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Jennifer Shack Talks about Inspirations, Dream Projects and the Future of ADR

Just Court ADR, July 19th, 2023

RSI Director of Research Jennifer Shack often uses this space to tell us about a new research project or share findings from her latest ADR program evaluation. Today, we asked her to take a step back and answer a few questions about what drives her work, as well as share her thoughts on a few “big questions” in our field.

What drew you to studying alternative dispute resolution (ADR) as a career?

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, West Africa, I observed how the village chiefs resolved conflicts through what I was to discover was mediation. I thought it would be great to have something similar here in the States – a way to resolve conflicts without court intervention and in a way in which both parties felt was fair. I was surprised to learn about mediation when I returned home, and excited when I saw an ad for a job opening that started with the words “Interested in mediation?” I applied, and 24 years later I’m still enjoying my work at RSI.

What is your favorite part of your work?

So much! I really enjoy designing evaluations and research projects. I love interviewing program participants and conducting focus groups because I get to learn on a much deeper level how mediation programs affect the participants – and because I get to meet so many interesting people. I also have a lot of fun digging into data to find out what story they tell about a program or an issue and then writing that story.

Do you have a long-term wish list in terms of aspects of court-based ADR that you’d like to study?

I have a lot of items on my wish list. I’ll just talk about my top three. As you know, Donna Shestowsky and I evaluated two text-based ODR programs. I have also evaluated programs that involved in-person and video mediation. I would love to delve further into how these three different processes affect participant experience, particularly in what and how they communicate with each other and the mediator, and whether agreement terms differ. The more we know about how these processes are experienced by parties, the better we can become at determining which method best fits with different case types and situations, and the more we can improve the participant experience.

I would also love to do longitudinal research on child protection mediation. Having conducted a couple of evaluations on child protection mediation programs and interviewed parents after they participated in mediation, I think this is one of the best uses of mediation. But I’d like to know more about its long-term impact on families.

My third item on my wish list is already starting to become true. For decades, I and so many others have wanted to look inside the black box of mediation and find out what works and what doesn’t. We’re starting to do this with the Mediator Trust Project, but that’s only the first step. There are many aspects that can be examined. For example, in family mediation we can examine mediation’s effect on co-parenting and family dynamics. Another possibility is researching whether there are certain things mediators do that increase the probability of impasse.

RSI’s research team has recently expanded to include two additional full-time employees. How has this affected your day-to-day work or RSI’s project work?

RSI’s Research and Evaluation team recently expanded to include Rachel Feinstein, left, and Jasmine Henry.

Having Rachel and Jasmine join us has been wonderful. It’s really helpful to be able to talk through ideas and issues with other research-minded colleagues. I also am happy to have Jas do research on an idea that I otherwise wouldn’t have time to explore. But most of all having Rachel take leadership on our OPEN Project has allowed me to focus on our Mediator Trust Project while Jasmine continues to monitor and report on the participant surveys from the eviction mediation program RSI administers.

What trends do you see in court-based ADR that you think are likely to persist?

I think remote dispute resolution is here to stay, whether it’s video mediation or text-based ODR. Video mediation will continue to be prevalent, and I’m seeing signs that text-based ODR is going to become much more common in the near future. Artificial intelligence (AI) will make inroads in dispute resolution, particularly in helping parties to negotiate and write agreements. AI may also one day mediate between parties as well.

Outside of technology, I believe courts will continue to implement ADR to address crises, as we have seen with foreclosure and eviction. My optimistic side leads me to think that more courts will treat such cases holistically, attempting to resolve not just the dispute but the problems that led to the dispute in the first place – for example, providing housing and financial counseling to parties at risk of homelessness.

What is your least favorite part of your work?

Probably not having the time or money to pursue all the projects I’d like to do.

What do you see as keys to making court-based ADR more accessible?

The main thing is to break down barriers to participation. This means making the ADR process easier to navigate and use. It also means communicating with parties using multiple methods and keeping in mind best practices for individuals with low literacy. Courts need to ensure that parties know about the existence of ADR options. Donna Shestowsky’s research on civil court ADR and our evaluations of court ODR programs have shown that too many parties don’t know that ADR programs exist. Courts should also educate parties about the benefits and risks of their options if they have them, so they can make informed decisions about those options.

Support RSI’s Pet Projects

Susan M. Yates, July 11th, 2023

Every time my foster dog looks at me with those big eyes, wags her tail and rolls over for a belly rub, I get a warm, fuzzy feeling.

You know, like the feeling you get when you think about supporting RSI’s work.

Or is that just me?

“Bri” (short for “Brillo”), foster dog of RSI Executive Director Susan M. Yates.

As the second quarter of 2023 comes to a close, I’m so proud of RSI’s accomplishments studying and sharing the qualities of successful mediation; learning how online dispute resolution programs might help parties with low literacy make better use of ODR; and mediating eviction cases.

But as meaningful as our work is at RSI, I know that, for most people, RSI’s mission doesn’t have the instant emotional appeal of rescuing dogs and cats in need.

I get it. When you support RSI, you may have to go through a step or two to get to the warm, fuzzy feeling. But rest assured, you are supporting important work that improves real lives.

Maybe you see a fair, open justice system as a foundation for democracy – and so you value procedural justice in mediation.

Maybe you can imagine how scary eviction court would be – and so you value a mediation process that enables landlords and tenants to sit with a mediator and work out solutions together.

Maybe you are eager to learn how mediation really works – and so you value our project to explore mediator behaviors that engender party trust.

Whether it is instant or it takes a few steps, I hope you enjoy the warm, fuzzy feeling of supporting RSI. Please click here to make a difference by donating to RSI.

RSI Board Secretary Marinello on the Role of Arbitration and How It Has Changed

Sandy Wiegand, February 16th, 2023

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.

RSI 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.

A Q&A with RSI’s Virtual Eviction Mediation Programs Manager Chris Riehlmann

Eric Slepak Cherney, October 13th, 2022

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.

RSI conducts three virtual mediation programs in northern Illinois. The programs are supervised by Eviction Mediation Programs Manager Chris Riehlmann. In this role, Chris oversees the administration, data collection and reporting, and ongoing development of the programs. He recently took some time to answer some of Court ADR Connection’s questions about the programs and his experience.

Chris, can you start by sharing a little about your background prior to joining RSI?

Chris Riehlmann

Education-wise, I received my B.A. and J.D. from Loyola University Chicago. During law school, I focused mainly on learning all aspects of litigation and criminal law. Following law school, I pursued my interest in civil rights by working with the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, the Orleans Parish Public Defenders Office, and private civil rights attorneys in the Chicago area. My first real attorney job was for a high-volume personal injury law firm representing plaintiffs injured by car accidents, medical malpractice, slip and falls, defective products and more. This position gave me real experience handling cases from beginning to end while interacting with judges, opposing counsel and clients. 

My most meaningful foray into the housing legal realm was working for Open Communities, a fair housing non-profit in Evanston, IL. While at O.C., I led a team that investigated allegations of housing discrimination, took legal action against bad actors and educated the public on their housing rights. I also learned how eviction litigation worked and defended individuals who couldn’t afford an attorney. It was eye opening how quick evictions worked, with tenants showing up in court for their first appearance and leaving with an eviction order that same day. There was no chance for tenants to meaningfully participate in the process that was removing them from their homes.

After fighting for housing justice in the northern suburbs of Chicago with Open Communities for four years, I decided to expand my understanding of dispute resolution methods and joined RSI’s eviction mediation team. 

In general, what do you see as the benefits of mediating eviction cases?

There are plenty of benefits for everyone involved with the program, such as improving access to justice, legal cost reduction, promotion of judicial efficiency and more. However, the greatest benefit for mediating evictions is that the parties get a chance to breathe and discuss the issues that brought them to the point of legal action on a level field.

In my experience with eviction litigation pre-COVID, cases were decided incredibly quickly, with tenants either being evicted on their first appearance or agreeing to settlements under duress with no clue of the ramifications of their actions. On the other hand, if a tenant knew how the process worked, and had an attorney or faced a landlord who was unrepresented, evictions could potentially take months! Landlords could wait forever and a day for a judgment only to wait even longer for an overbooked sheriff to effectuate the order of possession.

Overall, mediation positively affects the timeline of an eviction by giving both parties an opportunity to efficiently have their needs met. Tenants can slow the warp speed nature of some cases so they can have a voice in the process and potentially avoid the most traumatic aspects of eviction. Landlords can speed up some cases to get a resolution in a few weeks instead of a few months.

Can you give us a broad overview of how the programs operate?

RSI has an eviction mediation program in three counties in northern Illinois: Kane, Winnebago and Kankakee. Each county works in its own nuanced way, but each program starts when the judge presiding over evictions refers a case into the program.

Once the program coordinator is assigned a case, they make contact with both parties to schedule a mediation. Before the mediation occurs, the tenant is connected to resources to help them in the eviction, including rental assistance, housing counseling and legal representation. The idea is to set the tenants up in the best position possible going into the mediation.

On mediation day, the tenant, the landlord and any attorneys sit down with a trained third-party mediator via Zoom to present their case. The mediator gives both parties an opportunity to voice their needs, to discuss what brought them to this point and to discover avenues of resolution. Any agreements reached are memorialized in the appropriate court order form and submitted to the judge for approval. Depending on the terms of the agreement, the case is dismissed or a compliance date is set in the future.

Can you tell us how the programs operate in a hybrid space? Which aspects still occur in the courthouse, and which are conducted online? Has any of that evolved in the nine months you’ve been with RSI?

The majority of all program activities take place virtually. The program coordinators in all three counties attend the court calls remotely, and the vast majority of cases are mediated remotely. The only physical presence we have is in the Kane County courthouse so we can interact with those parties face-to-face if necessary. In Kankakee and Winnebago counties, we are entirely remote, handling referrals and conducting mediations over Zoom. These programs were developed with this level of remote participation in mind, but we still have backup methods to interact with people who need more support.

What challenges do you see when it comes to participating virtually? What benefits?

At the risk of sounding incredibly contradictory, virtual participation both increases and decreases party participation. Holding mediations over Zoom offers flexibility for the majority of parties. People can hop on to a Zoom call while on break at work or any time that is convenient. In a situation where making money to pay off a debt is vital, this flexibility helps keep people on track with payment plans.  

On the other hand, some individuals are not very tech savvy and have trouble accessing Zoom through their phone. These are often some of the most vulnerable populations. To address this, we try to have a physical attendance option available. When we don’t have a physical presence at the courthouse, we rely on our social service partners to help people in person access the mediation either over the phone or Zoom.  

What have been some of the biggest successes you and your team have had operating these programs? Conversely, what sorts of challenges have you faced, and what have you learned from them?

The programs have had an impressively high agreement rate. Through all three programs, we are reliably assisting around 65% of cases come to a resolution. When the stakes are as high as losing your home or not getting months of rent, consistently setting parties on the path toward mutual success makes us proud.

It seems like contradiction is becoming a theme here, but challenge-wise we’ve seen both the high and low ends of caseloads depending on the county served. In Kane County, we have impressive judicial buy-in and nearly every eviction case is referred into the program. While we are happy about the enthusiasm and know we are helping many residents of Kane County, the constant high volume can be challenging for staff. Once you complete one demanding week of mediations, there is little rest as the next week’s cases are ready to be handled. To address this high volume, we have supplemented staffing to support this program and are exploring adding further personnel.

Conversely, the two other programs are less active and receive fewer referrals. This is due to a variety of issues including getting new judges up to speed, local rental assistance programs being highly effective (thus obviating some of the need for mediation), and different philosophies regarding when mediation is appropriate. We have learned that maintaining good communication with the presiding judge and court administrative staff is integral to promoting program buy-in.

As these programs have now been established for about a year, and the broader eviction landscape continues to evolve, are you anticipating any changes to the programs?

The approaching unknown in the eviction field is the end of rental assistance programs. Since the mediation programs’ inceptions, there have been federal, state and local programs that provide financial support to tenants who are behind on rent. Some of these smaller programs are wrapping up, and the large state program will end in July 2023. Once these resources are no longer available to tenants, the terms of agreements will likely change. We will most likely see less “pay and stay” agreements and more “graceful exits” with an agreed move-out date. I also anticipate providing training to our mediators on how to handle that new state of affairs.

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