A number of cases that seemed like they might be able to be settled appeared on the Catonsville District Court's docket recently. As a volunteer mediator, I was pleased to have a case referred to me. The parties, a small business and one of its customers, had a dispute over a billing issue related to the customer's property that was being stored at the business. The customer (plaintiff) brought suit because he felt he had incurred some out of pocket expenses owing due to the business's (defendant) negligent repair of the customer's personal property. The defendant believed the suit to be unfair as it had provided some services and repair without charging the plaintiff. Both sides believed settlement was possible.
After the parties told their versions of the story that brought us together, it was apparent that the conflict was born out of a series of miscommunications. It quickly became evident that both sides intended to continue their business relationship. Moreover, confronted with a few reality checks, both sides were willing to admit that they each bore some responsibility for the conflict. With that formula, I knew there was a good chance the parties could settle their dispute, if they could focus on the problem and how to move forward rather than sorting out who was more to blame for what had transpired in the past.
I asked the plaintiff whether he would be willing to move from his original demand, since he had acknowledged he did in fact bear some of the fault for the damage to his property. He came down halfway. The defendant countered that the unpaid services and repairs exceeded half of plaintiff's demand, so he asked the plaintiff whether he'd be willing to settle the case for half the original demand, to be followed by defendant then bringing suit for the unpaid services and repairs. That did not sit well with the plaintiff and he indicated he'd rather take his chances with the judge. Defendant responded that he too would be more than happy to let the judge render a decision. I said nothing. I did not encourage the parties to return to court, and I did not wind up the mediation. Rather, I waited.
Plaintiff did not get up, nor did the defendant. Both then looked at me. Plaintiff asked me what heading back to the court meant. I told him that it meant the parties would no longer control the outcome of the case and that it would be decided by the court after hearing testimony from both sides. At that point, plaintiff and defendant began to talk about their relationship, the miscommunications made by each, and alternative settlement numbers. After some discussion, defendant leaned in and said, "since that is the difference … and since there was a lot of miscommunication, maybe we should split that in half." The plaintiff asked how that would work, and the defendant indicated that if the plaintiff would absorb his half, then the defendant would give him an accounts receivable credit for his half.
Since both sides agreed that they were interested in continuing the contractual relationship, they also agreed that the credit was a fair way to resolve the case. So we drew up the agreement, the parties shook hands, and we headed back to court to inform the judge the case had settled.
*Matthew Mellady, a mediator since 2010, volunteers for our program in Catonsville. Matthew is a member of the MPME and is currently working at the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons as a supervising attorney.