Apology for Disruptive Protests

The Honorable Stuart Kyle Duncan, who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, was invited to speak at Stanford Law School last week, but hecklers prevented him from giving his talk, and U.S. marshals ended up escorting him out of the room. Two days later, he received a written apology letter from the Law School Dean, Jenny Martinez, and Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne.

Judge Duncan was invited to speak by the Federalist Society, a conservative group. Students who disagree with Judge Duncan’s decisions on LGBTQ and trans-gender issues protested his appearance. According to the Stanford Daily, audience interruptions and booing continued throughout his first thirty minutes of speaking, causing him finally to stop and ask for an administrator to intervene. The associate dean for DEI then addressed the crowd, indicating her approval of their protests (“I’m glad this is going on here.”) The judge was never able to finish his speech.

The apology letter noted that students are “welcome to exercise their right to protest but not to disrupt the proceedings. In addition, staff members who should have enforced university policies failed to do so, and instead intervened in inappropriate ways that are not aligned with the university’s commitment to free speech.”

Judge Duncan accepted the apology, and said he was grateful for it.

It was appropriate for the dean of the law school and the university president to issue this letter jointly. It was issued swiftly, just two days after the incident. The letter identifies two errors, the students’ behavior and the administrator’s intervention. There is no statement of remorse or regret. Perhaps this is only an excerpt of the complete letter.

A good apology needs to describe steps the offender plans to take to ensure that this does not happen again. In an email to the law school community, the dean noted, “The way this event unfolded was not aligned with our institutional commitment to freedom of speech. The school is reviewing what transpired and will work to ensure protocols are in place so that disruptions of this nature do not occur again, and is committed to the conduct of events on terms that are consistent with the disruption policy and the principles of free speech and critical inquiry they support.”

Students are now protesting Dean Martinez’s apology to Judge Duncan. Presumably they want her to apologize for her apology.


A Good Business Apology

This blog usually reviews public apologies that fall short of the mark, but here’s one that has been praised: it was by Andrew Benin, chief executive of Graza, a small startup that sells olive oil. Graza started just a year ago, and this was its first holiday season. Apparently some gift packages arrived late, or poorly packaged, or with damaged labels. So Mr. Benin sent an email to everyone who had ordered Graza’s olive oils in the previous 60 days to apologize.

The subject line of the email was, “Learning from our mistakes.” This is a promising start, indicating that the writer knows that he made a mistake, and that he has ideas about how to prevent future mistakes – two critical elements of an effective apology.

He went on to acknowledge that the gift packaging was inadequate, that the company did not communicate well, and to say that he was sorry. A good apology lets the recipient know that the offender knows what they did wrong, and how that affected the recipient.

The final element of a good apology is some form of repair or restitution. In this case, the email offered a small discount on future orders of olive oil.

It landed well in the eyes of many recipients. One was Ben Cohen, whose shipment of Graza olive oil leaked and was poorly wrapped. He wrote in an article for the Wall Street Journal that he was won over by Mr. Benin’s apology. Apparently hundreds of other recipients wrote Mr. Benin to thank him. “Thanks for your honesty,” one wrote back. “These messages go a long way,” another wrote.

The article notes that business apologies are tricky; research shows that repeatedly apologizing is actually worse for a business than not apologizing at all. Research also shows that the most effective apologies cost the business something, so a coupon or discount can be even more effective than an apology.

Mr. Cohen notes one of the ironies of a good apology: it can make the relationship better than it was before the unfortunate incident happened. This is true of inter-personal relationships, and it can be true of business/customer relationships too.

Kidnap Plotters Apologize

Kidnap Plotters Sentenced


Pete Musico offers an example of how not to give an apology. At his sentencing hearing in a Jackson, Michigan, court last week, he seemed to blame Congresswoman Maxine Waters for his plan to kidnap the Michigan governor. He and two co-defendants, all members of a Michigan militia group, were found guilty after a trial by jury of aiding a terrorist plot. His pre-sentencing statement, at least in the portions reported in the media, did not say anything about the impact of his crime on his victim, which was arguably not only the governor, but all elected officials.

In contrast, his co-defendant Paul Bellar did apologize to Governor Whitmer for his “highly inappropriate” comments, and apologized to his family as well. Both Mr. Musico and Mr. Bellar, along with a third co-defendant, Morrison, expressed regret for their poor judgment.

They each acknowledged a lapse in judgment, but somehow that doesn’t satisfy, leaving listeners believing that they still don’t understand the seriousness of what they did. They seemed contrite, but it’s hard to tell whether that’s due to remorse or to their impending incarceration. They will have years in prison to reflect on this.

Former Alameda CEO Apologizes

Caroline Ellison, the former CEO of Alameda Research, the crypto-trading firm connected with FTX, issued an apology when she plead guilty to fraud and other offenses in a New York federal court this week.

There was no public notice of the hearing, but a transcript was released yesterday. She agreed to cooperate with the government’s investigation in exchange for the prospect of a lighter sentence.

“I am truly sorry for what I did. I knew that it was wrong. I want to apologize for my actions to the affected customers of FTX, lenders to Alameda, and investors in FTX. Since FTX and Alameda collapsed in November 2022, I have worked hard to assist with the recovery of assets for the benefit of customers and to cooperate with the government’s investigation. I am here today to accept my responsibility for my actions by pleading guilty.”

When the judge asked Ellison if she knew what she did was illegal, she replied, “Yes.”

She described how she and former FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried “provided materially misleading financial statements to Alameda’s lenders.” Alameda, she said, lent a lot of money to Mr. Bankman-Fried and other FTX executives, then used FTX customer funds to finance its loans to Alameda. She said their quarterly financial reports obfuscated “the extent of Alameda’s borrowing.” She acknowledged that FTX’s investors were kept in the dark about the nature of the co-mingled relationship between FTX and Alameda: “I agreed not to publicly disclose the true nature of the relationship between Alameda and FTX.”

Plea deal apologies are notoriously suspect, but we can still scrutinize them for clues to good apologies. She takes responsibility, and doesn’t try to place all the blame on her former boyfriend, Mr. Bankman-Fried. She goes into detail regarding what she did wrong, and she acknowledges the various groups of people she hurt.

The statement, “I have worked hard to assist with the recovery of assets for the benefit of customers,” sounds too canned. We would prefer to hear something like, “I know lots of innocent people lost a ton of money because of my greed, and I’m going to do whatever I possibly can to try to get some of that back for them.”

There’s also no reason given for her new-found remorse, leaving us to assume that, had she not been caught, she wouldn’t be sorry.

But her statement makes their fraud sound much bigger, longer and more serious than what Mr. Bankman-Fried has said about it so far. It’s never easy to admit one’s mistakes, and Ms. Ellison has taken a step in the right direction.



Mediation Tragedy

Reports of violence associated with mediations are rare, but they do happen.  One occurred this week in Goldsboro, NC, where a client shot and killed his lawyer at the end of the mediation, then killed himself.

While details of the mediation itself are sketchy, reports are that a personal injury mediation was taking place at the law offices of Riddle & Brantley, a personal injury law firm in Goldsboro. Patrick White, an attorney with Riddle & Brantley, represented Francisco Sanchez and his wife, Christine Guerrero. Mr. White’s partner Gene Riddle was assisting him in the mediation. The names of the mediator and the other party have not been disclosed. According to Riddle’s interview with local news station ABC 11, the meeting seemed routine. Mediation progressed throughout the day, all parties landed on an amount, and everyone seemed to be pleased with the outcome shortly after 4 p.m.

The couple asked to speak privately. The mediator went into another office in the building, and White and Riddle went into the attorneys’ quarters. A few minutes later, Riddle saw Sanchez come into the attorneys’ quarters with a gun. The shooter aimed at Riddle, but missed; Riddle trippd and fell backward, and Sanchez turned his attention to White. White yelled at Sanchez to stop, and pushed him against the wall. There was another gunshot, and White fell against the wall. Sanchez left the room; Riddle got up, frantically looking for his daughter, who is also an attorney with the firm. Riddle saw Sanchez in the reception area, and told him to leave. Moments later, Sanchez shot himself in the head. Riddle later praised White as a hero for trying to stop Sanchez.

Although this kind of tragedy is rare, we can’t help but wonder if anything could have been done to prevent it. Should mediators impose a “no weapons” rule for in-person mediations? How would they enforce it? What if a party balks, citing 2nd amendment rights (and perhaps the state’s own gun laws)? I have a sentence in my retention agreement announcing, “All participants will refrain from bringing weapons of any kind into the mediation,” and I usually repeat this at the beginning of the mediation, but is that enough?

One of my colleagues mediated a case where, in caucus, Party A urged the mediator to find out whether Party B was carrying a gun. It turned out that Party B was indeed carrying a gun, but Party B refused to give up her gun unless Party A gave up his – sure enough, Party A had also brought a gun to the mediation. The mediator had both guns placed in the firm’s safe until after the mediation. But, in the few known cases where there was a shooting in connection with a mediation, it occurred after the mediation ended, as parties were leaving. In fatal shootings after mediations in Arizona and in Oregon, the shooter was a party who shot the other party; this North Carolina case is different in that the shooter killed his own attorney, before the mediation was completed.

My heart goes out to the family and colleagues of Patrick White. May he rest in peace.







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