More on Confidentiality in Mediation

November 29, 2010Confidentiality is a basic principle of mediation.  But it seems that it is also one that mediators have to be vigilant about protecting.

Earlier this week I was fortunate to attend a talk at the ADR Institute of Ontario by David Bristow, a very respected lawyer, mediator and arbitrator.  Mr. Bristow told us about some recent important new cases with implications for ADR practitioners, and there was a lively discussion afterwards.  One of the cases he discussed, Hand v. the Walnut Valley Sailing Club, Kansas, caught my imagination

Mr. Hand had been a member of the Sailing Club for about 20 years, when the club made some changes to a storage area where sailboats and other equipment was kept.  Mr. Hand protested against these changes, saying that they were in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  When the management of the Sailing Club refused to act on his protest, Mr. Hand wrote a letter to Governor Parkinson.  Learning of this letter, the management of the Club cancelled his membership; Mr. Hand’s response was to sue under the ADA.  The lawyers for the Club filed a motion that Mr. Hand’s claim be dismissed, on the ground that 1) he is not disabled; and 2) the Kansas laws protecting whistle-blowers apply only to employees.  The presiding judge, Sam A. Crow, agreed, and the case was dismissed.

A few months later, Mr. Hand visited the club on two occasions.  (I believe that he was the guest of a member).  The Club’s lawyers wrote to Mr. Hand’s lawyers, demanding that Mr. Hand not enter club premises.  Shortly after, Mr. Hand visited the Club again and refused to leave when he was asked to.  The Club filed a request with the court for a restraining order against Mr. Hand.  The motion was denied.

At some point in the dispute, the parties were ordered to mandatory mediation.  Within hours of the mediation session, Mr. Hand had sent a blow-by-blow account to all members of the Club, plus assorted friends, via email.  He revealed the amount of money the Club’s management offered him to settle the case, his own response to the offer, the number of lawyers representing the Club, what their fees might amount to, and what the mediator said and did.  In short, he revealed basically everything that happened in the course of the mediation.

The judge (Mr. Sam A. Crow, again) was not amused, to say the least.  He dismissed Mr. Hand’s entire action as a sanction for violating the confidentiality of the mediation process.  Although the case is not binding on the courts of Canada, Judge Crow’s reasons for dismissing the case may be relevant for confidential proceedings anywhere.  (The text of the decision may be found here.)  Briefly, the judge found that Mr. Hand’s revelations were highly prejudicial, interfered greatly with the judicial process, and that the leak of confidential information was done knowingly and willingly.  All of these factors lead him to sanction Mr. Hand as seriously as he did.

The case of Hand v. the Walnut Valley Sailing Club is thought-provoking for many reasons.  On the face of it, the relative triviality of the issues makes it precisely the kind of case that should be kept out of the court system.  Yet Mr. Hand clearly wanted a public vindication for himself and a public reckoning for the Club’s management.  In that respect, he was not a good candidate for mediation.  Could the mediator have done more to impress upon him that effective mediation requires confidentiality, and that keeping mum would be in his interest?  Did Mr. Hand’s lawyers warn him about the possible consequences of breaching confidentiality?  We have no way of knowing.

The Kansas case, despite its relatively low stakes and lack of global significance, provides a vivid illustration of how mediation can go wrong if the parties aren’t fully committed to the process and to respecting confidentiality.