation
We plan to observe a limited number of mediations at two sites with mediators with different training and backgrounds. We have identified one but are seeking another. If you are interested, please contact RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack.
We are grateful to the Rackham Foundation and to Ava Abramowitz, who has championed this research, for this opportunity. She and her research partner Ken Webb have developed and tested the coding scheme we will be using. Stay tuned!
Welcome to RSI’s Board Member Profile series! Each profile will feature a different member of RSI’s talented and dedicated Board of Directors. This month we focus on Board Secretary Mitchell L. Marinello.
Mitchell L. Marinello has been a member of RSI’s Board of Directors since 2013 and has been Board Secretary since 2015. He is a partner at Novack and Macey, where he handles complex commercial cases through litigation, arbitration and mediation. Mitch also serves as a commercial arbitrator for numerous organizations including the American Arbitration Association, the International Center for Dispute Resolution, the International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution (CPR), and others. We asked him to tell us about how alternative dispute resolution fits into his work, what he likes about the RSI Board, and more.
Can you share a little about your law practice and how you use ADR in your practice?
My practice is complex commercial arbitration. It involves contracts, real estate, employment, some intellectual property, and partnership law including break-ups in law firms and other businesses. Over the years, I have gotten a wide variety of cases. It’s fun in that you often learn about types of business or industries that are new to you, you litigate the issues involving those matters and then, when the case is over, you go on to something else. Of course, I also do counseling.
These days, ADR is an integral part of a commercial litigation practice, and I often represent clients in ADR settings. Arbitrations are a forum where trials are much more common than they are in court and you get to the merits of the case much faster. That has advantages for clients and for lawyers who usually find trials to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of litigation. I also serve as a mediator and arbitrator myself. To date, I have served as a mediator in about 20 cases and as an arbitrator in more than 240. As a mediator, I have had good success in settling cases, and my mediation practice has been picking up.
Mediations generally don’t work unless both sides are genuinely interested in them and enough information has been shared so that both sides can calculate the benefits and risks of going to a judgment on the merits. An extremely high percentage of commercial lawsuits eventually settle, so once enough information is on the table, there is a reasonably good chance of settling the case. I recommend mediation in appropriate settings. There are several factors to consider.
What led you to join the RSI Board?
I met (RSI Board member) Hon. Morton Denlow (ret.) years ago through the Chicago Bar Association and knew him from his time on the bench. He also knew other people in my firm very well. And then I had a mediation in front of him that was settled as a result of his efforts. He knew that I was interested in ADR, and some time after that he asked if I would be interested in joining the RSI Board. He gave a positive review of the organization, and I thought it would be interesting to learn about the organization and get to know the other Board members who at that time were mostly retired judges. I was and still am primarily focused on arbitration, while RSI is focused exclusively on mediation, but I thought RSI’s mediation programs would be interesting to learn about.
What’s your favorite thing about being on the RSI Board?
The people who work at RSI are very good at the services they provide. They are intelligent, dedicated and easy to get along with; getting to work with them is one benefit of being on the Board. Another benefit is that the Board members are a varied and interesting group of people.
When/where were you first introduced to alternative dispute resolution?
I started off as an attorney in New York City. We had some clients in the textile business, a client in the steel business, and a client in the paint supply business. They all had arbitration clauses in their agreements, and they ended up filing arbitrations involving breach of contract claims against companies they had supplied products to. The firm let me handle those arbitrations as a young lawyer, and I enjoyed them. I also started to think about how the arbitration process could be improved.
One thing people don’t necessarily know is how much arbitration has changed since the early 1980s. Then, like now, you would get a list of potential arbitrators and each side would get to strike and rank them. Well, I would try to find out information about the panel members, and it was very hard to do. There was no internet, of course, and the information in lawyer listings was pretty minimal, and it all sounded the same. I also discovered that some of the people on the arbitration panels were completely retired and that others had passed away! Also there wasn’t much arbitration in those days. People volunteered to be on the panels, but even if they were senior attorneys, that didn’t mean they had any significant experience as arbitrators.
In the early ’90s, things really started to change. The panels were updated, and a more rigorous process was put in place before you could become an arbitrator. Gradually, that also corresponded with an increasing number of arbitrations and with larger cases. I got really interested in arbitration and applied to be on the AAA panel. I got on the AAA panel in the early ’90s, and I started off getting small cases to arbitrate. And over time it just gradually grew. So now I get some very large and complex cases.
The increasing popularity of arbitration coincides with Supreme Court decisions that have given the Federal Arbitration Act new life and with the crowding of the courts, the high cost of litigation, and the long time it takes in court to get to trial. Arbitration and mediation benefit clients, but they also are in a very major sense relief valves for the court system. And, as RSI has shown, mediation also can help people who cannot afford the high cost of litigation resolve their disputes and get a chance to be heard.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to online mediation becoming far more common in family cases than it was previously. This shift from in-person to video mediation has both benefits and potential pitfalls when it comes to participant safety, as discussed in a recent article by Erin R. Archerd.
In her Winter 2022 Stetson Law Review article, “Online Mediation and the Opportunity to Rethink Safety in Mediation,” Archerd describes some of the security benefits and challenges of mediating online, recommends steps mediators can take to enhance party security in online mediation, and calls for a more expansive conception of safety for mediations in general.
Some observers argue that online mediation can be safer than mediating in person because of the physical distance between the parties. Archerd acknowledges this benefit, but also sees a downside. She notes that when mediating in person, a mediator can personally ensure that the room has safe exit routes for all parties in case of a confrontation and that the mediation is not observed or interrupted by an unauthorized party. Such assurances are more difficult online. Additionally, Archerd states that interacting via camera also entails the loss of some of the nonverbal cues that mediators might normally use to assess parties’ senses of safety. To make up for this, she suggests that — once screening for impediments has been completed and the mediator and parties decide to go forward with mediation — mediators hold private pre-mediation sessions with each party. During such a meeting, the mediator can go over the security of the parties’ mediation locations, make sure they will be in a safe and appropriately private environment during the mediation, and establish ways to communicate if the party is being watched or intimidated from off-screen. Mediators can do something similar on the day of mediation by holding a private session with each party prior to joint session to ask them to describe their space and ask whether they feel they can safely complete the mediation process.
Maintaining confidentiality in an online mediation also requires more work, since mediators are not able to monitor all aspects of the space in the same way. Archerd recommends that mediation agreements make it clear that unauthorized parties should not be present at the mediation. In addition, mediators should communicate with parties in advance about how to ensure privacy in their mediation locations. At the start of the mediation session, mediators should confirm with parties that they are not recording and that no unacknowledged parties are present. Another aspect of safety is the long-term well-being of participants: Mediators conducting mediations online need to be sure they are well connected to “wraparound services” such as domestic violence or special education resources. Archerd notes that lack of access to in-person meetings can hamper feedback that would otherwise be received about the overall well-being of parties, and greater effort to connect parties to required services may be beneficial in online mediation environments.
Last month, RSI reached the end of an 18-month grant from the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution (AAA-ICDR) Foundation. A primary goal of the grant was to provide guidance to courts nationwide about addressing the eviction crisis arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. As that project has come to a close, we at RSI would like to look back at what we accomplished, and learned, from the experience.
Our Eviction Mediation Program and Special Topic
The first focus of the grant was to help us establish a local court mediation program, serving Kane County, Illinois. While it may seem counterintuitive that a project with a focus on national guidance invest in a local program, our approach at RSI is to utilize our mediation programs as “laboratories” for the research and evaluation that is core to our mission. We have a long history of designing and administering programs, and as part of that work, we implement established best practices, set up robust monitoring and evaluation systems, and carefully and thoughtfully test out different approaches to help us achieve the goals we set for our programs. The Kane County Eviction Mediation program is no exception (See related article above), and it served as the basis for many exciting accomplishments of the project, detailed further below.
Our next big milestone was developing the Eviction Mediation Special Topic. Special Topics are collections of resources RSI curates around court alternative dispute resolution (ADR) as it relates to different subject matter (e.g., child protection mediation and restorative justice) or interested parties (e.g., judges and lawyers). For eviction, we sought to develop a Special Topic collection that was both topical to the present crisis and also highlighted the best research, guidance and tools for those invested in the development and administration of effective eviction diversion programs.
Finally, and most significantly, the grant supported several evaluative projects we embarked on over this past year and a half. We analyzed the results of our post-mediation surveys to assess whether our programs were providing procedural justice to participants. After reflecting on the steps we’d taken to develop programs and conducting interviews with key program personnel and partners, RSI published program implementation guides to give others nationwide a manual of sorts for building and tweaking their own programs. The project culminated in an evaluation of the Kane County program’s first 13 months (summarized in the article above by RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack), assessing program use, services provided, mediation outcomes and participant experience.
A Few Key Findings
The amount of information we have learned and done our best to share during the course of this project has been staggering. While any summation is sure to be incomplete, we’d like to leave you with a few key findings from the project:
Integrated and holistic service delivery approaches truly made for better outcomes. Programs that took a comprehensive and progressive approach to combatting eviction saw more agreements and fewer evictions. Similarly, programs that brought more partners to the table, including social service agencies, advocacy groups, state and municipal representatives, and others, saw greater success. While eviction cases are ultimately resolved by courts, the underlying issues are economic and social in nature, and collaboration with entities that address those causes is highly valuable.
Good eviction mediations take time. Prior to the pandemic, mediation in housing disputes, in many jurisdictions, was typically an event that took place on the day of the first court appearance and lasted no more than half an hour. Unsurprisingly, agreement rates in this context were generally low. A number of programs we worked with noted that utilizing a model where mediation was done outside of court (and the time constraints that usually entails) resulted in greater agreement. Allotting more time for the session gave greater opportunity to work through impasse, and scheduling mediation for an advance date gave parties the time to better prepare for mediation, including taking stock of finances, asking for support, applying for rental assistance, and consulting attorneys.
Remote mediation, which is the norm for RSI’s programs and many others still, continues to offer mixed blessings for participants. The flexibility afforded parties by doing remote mediation meant many more parties could participate without taking a day off work, critical for parties trying desperately to pay back past due rent. On the other hand, our data noted that about 1 in 6 needed to borrow a device or leave home to participate virtually, and 1 in 5 experienced some sort of technical difficulty. Making sure that in-person accommodations could be offered to those who could not or would prefer not to participate virtually ought to be a priority to ensure access, and RSI did so with our Kane County program.
We are tremendously grateful to the AAA-ICDR Foundation for its support of this project.
This article is part of a series of perspectives on eviction mediation program development that is being supported by the American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution Foundation. The AAA-ICDR’s grant is enabling RSI to expand our outreach to court ADR colleagues working in the fast-evolving eviction field, and we are tremendously grateful to the Foundation for their support.
As readers may remember, the 16th Judicial Circuit in Kane County, Illinois, launched its eviction mediation program in May 2021, with RSI as the program administrator. The program approaches the resolution of eviction cases holistically, with referrals to financial counseling and legal services as well as mediation. Mediations are conducted primarily via Zoom, with some in-person mediation permitted. As part of the AAA-ICDR Foundation grant, RSI Research Associate Dee Williams and I evaluated the program’s performance during its first year. The evaluation included program use, services provided, mediation outcomes and participant experience. The evaluation revealed a program that is succeeding on all metrics.
We found that the program had a high rate of referral, with 578 (42%) of the 1,392 eligible tenants making contact with the program coordinator after being referred by the judge. Almost two-thirds of tenants who accessed the program were referred to housing counseling, rental assistance and legal assistance. Not all cases required mediation, and some cases scheduled for mediation did not take place; thus, 388 (28%) of eligible cases were mediated. Of these, 74% resulted in an agreement that avoided eviction, which translated into eviction being avoided through mediation in 20% of all cases filed.
Overall Positive Experiences
In post-mediation surveys, both landlords and tenants in general indicated they had a good experience in mediation: 61% said they were highly likely to recommend mediation to a friend. They also indicated they experienced procedural justice, with 73% indicating the mediator treated them extremely fairly and 80% indicating they were treated with very much respect. Their perception of whether they were able to talk about what was important to them was lower, however, with 54% rating this highly. Attorneys were more likely to rate their experience highly overall: 71% were highly likely to recommend mediation to a colleague.
The one area of concern is that 19% of parties who responded to the survey wrote comments indicating they believed the mediator was biased or not active enough in helping them resolve their dispute, which equaled the percentage who wrote positive comments about the mediators’ fairness and helpfulness. RSI is investigating this further, with the hopes of identifying whether certain mediators may need further training.
Access, Tech Use Examined
We also asked survey respondents how they accessed the video mediation, whether they needed to borrow a mobile phone or computer from someone, whether they had to leave their home to attend the mediation, and whether they had any technical difficulties. Approximately 6 in 10 tenants used a mobile phone to participate, and almost everyone else used a personal computer. Our sample is very likely biased, as those who have ready access to the internet would be more likely to respond to the survey; nevertheless, we found that only 2 of 49 respondents borrowed a device and three went to someone else’s home. Five attended from work. Ten of 56 respondents indicated there were technical issues during their mediation. These included problems connecting, bad connections, people getting disconnected and someone’s microphone not working.
Support Breeds Success
When I interviewed the judge and program staff for an implementation report on the program, I found the judge was very supportive of the program and that both he and program staff believed landlord and attorney buy-in was essential to the success of the program. The evaluation indicates that the judge’s support was instrumental to the program’s high rate of referral and that landlords and attorneys who completed surveys generally had favorable opinions of the program. These both support the general belief that both judicial support and party buy-in are necessary characteristics of successful programs.