Early Neutral Evaluations and Mini Trials – What they Are

In recent weeks, I have been discussing New York State’s plans for introducing and expanding alternative dispute resolution (ADR) programs. I have talked about the judiciary’s press release, and an Interim Report and Recommendations that have been submitted. See:  

More Mediation Soon to Take Place in New York – Much More;

Presumptive Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) – Interim Report and Recommendations (Part 1); and,

Presumptive Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) – Interim Report and Recommendations (Part 2).

Today, I would like to mention and give definitions of two ADR processes that many New Yorkers may be unaware of:  Early Neutral Evaluation and Mini-trial.

Early Neutral Evaluations

On the American Bar Association’s website, it says:

  • Early neutral evaluation is a process that may take place soon after a case has been filed in court. The case is referred to an expert, usually an attorney, who is asked to provide a balanced and unbiased evaluation of the dispute. The parties either submit written comments or meet in person with the expert. The expert identifies each side’s strengths and weaknesses and provides an evaluation of the likely outcome of a trial. This evaluation can assist the parties in assessing their case and may propel them towards a settlement.

Mini-trials

Also as set out on the American Bar Association website:

  • A mini-trial  is a private, consensual process where the attorneys for each party make a brief presentation of the case as if at a trial. The presentations are observed by a neutral advisor and by representatives (usually high-level business executives) from each side who have authority to settle the dispute. At the end of the presentations, the representatives attempt to settle the dispute. If the representatives fail to settle the dispute, the neutral advisor, at the request of the parties, may serve as a mediator or may issue a non-binding opinion as to the likely outcome in court.

If you file a lawsuit, can you expect to engage in either a mini-trial, or to have the case handed to an early neutral evaluator?  The answer depends on at least two factors.

  1. The timeframe:  As I’ve discussed, New York State will be expanding successful existing ADR programs, and instituting others.  But New York is a big place.  In many parts of the State, it will be months, and maybe years, before ADR programs are fully up and running.  If you bring a case (or have one brought against you) tomorrow, you may or may not be told that your case should be handled – at least initially – through an ADR process.  But a year from today – and more so two and three years from today – the likelihood of your case being dealt with through an ADR process should increase greatly.                                                                                                                                                                                It is possible that in the meantime, parties can request to engage in ADR, and depending on the resources of the courts, the request will be followed.                                                                                                                                                      If the parties were to agree that they wanted to try mediation – discussed elsewhere in many of my articles, on my blog) and on my website generally –  and if they were agreed on a private mediator to use for the process, many judges are willing to allow the mediation – but of course, the court’s permission should be sought, and your lawyer’s advice, if you have an attorney.

  2. The type of case:  The greater use of ADR will mostly be seen in civil cases, as opposed to criminal cases.                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Civil cases primarily dealing with money are more likely to go to an early neutral evaluator or to a mini-trial than other cases.  At a recent meeting I attended on “presumptive ADR” the following example was given.  Paraphrasing, it went like this:

                                                                                                                          Suppose someone breaks an arm, and a personal injury case is begun.  There have been many such cases, and the cases have evidence from doctors on the extent of the damage done.  Everybody in the process – the judge, the attorneys for the parties, and the parties themselves (after being informed by their lawyers) knows how much the ultimate award for the broken arm will be.  They know this even before the case begins.

    Such a case is probably a good candidate for early neutral evaluation (or, I would think a mini-trial).

    The final result of having an early neutral evaluator handling the case, and a negotiated settlement based on the evaluator’s findings, is likely to be the same or similar to what would happen if the case were litigated over a period of years.  The time and money saved by the parties will probably be very substantial.  The lessened burden on the parties and on the court will also be significant.

    Contrast the above “broken arm” (personal injury) case to a divorce case.  While divorce cases, especially ones involving children, often have very significant financial aspects to them (division of property, spousal maintenance a.k.a. alimony, child support), divorces are largely about relationships – the relationships between the spouses, and between the parents and each child.

    (To be sure, a personal injury case is often emotional as well.  However, usually the relationship is secondary or nonexistent.  For instance, if I slip and fall on a sidewalk, I probably don’t have any relationship with the home or business owner who is responsible for clearing the sidewalk.)

    A divorce case, or a family case, is far different from a personal injury case.  Divorce and family cases tend to defy one size solutions that fit all couples or families – as opposed to the broken arm case where the ‘value’ of the injury can be pretty well determined.

    Divorce and family cases often benefit from the parties working together to create solutions that serve everyone involved.  For such cases, we can expect mediation to be the ‘go-to’ process, rather than early neutral evaluation, or even a mini-trial.                                                                                                                               This blog is for information purposes and does not constitute legal advice.  Please consider speaking with an attorney about any case you have or are considering bringing. 

Presumptive Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) – Interim Report and Recommendations (Part 2)

Last week, I began writing about New York State’s “Interim Report and Recommendations (Report)” regarding “Presumptive Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).”  Here, I will continue to discuss the Report further.  New York plans on greatly expanding existing mediation and other programs and initiating new ones.  The programs will deal with many types of ‘civil’ cases, from small claims to personal injury to matrimonial and more.

In part, the move toward the far greater use of mediation, arbitration, and early-neutral evaluation – some of the ‘alternative’ methods of resolving conflicts, as opposed to litigation – is the recognition of serious problems with the status quo.  For instance, many courts have long backlogs of cases.  (In one county, and maybe more, a year can pass between the time a separation agreement for a divorce is filed with the court, and when a judge signs it.)

Cases often take months – and not uncommonly years of litigation; such long delays mean at the very least a delay of justice.  Arguably, and in more than a few instances, such lengthy delays can result in the denial of any real justice at all, as the parties involved would define it.

A significant problem that has some correlation to the years of motions and trial practice that so many litigants face is the cost of bringing or defending an action.  The Report states that:

  • The cost of litigating to a final judgment often represents such a high percentage of the amount in controversy that the parties find litigating to a final judicial decision is unaffordable.

What does this mean to parties?

For some, the high costs of litigation mean that a party will essentially give in to the other side at some point, after realizing that they don’t have the resources to continue battling.  For many others, the prospect of incurring bills amounting to five or six figures results in choosing not to bring or defend a case at all.  In these instances, justice may have nothing to do with the calculation.  Sadly, far too many New Yorkers simply can’t afford justice, and so do not receive it.

The Report notes that:

  • New York and other courts have long administered or sponsored efforts to promote more streamlined achievement of final decisions or negotiated settlements, including: (1) a wide variety of court conferencing processes led by judges or court personnel; (2) referrals of disputes to dedicated court staff neutrals; (3) organization of “settlement days” in which courts try to resolve large numbers of disputes involving the same defendant in a focused negotiation effort; (4) mediations; (5) arbitrations; (6) neutral evaluations; (7) summary mini-trials; and (8) accelerated fast-track litigations.

But, these efforts over the years, which might be characterized as piecemeal, haven’t been nearly enough.  A tremendous amount of work will need to be done before courts will notice a significant reduction in backlogs.  The increased scale of ADR within the state will have to be enormous – and, it promises to be.

In regard to mediation, one goal is to have parties begin the process “shortly after the litigation has commenced.”  This aim recognizes that parties have a better chance of constructively resolving their disputes if their conflicts are addressed through mediation early.  As the parties get more deeply mired in litigation, hostilities usually rise, and the possibility of working together toward a mutually satisfactory agreement becomes more difficult to achieve.

The plans for presumptive mediation in New York are ambitious.  But the judiciary appears to be dead serious about making it happen.  No doubt, implementation will encounter some difficulties, both foreseen and unexpected.  However, the Interim Report and Recommendations is thoughtful and encouraging for those of us who believe that often, there are better ways to handle disputes than fighting them out in front of a judge.