Christian Mediation Thwarted by Lawsuit

Two Christian parties who ended up in court despite a contract clause requiring them to mediate their disputes biblically have now settled their dispute.

Dr. Edward O. Blews, Jr., was fired from his position as president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) in October 2013 after just nine months in that position. His contract with the CCCU contained this dispute resolution clause:

The parties recognize that conflicts or disputes may occasionally arise. In recognition of the biblical calling to make every effort to live at peace with one another, and to resolve disputes with each other in private or within the Christian church, this Agreement commits to the parties to attempt to resolve any dispute in a biblical manner, according to the principles stated in I Corinthians 6:1-8, Matthew 5:23-24, and Matthew 18:15-20. If any dispute cannot be resolved in private meetings between the parties, the parties agree to enter non-binding Christian mediation before pursuing litigation.

The parties apparently attempted to honor this clause through some type of private meeting shortly after Blews’ termination, but it presumably did not resolve their dispute because Dr. Blews filed a lawsuit against the CCCU in federal court in Washington, DC, in February of this year. In his complaint, he alleged that all parties and counsel met on November 25, 2013, to try to resolve the matter. The complaint alleges, “While the November 25 meeting was being scheduled, counsel for Dr. Blews requested the presence of a mediator, pursuant to the employment contract, but CCCU declined.” It’s not clear whether he means that CCCU declined the idea of mediation, or whether they rejected the mediator that Dr. Blews’ attorney proposed, because the next sentence of the complaint begins, “When the dispute was not resolved during mediation,…” which implies that some type of mediation did take place.  The complaint alleges that Dr. Blews proposed “an additional mediation with an agreed-upon mediator,” scheduled for January 29, 2014, but that CCCU said it would not make itself available for a second mediation until March 2014. Apparently Dr. Blews decided he couldn’t wait that long, as he filed his lawsuit on February 12, 2014.

The CCCU responded to the lawsuit filing by saying that it was “surprised and disappointed … particularly since we had just recently agreed to the date he proposed for mediation of March 18. The CCCU remains committed to the mediation process, but it also stands ready to defend its decision to make a presidential transition.”

The lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice on April 22. Last month, the parties announced they had reached a private settlement, without mentioning mediation or disclosing other details.

So was the event last November actually a mediation? Their contract clause did not specify a convening organization, such as Peacemaker Ministries or the American Arbitration Association, so it was up to the parties and their lawyers to arrange for mediation. They obviously had great difficulty doing that.

The CCCU could have asked the court to enforce the dispute resolution clause and order the parties (back) to mediation. But the mediation clause is somewhat problematic. It calls for parties to “attempt to resolve any dispute in a biblical manner.” It doesn’t take much for one side to say they tried. The dispute resolution clause recommended by Peacemaker Ministries is more emphatic: a dispute “shall be settled by biblically-based mediation and, if necessary, legally binding arbitration…” (emphasis mine)The CCCU clause does not require settlement in mediation; it requires only that they “enter” mediation. Again, it doesn’t take much for one side to say they “entered” mediation—for example, agreeing to mediation, even if they fail to show up, might meet the definition. So a court might have decided that the parties had already done what their contract clause required.

And I’m not sure what the clause means by “non-binding mediation.” If mediation results in an agreement, it’s binding. If “non-binding” means that parties don’t have to reach an agreement in mediation, that would be consistent with the requirement that parties merely “attempt” to resolve their disputes biblically. But why emphasize that this is all toothless?

If these parties really wanted to keep their disputes out of court, their contract would have required arbitration for disputes that did not settle in mediation. Instead, they took a year and a tortuous route to reach a settlement; now hopefully they will be able to live in peace.

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