ADR Section Recommends More Mediator Disclosure

What should mediators disclose to parties who are considering appointing them as their mediator? Mediators are supposed to be neutral, so parties want to know about any connections a mediator may have with a party or attorney that might make them biased.

The Michigan Mediator Standards of Conduct provide guidance on this. They require mediators to disclose conflicts of interest and grounds of bias or partiality reasonably known to the mediator (Standard III.C). A conflict of interest is defined as “a dealing or relationship that could reasonably be viewed as creating an impression of possible bias or as raising a question about the impartiality or self-interest on the part of the mediator.” Standard III.A. (Michigan’s Standards of Conduct for Mediators are very similar to the Model Standards of Conduct for Mediators.)

In a 2019 case, Michigan’s Attorney Discipline Board (ADB) opined that requiring attorney-mediators to disclose any prior relationship with another attorney would be unworkable, and stated that “[w]ithout specific language describing what does and does not constitute a conflict of interest, the Standards of Conduct for Mediators does not adequately inform a mediator… as to what kind of prior relationship will subject the mediator to a charge of an unethical conflict of interest …..”

The ADR Section of the State Bar took this as a challenge, and appointed an ad hoc committee to review the standards on disclosure. I have had the privilege of serving on this committee, along with Mat Kobliska, Dale Ann Iverson, Mike Leib, Marty Weisman, Ed Pappas and Bob Wright, ably chaired by Lisa Taylor. The committee’s goal was to develop guidelines regarding mediator disclosures that would be more helpful to mediators, especially in providing the specificity that the ADB found was lacking.

The result is a proposal to amend the Standards of Conduct, by merging Standard II, Impartiality, and Standard III, Conflicts of Interest, into one new standard entitled, “Impartiality, Disclosure and Withdrawal.” The proposed standard does not change the essence of the current Standards, but it provides more specific guidance regarding disclosure.

As it studied how impartiality applies to mediators, the committee realized that the term “conflict of interest” doesn’t quite get at the problem. A mediator could well be partial without having a particular conflict of interest. So the committee proposes doing away with the term “conflict of interest” in the Standards. Instead, the proposed standard speaks of “dealing or relationship” and “impartiality or self-interest.”

For example:

Current Standard III.C. A mediator shall promptly disclose conflicts of interest, grounds of bias, and grounds of partiality reasonably known to the mediator.

Proposed (new II.D.) A mediator shall promptly disclose a dealing or relationship that could reasonably be viewed as raising a question about the mediator’s impartiality or self-interest.

The committee also discovered some guidance from the ABA, designed for judges, that it found quite helpful for mediators too. The ABA identified three main categories that neutrals should investigate as they consider what to disclose, with three sub-categories within the third main category:

  1. Financial
  2. Professional
  3.  Personal

a. Acquaintances

b. Friendships

c. Close personal relationships.

Within the “Personal” category are three levels of social relationships, in descending level of closeness: acquaintances, friendships, and close personal relationships. Generally, acquaintances – including social media links – do not need to be disclosed. On the other hand, close personal relationships most likely should be disclosed, and friendships lie somewhere in between. Our committee thought this would be especially helpful in addressing the problem confronting the ADB, where a divorce mediator did not tell Husband and his attorney that she made plans to visit Wife’s attorney at his condo in Florida during the pendency of the case. The ADB ruled that the mediator had done nothing unethical by failing to disclose her friendship with Wife’s attorney, but our committee thought otherwise, and believe this more specific guidance regarding friendships would make such disclosures more likely.

SCAO has final authority on Mediator Standards of Conduct, pursuant to Court Rule, and our ad hoc committee has submitted its proposal to SCAO. But, whether or not SCAO approves this version, take a look and see if these give you a better idea of what exactly you should and should not disclose.

Standards Of Conduct Proposal Submitted to SCAO