Wednesday, July 11, 2018

HOA Presuit Mediation in FLA

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of negotiating a resolution to a beachfront homeowner's association (HOA) dispute in presuit mediation. Because this process is statutory, I thought it a good idea to remind everyone of the contents of Section 720.311, Florida Statutes. A mediator is authorized to conduct mediation or arbitration under this section only if he or she has been certified as a circuit court civil mediator by the Florida Supreme Court. The Florida Legislature, finding that alternative dispute resolution reduces court dockets and trials and offers a more efficient, cost-effective option to litigation, created this mechanism for HOAs. Importantly, the filing of any petition or the serving of a demand for presuit mediation as provided for in this section tolls the applicable statute of limitations. Note that neither election disputes nor recall disputes are eligible for presuit mediation, as those are arbitrated under another process. Disputes between an association and a parcel owner regarding use of or changes to the parcel or the common areas and other covenant enforcement disputes, disputes regarding amendments to the association documents, disputes regarding meetings of the board and committees appointed by the board, membership meetings not including election meetings, and access to the official records of the association are subject to a of a demand for presuit mediation served by an aggrieved party before the dispute is filed in court. Presuit mediation proceedings must be conducted in accordance with the applicable Florida Rules of Civil Procedure, and these proceedings are privileged and confidential to the same extent as court-ordered mediation under Chapter 44, Florida Statutes. Disputes subject to presuit mediation under Chapter 720 do not include the collection of any assessment, fine, or other financial obligation, including attorney’s fees and costs, claimed to be due or any action to enforce a prior mediation settlement agreement between the parties. Also, in any dispute subject to presuit mediation under this section where emergency relief is required, a motion for temporary injunctive relief may be filed with the court without first complying with the presuit mediation requirements of this section. After any issues regarding emergency or temporary relief are resolved, a court may either refer the parties to a mediation program administered by the courts or require mediation under this section. An arbitrator or judge may not consider any information or evidence arising from the presuit mediation proceeding except in a proceeding to impose sanctions for failure to attend a presuit mediation session or to enforce a mediated settlement agreement. Persons who are not parties to the dispute may not attend the presuit mediation conference without the consent of all parties, except for counsel for the parties and a corporate representative designated by the association. The statute also provides approved forms for use in the demand and response. See complete statutory language here--

Friday, June 29, 2018

Finding for FL, SCOTUS Sends Water Wars back to Special Master

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court found in favor of Florida in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Breyer on exceptions filed to a 2017 recommendation by a court-appointed Special Master ruling Florida had not proven its case “by clear and convincing evidence” that imposing a cap on Georgia’s water use would benefit Florida water systems, including oyster-rich Apalachicola Bay and had “applied too strict a standard” in rejecting Florida’s claim. The rejected recommended ruling in the decades-long "Water Wars" case favored Georgia and must now go back to Special Master, Ralph I. Lancaster, Jr., oddly enough a Maine lawyer appointed by the Supreme Court to oversee a claim Florida filed in 2013, on remand. The dispute focuses on the river basin which drains almost 20,000 square miles in western Georgia, eastern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. The Chattahoochee and Flint rivers meet at the Georgia-Florida border to form the Apalachicola, which flows into the bay and the Gulf of Mexico beyond. Attorneys for Florida and Georgia appeared for oral argument earlier this year in this original jurisdiction case previously tried before the Special Master back in 2016. The Court reserved judgment as to the ultimate disposition of this case, addressing here only the narrow “threshold” question of whether an “equity-based cap” on Georgia’s water consumption in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint system would increase the water flow into the Apalachicola River and whether the amount of that extra water would “significantly redress the economic and ecological harm that Florida has suffered." The Special Master could also make further findings that Florida suffered harm from the overconsumption of water by Georgia. Florida still seeks the cap on consumption that would alleviate past damage allegedly caused by Georgia. Future proceedings will weigh Georgia’s claims that any limits on its water use would undermine its economy, including the growth of the Atlanta area and the state’s agriculture industry in southwestern Georgia. Florida ultimately seeks to limit Georgia’s water consumption from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, including Lake Lanier, to 1992 levels and to get reparations for alleged economic and environmental harm to Apalachicola's oyster fisheries from drought. See story here-- and opinion here--

Monday, June 25, 2018

Join me next month for Arbitration Backlash

The Cardozo Legal Society has invited me to speak next month at its breakfast meeting in downtown Orlando at the law firm of BakerHostetler. This one-hour general credit CLE will take place July 12th at 8:00 am in the SunTrust Center located at 200 South Orange Avenue. The U.S. Supreme Court just issued another decision upholding contracts to arbitrate rather than litigate disputes. Arbitration, however, continues to be attacked by media and elected officials despite being an effective ADR method to resolve disputes and control the rising cost of trying lawsuits. Federal law supports and governs the practice through the Federal Arbitration Act. To be enforceable, a clause must provide a meaningful opportunity for redress, and courts review contractual provisions for fundamental fairness. Because the litigation system has become so expensive, arbitration is often the preferred forum for disputes involving amounts in controversy for which litigation of claims is uneconomical. My talk explores the recent backlash against arbitration and reminds attendees of the origins and benefits of this dispute resolution process. The content is designed for lawyers who represent clients in arbitration and for attorneys who use arbitration clauses in contracts. I am a past chair of Cardozo Legal Society and former executive board member of our local non-profit federation, JFGO. Cardozo is a Business & Professional Society that offers attorneys, judges, law students and professors, and those in related roles in the legal profession an opportunity to get involved with the community while creating long lasting relationships with colleagues. See registration link here--

Saturday, June 16, 2018

How to Become a Mediator

Though a forthcoming rules amendment case in The Supreme Court of Florida will likely be decided this year concerning whether certification is required of all mediators in court-filed cases in civil and family courts, certified mediators are currently the only ones subject to ethical rules and other regulations. In order to become certified as a mediator in Florida, there are stringent criteria and training required which is outlined in the link below. I am often asked about this and so the complete information can be found in this convenient publication of the Florida Dispute Resolution Center (DRC). When I became certified in 2001, you had to be a lawyer for five years, just like a judge. Observing mediations is still required and I fulfill my obligation to the profession by providing these opportunities. For each observation required for certification, a trainee must observe an entire session of the type of mediation for which certification is sought, conducted by a certified mediator of the type for which certification is sought. We fill out a form for the observer with the case style, our signature and mediator number. The observation requirement can't be satisfied by any individual who is a party, participant, or representative in the mediation. Candidates for certification may not fulfill the observations before beginning a certified mediation training program. As I'm often asked about whether appellate or pre-suit mediations count, if the case is that which is or would have been the type of mediation for which certification is sought, it may be utilized for observation purposes. Likewise, a federal court mediation conducted by a certified circuit mediator may be utilized to fulfill a circuit mentorship, even though our federal district has its own certification. However, administrative agency mediations conducted under rules and procedures other than that of the state trial courts may not be utilized to fulfill the mentorship requirements. See DRC publication detailing certification process here-- and a link to DRC's annual conference next month in Orlando,"Promoting Mediator Professionalism," here--

Thursday, May 31, 2018

SCOTUS Upholds Employer Arbitration Requirement

This month, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an employer can lawfully require employees to arbitrate as a condition of employment any related disputes on an individual basis and to waive their right to participate in a class action suit or class arbitration. The case involved an effort by workers to file a class action suit against an employer for violating the federal minimum wage law. The employer sought to dismiss the case because it insisted as a condition of employment that the employees waive their ability to go to court or be part of any class action. Rather, any dispute had to be resolved out of court in a private arbitration. The case, Epic Systems v. Lewis, arose from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Companion cases, Ernst & Young v. Morris, from the Ninth Circuit and National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil, from the Fifth Circuit were argued as a trio before the Supreme Court which decided they differed only in detail, not substance. The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) requires courts to enforce arbitration agreements between employers and employees according to their terms, even when the agreements provide only for arbitration through “individualized proceedings” rather than a class. In this holding, the Court refused to read the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to prohibit arbitration agreements requiring individualized arbitration as an impermissible restriction on employee rights under the NLRA to “engage in … concerted activities for the purpose of … mutual aid or protection,” 29 U.S.C. § 157, holding that Section 7 of the act “focuses on the right to organize unions and bargain collectively” and “does not even hint at a wish to displace" the FAA. The Court stated the FAA and the NLRA have long coexisted (since 1925 and 1935 respectively) and found the suggestion they might conflict something quite new. The Court reasoned that the employees’ theory ran “afoul of the usual rule that Congress does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions..." See more in article here-- and read full opinion here--

Monday, May 14, 2018

Join us next month in Orlando!

Next month, at The Florida Bar Annual Convention in Orlando, our Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Section Executive Council (EC) will hold its annual meeting at the Hilton Bonnet Creek and an ADR CLE/CME Program: Inside the Mediator’s Mind. The June 14th CLE/CME will occur at 1:00pm, followed by a reception to take place from 4:30-6:30pm. The ADR EC meeting is set for June 15th at 9:00am. The ADR Section plans to continue advancing new programs and opportunities for continued growth and participation in the section. The ADR Section was established in 2010 to provide a forum for lawyers interested in alternative dispute resolution and to provide for discussion and exchange of ideas leading to an improvement of individual ADR skills and abilities. The ADR Section keeps members informed and updated regarding legislation, rules, and policies in connection with mediation and other ADR processes and the responsibilities they impose on mediator and arbitrator members, as well as provide quality continuing legal education programs. Additionally, ADR Section committees are open to members to plan and execute section activities, events, and programs to benefit section members. More information can be found at ADR section website, Our goal is to make the ADR Section more accessible to all Florida Bar members, engaging them through information on available on the website, such as links to MEAC opinions, and by our social media posts on Facebook and Twitter (@FlaBarADR). In addition, each issue of the section’s "News & Tips" publication can be viewed from the website. See the Bar's Annual Convention page for a full schedule of events here-- and Join our ADR Section by applying here-- or click to add it when paying your Florida Bar dues renewal--

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Deepwater Arbitrator Not Biased

The English Court of Appeal ruled that an arbitrator chairing an insurance case arising from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico ought to have disclosed involvement in overlapping cases, but said failure to do so did not make him biased. In a dispute following the Deepwater Horizon incident which caused extensive environmental damage along the Gulf Coast, numerous claims were made against BP, as well as Transocean and Halliburton, both of which had liability insurance from Chubb. After settling with claimants, both companies made claims under their insurance policies which Chubb rejected on the basis that the settlements were unreasonable. Halliburton commenced arbitration proceedings against Chubb and each party appointed an arbitrator. The parties could not agree on the identity of the third arbitrator who was then court-appointed to chair the tribunal. The chair disclosed that he was already in two unrelated insurance cases to which Chubb was party. Transocean later also commenced arbitration against Chubb. Chubb named the chair arbitrator in the Halliburton case as its party-appointed arbitrator. Prior to accepting this appointment, it was disclosed to Transocean that the same arbitrator was appointed chair in the Halliburton case and in the other Chubb arbitrations which had been disclosed to Halliburton. However, the arbitrator failed to disclose to Halliburton his proposed appointment in the Transocean dispute. Halliburton later tried to remove the arbitrator on the grounds of doubts as to impartiality, but a trial court found there was no appearance of bias against Halliburton which then appealed. While the appeals court accepted Halliburton’s concerns of unfairness where an arbitrator accepts appointments in overlapping cases with only one common party, the court found arbitrators, like judges, are to be assumed trustworthy and to understand that they should approach every case with an open mind. They found the mere fact of an overlap does not give rise to justifiable doubts of impartiality. While finding best practice calls for an arbitrator to disclose circumstances that would lead an observer to see a real possibility of bias, such that disclosure should have been made, they nevertheless rejected the appeal. See more here-- and