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The Dilemma Of Confidential Information

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

       In many mediations, I have faced the dilemma in which one side provides crucial but confidential information to me in a separate session (i.e. caucus), admonishing me “not to tell the other side.” I sense that the information is extremely relevant and may make the difference in reaching a settlement. But, I know “my lips are sealed” unless I can convince that party to change her mind and either allow me to disclose the information or have her do so directly to the other side! Do I have any other options?

       This question was recently answered in ethics opinion SODR-2009-2 issued by the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution Committee on Mediator Ethical Guidance (“Committee”). The scenario posed was quite similar to the one described above:

      “I’ve been involved in two separate mediations where an employer has sued a former employee for the unauthorized taking and/or duplication of the employer’s sensitive electronic data shortly before the employee left his job with the employer. In the course of speaking with both employers in separate caucus, I’ve been advised, in a rather off-hand manner, that the employers have initiated some form of referral of the case for prosecution to the police/district attorney regarding the alleged unauthorized taking/duplication by the employee by the employer’s sensitive electronic data.”

      . . .

      “The dilemma for me, as a mediator, having been made privy to this very sensitive information, is what, if anything, I should say on this subject to the former employee and his counsel?. . .” (Id. at p. 1).


       As might be expected, the Committee responded by essentially stating, “not much.” Pursuant to Standard V(B) governing “Confidentiality” of  the Model Standards of Conduct for Mediators (2005), the Committee noted that the mediator is precluded from “directly or indirectly” (emphasis original) disclosing confidential caucus information either to the employee or his counsel without the consent of the employer. Thus, because of the prohibition against even “indirect” disclosure, the mediator is prohibited from conveying the information through a series of “reality testing” questions, that indirectly or impliedly suggest that criminal prosecution might be an issue. [eg: “Do you know whether your former employer has referred these types of cases to the police or prosecutor for possible criminal prosecution” (Id. at p. 6)]? Rather, the mediator may ask only very generalized “reality testing” questions such as, “if you do not settle this matter in mediation, what likely options exist for both you and the employer to resolve the issues arising from your departure from  your job?” Or: “What risks do you face if you do not settle this case?” (Id.).

       Of further concern to the mediator who requested this opinion was her “very strong sense of moral obligation to the employee to alert him to a very real risk of a possible forthcoming criminal prosecution. . .” (Id.). The mediator was concerned that the employee could not make a “free and informed choice. . . as to . . . outcome” without knowing all the facts, that is, the possible criminal prosecution.

       The Committee responded by noting that Standard I(A)(2) acknowledges that the “mediator cannot personally ensure that each party has made free and informed choices.” (Id. at  p. 7). If the party is represented by counsel, that obligation falls upon counsel. If the party is not represented by counsel, then Standard I(A)(2) advises the mediator to point out “the importance of consulting other professionals to help them make informed choices” and allows the mediator to postpone the mediation for that purpose. (Id.)

       Alternatively, the Committee noted that Standard VI (A)(4) governing the Quality of the Process encourages the mediator to “promote honesty and candor between and among all participants.” This allows the mediator to encourage the employer to reveal the referral for potential criminal prosecution either directly or through the mediator.

       In sum, the Committee concluded that caucus communications remain confidential unless the Model Standards provide otherwise. Where the mediator is concerned that the other party is not making an informed decision due to the lack of crucial but confidential information, the only technique the mediator may use is very generalized “reality testing” questions and hope that the party’s counsel  has been astute enough to pick up on and review all the issues with her client.

       . . . Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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