The Question is Not WHETHER But HOW MUCH Your Mediator is Deceiving You
I spent the day at an advanced mediation training session at the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles where I serve as a settlement officer. I came away troubled by the wide array of responses to questions concerning the mediator's "right" or "desire" or "need" to use deception in separate caucus mediation - the primary form mediation takes in Southern California litigated cases.
At the end of our session, I suggested to a fellow mediator that all separate caucus mediation is inherently deceptive. He is a sophisticated practitioner and knew exactly what I meant. My husband - a litigator of 35 years who is also (newly) on the District Court's Settlement Officer panel - recoiled at the idea.
Here, for your consideration, is an excerpt from a lengthy discussion of the issue from the Journal of the DuPage County Bar Association -- Defining the Ethical Limits of Acceptable Deception in Mediation by JAMS mediator the Hon. John W. Cooley (Ret.)
[C]onsensual deception is the essence of caucused mediation. This statement should not come as a shock to the reader when it is considered in the context of the nature and purpose of caucusing. Actually, it is quite rare that caucused mediation, a type of informational game, occurs without the use of deception by the parties, by their lawyers, and/or by the mediator in some form. This is so for several reasons.
First, a basic groundrule of the information system operating in any mediated case in which there is caucusing is that confidential information conveyed to the mediator by any party cannot be disclosed by the mediator to anyone (with narrowly limited exceptions). This means that: (1) each party in mediation rarely, if ever, knows whether another party has disclosed confidential information to the mediator; and (2) if confidential information has been disclosed, the nondisclosing party never knows the specific content of that confidential information and whether and/or to what extent that confidential information has colored or otherwise affected communications coming to the nondisclosing party from the mediator. In this respect, each party in a mediation is an actual or potential victim of constant deception regarding confidential information — granted, agreed deception — but nonetheless deception. This is the central paradox of the caucused mediation process. The parties, and indeed even the mediator, agree to be deceived as a condition of participating in it in order to find a solution that the parties will find "valid" for their purposes.
Second, mediation rarely occurs absent deception because the parties (and their counsel) are normally engaged in the strategies and tactics of competitive bargaining during all or part of the mediation conference, and the goal of each party is to get the best deal for himself or herself.
These competitive bargaining strategies and tactics are layered and interlaced with the mediator’s own strategies and tactics to get the best resolution possible for the parties — or at least a resolution that they can accept. The confluence of these, initially anyway, unaligned strategies, tactics, and goals creates an environment rich in gamesmanship and intrigue, naturally conducive to the use of deceptive behaviors by the parties and their counsel, and yes, even by mediators. Actually, even more so by mediators because they are the conductors — the orchestrators — of an information system specially designed for each dispute, a system with ambiguously defined or, in some situations, undefined disclosure rules in which the mediator is the Chief Information Officer who has near-absolute control over what nonconfidential information, critical or otherwise, is developed, what is withheld, what is disclosed, and when it is disclosed. As mediation pioneer Christopher Moore has noted: "The ability to control, manipulate, suppress, or enhance data, or to initiate entirely new information, gives the mediator an inordinate level of influence over the parties."
Third, the information system manipulated by the mediator in any dispute context is itself imperfect. Parties, rarely, if ever, share with the mediator all the information relevant, or even necessary, to the achievement of the mediator’s goal — an agreed resolution of conflict. The parties’ deceptive behavior in this regard — jointly understood by the parties and the mediator in any mediation to fall within the agreed "rules of the game" — sometimes causes mediations to fail or prevents optimal solutions from being achieved.
Thus, if agreed deception is a central ingredient in caucused mediation, the question then becomes what types of deception should be considered constructive, within the rules of the mediation game, and ethically acceptable and what types should be considered destructive, beyond the bounds of fair play, and ethically unacceptable. Or, perhaps more simply, in the words of mediator Robert Benjamin, in mediation what are the characteristics of the "noble lie" — deception "designed to shift and reconfigure the thinking of disputing parties, especially in the conflict and confusion, and to foster and further their cooperation, tolerance, and survival"? Because formal mediation is generally viewed as "nothing more than a three-party or multiple-party negotiation," we can begin to formulate an answer to this question by examining the current limits of acceptable deception as employed by lawyer-negotiators.
Mediators can assist parties in reaching a zone of possible agreement by making limited and heavily filtered disclosures of the parties’ private concessions that the parties disclose in caucus sessions (Brown and Ayres call this “noisy” communication).
I urge all my readers to comment, but particularly litigators like my husband who may not know what many mediators have apparently known for quite some time -- that they are making "filtered disclosures of the parties' private concessions" after promising to keep all separate caucus communications strictly confidential.
My husband assured me on the way home tonight that he will henceforth require all of the mediators he retains to guarantee him that they will not "signal" his negotiating positions, tactics or strategies to his bargaining partners.