Confidentiality stands as a cornerstone of mediation practice. It encourages the resolution of disputes by allowing those in conflict to candidly discuss the issues they face, secure in the knowledge that what they say in the mediator’s presence cannot be held against them later. In pop culture parlance, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.
Thousands of laws, judicial decisions, scholarly articles, and customary practice among neutrals speak to the important role that confidentiality plays and the value that institutions, users of ADR, and mediators themselves place upon it. Disputants reasonably expect that the disclosures they make will remain in the mediator’s confidence. Often mediators themselves establish or reinforce these expectations at the commencement of mediation by making an introductory statement intended to orient the parties to the process and establish basic guidelines for how the mediator and disputants will work together. This introduction usually includes reassurance by the mediator that what is discussed or disclosed will “stay in the room”. People rarely inquire further into what this means precisely; mediators themselves are sometimes overwhelmed by the difficulties in satisfactorily explaining confidentiality in all its complexity.
Despite these expectations, despite the professional and scholarly emphasis on its virtues, confidentiality is vulnerable and not always assured, as a recent case makes plain. In an article on her always informative Negotiation Law Blog, “Mediator Testifies for Insurance Carrier and Court Enforces Mediated Settlement Agreement against Policyholder“, Victoria Pynchon discusses with dismay Palmer v. State Farm General Insurance, a California case in which a mediator filed a declaration in support of an insurer’s motion to enforce a formal settlement agreement that its insured refused to sign as contrary to the handwritten agreement drafted by the mediator during the mediation proceedings. You can read her unflinching criticism of the mediator’s conduct here. This case also prompted complex commercial litigation lawyer Stephen Goldberg to ask on his own blog, “Can Your Mediator Be Your Enemy?“, finding that sometimes, sadly, the answer may be yes.
So what’s a disputant to do to protect themselves up front? Mediators and parties typically enter into a signed agreement known as an agreement to mediate (PDF). Among other matters, this agreement customarily addresses the issue of confidentiality – its scope, exceptions, waiver, and the obligations of those involved to uphold it. Typically such agreements include language prohibiting the parties from calling the mediator as a witness or from subpoenaing the mediator (PDF). Such a provision is important for mediators, for whom confidentiality – and impartiality – are stock in trade. Most of us who mediate have no wish to be in the position of disclosing information revealed to us in confidence or providing testimony that would most certainly give one side victory over the other.
But confidentiality provisions also protect the parties. Before mediating your dispute, review the language of the agreement to mediate with care. Make sure you know what you’re getting. I know that what I am about to say risks provoking cries of outrage from mediators who see mediation as a refuge from the legal system for ordinary people who shouldn’t have to hire lawyers, but needless to say, if you’re not an attorney or don’t have one representing you, consider getting competent legal advice before signing an agreement to mediate. It is after all a contract. If the Palmer case teaches us anything, it’s that parties – not just mediators – must take care to safeguard confidentiality.