by Maribeth Thomas, Esq.
Alternate dispute resolutions such as mediation have become prevalent in bankruptcy proceedings and often result in much success for all parties involved. Mediation is not an official judicial proceeding and instead is designed to encourage collective agreement amongst parties to a dispute. The mediation process is informal and is most often entered into voluntarily by the parties.
In particular, mediation can be especially effective in Chapter 11 bankruptcies as a tool to construct a consensual plan of reorganization. The mediation process provides the debtor with an opportunity to negotiate, with the assistance of a neutral third party, with creditors in an informal setting to reach a settlement that is fair and in the best interests of all involved parties. Furthermore, by providing the debtor with an opportunity to resolve claims outside of court, both money and time can be saved by avoiding potentially expensive and lengthy litigation.
Mediation may also be useful in the chapter 7 context to resolve disputes involving preference, avoidance, non-dischargeability, fraudulent conveyance and claims allowance actions. Most recently, jurisdictions have implemented mediation procedures to prevent foreclosures. Such programs have been pioneered in Florida courts and require the debtor to file a chapter 13 bankruptcy. The programs work to reduce foreclosures by reducing monthly payments and, in certain instances, forgiving mortgage principal. Early statistics demonstrate that the programs created by bankruptcy courts are significantly more successful in stopping foreclosures than programs implemented in the state court system.
The Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania has adopted mediation procedures as a method of dispute resolution under Local Rule 9019-2. General Court Procedure # 4 establishes the specific requirements and standards for the mediation process. While the court can direct a party to mediation, a party may request mediation from the court through a signed stipulation or by the filing of a motion. It is important to remember that the mediation process does not delay any other proceedings in the bankruptcy case. If the mediator assigned to the case requires compensation, such costs are usually shared between the parties involved in the mediation. Each party and its primary attorney, must be present at the scheduled mediation conference, as well as any other parties in interest whose presence is necessary for a full resolution of the matter. Importantly, all material, both oral and written, that is produced at a mediation conference is to remain confidential. However, any material presented at the conference that would otherwise be discoverable or admissible is not exempted from discovery in a court proceeding merely by its use in mediation. If the parties are able to reach a settlement through mediation, the mediator must submit a fully executed stipulation to the court within twenty days after the conclusion of mediation. If the mediation conference does not result in a successful resolution of the dispute, the matter proceeds as scheduled before the court. For a full description of the procedures for mediation before the Bankruptcy Court of the Western District of Pennsylvania, please refer to the court’s General Court Procedures which can be found on the court’s website: http://www.pawb.uscourts.gov/.