Friday, January 14, 2011

Cassel v. Superior Court: Cal. Supremes Uphold Mediation Confidentiality

In Cassel v. Superior Court (Wasserman, Comden, Casselman & Pearson, L.L.P.) (1/13/11) 51 Cal.4th 113, the California Supreme Court continued a trend of enforcing strictly California's policy in favor of mediation confidentiality, holding that communications between attorney and client during the course of mediation cannot come into evidence in the client's subsequent malpractice action against the attorney and that all discussions conducted in preparation for a mediation as well as all mediation-related communications that take place during the mediation itself are protected from disclosure, even if these do not occur in the presence of the mediator or other disputants. The Court summarized the case as follows:
Petitioner Michael Cassel agreed in mediation to the settlement of business litigation to which he was a party. He then sued his attorneys for malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, and breach of contract. His complaint alleged that by bad advice, deception, and coercion, the attorneys, who had a conflict of interest, induced him to settle for a lower amount than he had told them he would accept, and for less than the case was worth.   
Prior to trial, defendant attorneys moved, under the statutes governing mediation confidentiality, to exclude all evidence of private attorney-client discussions immediately preceding, and during, the mediation concerning mediation settlement strategies and defendants' efforts to persuade petitioner to reach a settlement in the mediation. The trial court [L.A. Superior, Judge McLaughlin] granted the motion, but the Court of Appeal vacated the trial court's order. 
Slip op. at 1. 
The Court began its analysis by stating the purposes of mediation confidentiality: 
As noted above, the purpose of these provisions is to encourage the mediation of disputes by eliminating a concern that things said or written in connection with such a proceeding will later be used against a participant. “Toward that end, ‘the statutory scheme ... unqualifiedly bars disclosure of communications made during mediation absent an express statutory exception.’ “ Judicial construction, and judicially crafted exceptions, are permitted only where due process is implicated, or where literal construction would produce absurd results, thus clearly violating the Legislature's presumed intent. Otherwise, the mediation confidentiality statutes must be applied in strict accordance with their plain terms. Where competing policy concerns are present, it is for the Legislature to resolve them. 
Slip op. at 6 (citations omitted). The Court then reviewed a number of recent decisions upholding mediation confidentiality: Foxgate Homeowners' Assn. v. Bramalea California, Inc. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 1 (barring evidence that party refused to mediate in good faith); Rojas v. Superior Court (2004) 33 Cal.4th 407 (mediation confidentiality applies broadly to all "writings" "prepared for the purpose of, in the course of, or pursuant to, a mediation"); Fair v. Bakhtiari (2006) 40 Cal.4th 189 (written settlement agreement reached in mediation can be disclosed only if it includes, on its face, "a statement that it is ‘enforceable’ or ‘binding,’ or a declaration in other terms with the same meaning"); Simmons v. Ghaderi (2008) 44 Cal.4th 570 (judicial doctrines of equitable estoppel and implied waiver are not valid exceptions to the strict technical requirements set forth in the mediation confidentiality statutes for the disclosure and admissibility of oral settlement agreements reached in mediation). 
Here, as in Foxgate, Rojas, Fair, and Simmons, the plain language of the mediation confidentiality statutes controls our result. Section 1119, subdivision (a) clearly provides that “[n]o evidence of anything said or any admission made for the purpose of, in the course of, or pursuant to, a mediation ... is admissible or subject to discovery....” As we noted in Simmons, section 1119, adopted in 1997, “is more expansive than its predecessor, former section 1152.5. Section 1119, subdivision (a), extends to oral communications made for the purpose of or pursuant to a mediation, not just to oral communications made in the course of the mediation. [Citation.]”   
The obvious purpose of the expanded language is to ensure that the statutory protection extends beyond discussions carried out directly between the opposing parties to the dispute, or with the mediator, during the mediation proceedings themselves. All oral or written communications are covered, if they are made “for the purpose of” or “pursuant to” a mediation. (§ 1119, subds. (a), (b) .) It follows that, absent an express statutory exception, all discussions conducted in preparation for a mediation, as well as all mediation-related communications that take place during the mediation itself, are protected from disclosure. Plainly, such communications include those between a mediation disputant and his or her own counsel, even if these do not occur in the presence of the mediator or other disputants. 
Slip op. at 8-9. 
Further, the Court held that while a represented party may waive the privilege for communications between that party and counsel, "the mediation confidentiality statutes do not create a “privilege” in favor of any particular person." Slip op. at 12. Rather, "all mediation participants involved in a mediation-related communication must agree to its disclosure." Ibid. As a result, the attorney defendants in this case could object to introduction of communications with their client that took place both preceding and during the mediation. 

The opinion is available here

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