More disputes in Mich. settled through mediation

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

A growing number of people are forgoing their day in court and using mediation to settle legal and financial conflicts.

Court mediator Mary Morris mediates a small claim with two clients inside her office.

Advocates say the process can be a win-win, allowing litigants to settle disputes quicker and helping overburdened courts clear dockets and save money.

“We try to get people to come to us before they go to court (and) they’ve all watched Judge Judy on TV, so they think they need to have their day in court,” said Bernard Dempsey, executive director of the Wayne County Dispute Resolution Center. “(Most people) don’t know how it works and the value of it.”

With an annual budget of $500,000 to $600,000 a year, the center helps about 3,000 people a year resolve child visitation disputes, small claims civil cases and other noncriminal matters.

For the Wayne County center’s budget for this year, $268,000 will come from the State Court Administrative Office from filing fees at courthouses across Michigan. Dempsey said his organization also receives funds from the Michigan Special Education Mediation Program, a program funded by the Office of Special Education.

The Wayne County center is one of 18 nonprofit, state-backed mediation centers in Michigan.

Created as part of Michigan’s Community Dispute Resolution Act in 1988, mediation programs are funded through a 5 percent portion of court civil filing fees across the state. For 2018, the state court administrative office has allocated about $1.3 million for dispute resolution centers across the state.

As part of the state’s resolution act, a mediator will be used as an “impartial, neutral” means to assist parties in reaching their own resolution in disputes. The mediator, as mandated by Michigan law, has no authority or “decision-making” power. Once an issue is mediated, the settlement is reported to a judge in cases referred by a court.

Mediation programs like the Wayne County Dispute Resolution Center are provided to individuals based on their ability to pay.

“We don’t charge anything at all for a small claims or domestic case that is referred by a court, which is almost two thirds of our cases,” Dempsey said. “Our school cases, almost a third of our cases, are paid either through a grant or by the school. In a small number of cases we handle, we charge small amounts or nothing, depending on the type of case and the participants’ ability to pay.”

For clients who do pay, costs range from $25 per person for personal protection order cases to $35 per session, plus a mediation fee of up to $950, split by the parties, for general civil and landlord-tenant cases in which more than $50,000 is in dispute.

Mediation became a means to a resolution for Warren resident Vance Swift when his father died and the family had a probate issue in 2015.

Swift was so impressed that he signed on as a volunteer mediator.

Now volunteering for the Wayne County mediation program, Swift encourages others to consider it.

“You have more of a say so (in your case),” he said. “You have more of a say on what you want ... the outcome.”

Swift added, “If you don’t come to an agreement, you don’t lose your right to go before a judge.”

At The Resolution Center on Main Street in Mount Clemens, clients can choose to participate in mediation at the center’s office or at the nearby Macomb County Circuit Court.

Craig Pappas, executive director of The Resolution Center, said his office has seen a jump in referrals for mediation from local courts. In 2017, the center had a “banner year” with 3,100 cases handled by volunteers and other mediators, up from 2,183 the year before.

“Civil court filings have been slowly dropping for the last 10 years,” Pappas said. “However, the reliance and the acceptance of alternative resolution or, in our case, mediation continues to grow so more people are more comfortable. More people are seeking methods for resolving their cases quicker and in a better fashion rather than litigation.”

More judges and more courts are collaborating with mediation agencies to help manage their dockets, Pappas said. He added that many of those cases involve probate for family matters such as siblings disputing guardianship over a parent by another family member.

“(Mediation) is helping people have a difficult conversation,” said Pappas, whose program is celebrating its 25th anniversary. He said the program helps ease fears of participants who aren’t used to being in court.

“They don’t know what the proper decorum or protocol is – that’s just not their everyday life, going into a courtroom,” he said.

Under Michigan rules, parties can select their own mediator during a set time, typically 14-21 days. If the parties don’t choose, a court’s alternative dispute resolution office selects one for them. Mediators are chosen on a random or rotational basis from a court-approved roster, said Doug Van Epps, director of the Office of Dispute Resolution at the State Court Administrative Office, which supervises mediation programs.