Think about the Talbot Boys controversy. Two sides with very different points of view. Does the statue stay or get moved? I am sure that, like me, every mediator asked themselves, “Could I successfully guide the two parties to an acceptable settlement.” For sure, it would not have been easy. Luckily, most other disputes we face, whether community- based or private issues, are not so complex and politically charged.
After all, mediation is about reaching agreement. The process is guided by a trained mediator whose job is to guide disputing parties to a common understanding and agreement. In mediation, the parties decide the outcome together, not the mediator, judge, jury or in the case of the Talbot Boys, the County Council. This gives the parties great flexibility in creating a settlement. Naturally, the last step in successful mediation is to create and sign a settlement document. In a court-referred mediation, that will become the basis for a court order and case dismissal. What makes a good settlement document?
The document is created by the parties under the guidance of the mediator. It should reflect accurately the “meeting of the minds” and, to the extent possible, reflect their language. Generally, the document will be very specific, and the more specific the better, as it avoids later confusion.
The parties will be named. Given names may be used, or in court-referred mediations, Plaintiff or Defendant might be used. Why the parties are agreeing on terms will also be described. For example, “The Parties have voluntarily agreed to the following in an effort to resolve case D-21-12345.”
Details of the settlement are important to include. For example, when each party will perform on what they agreed. This would include dates, amounts of payments, form and schedule of payments, or types and quality of repairs. Place of performance also should be described in detail. This would include addresses where payments should be sent and by what method. In parenting agreements, the terms will be very specific, including definitions like when does the weekend start, what does “after school” mean. Last, there should be a procedure to follow if the agreement needs to be changed. That often includes returning to mediation.
The goal of the settlement document is to memorialized the hard work of the mediation and to provide very specific actions for both parties to follow. You will be asked to voluntarily sign the settlement agreement. Once you do, it generally becomes binding. Never sign an agreement if there is something you don’t understand. In that case, have a lawyer review it before you sign. You can get free advice from the Maryland Court Self-Help Centers. You can speak to or chat live with lawyers at the Self-Help Center on most weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. These lawyers cannot represent you in court, but they can give you brief advice. Call 410-260-1392. Or chat live at mdcourts.gov/selfhelp.
There is one more thing to consider. Mediation will help you reach a better understanding of the situation between you and the other party. However, it does not always result in an agreement. If you don’t reach an agreement on some or all of the issues, you don’t lose any rights. You can still have your conflict resolved through the court. Because mediation is confidential, what is said in mediation can not be used in court.
Steve Forrer lives in Easton and is former Dean and Vice Chancellor of University of Maryland Global Campus. He is currently a mediator for the Maryland District and Circuit Courts. Questions can be submitted at www.doncastermediation.com/contact for Steve to answer in this column. He also accepts private mediations.