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What Can You Do if Someone Breaches a Mediation Confidentiality Agreement?

I’ve recently been covering mediation confidentiality from an attorney’s point of view.  Because my statistics page reminds me that clients also read this blog, I sometimes direct posts to the people with the problem — clients.  

This morning I notice that someone landed on my site seeking an answer to this question:

What can you do if your HOA Board member breaks the mediation confidentiality agreement.

The lawyerlike answer to this question is  — “it depends upon what the agreement says.”

But let’s assume the question is covered by California law.

The Scope and Effect of Mediation Confidentiality in the Hands of Clients

Nearly every mediator begins every mediation session by explaining how and why information exchanged in mediations is confidential.  I know from my community mediation work that the people usually want to know something lawyers rarely ask — whether they’ll be able to discuss what happened in the mediation with friends or family.

In the absence of a more restrictive agreement among the parties, under California law today, the answer is “yes, they can.”

What’s confidential?  The California Evidence Code (section 1119) says that everythng said or done during a mediation is confidential  

But what does “confidential” mean?  .

Under the California Evidence Code, statements made in a mediation are

  • not admissible in evidence; and,
  • cannot be “discovered,” i.e., you cannot be compelled to disclose those communications in answers to interrogatories, in deposition testimony and the like.

Those are the only restrictions on the disclosure of confidences exchanged in a mediation held in California in the absence of a more restrictive agreement. Unless a California court broadens the scope of mediation confidentiality, an HOA Board Member who runs around the complex or neighborhood talking about who said what during a mediation is not “breaking” (breaching) the California’s protections for mediation confidences.

The Parties Can and Do, However, Agree to Limit the Communication of Mediation Confidences to the Participants in the Mediation.

A contract is an agreement that creates private law governing the parties’ relationship with one another.  If you enter into a Confidentiality Agreement in mediation, you should understand that you are creating obligations that bind you as well as rights that protect you.  A google search turned up Confidentiality Agreements that provide remedies for their breach.  This one for instance provides two poential consequences for breach:

  1. any party to the agreement is entitled to ask the court to stop (enjoin) any other party from disclosing confidential communications; and,
  2. the party who wrongfully discloses mediation confidences will be liable in damages (including the expense hiring attorneys) for any damages caused by his or her breach of the confidentiality agreement.

The California-based ADR Services has a similar term in its Confidentiality Agreement (here).

Failure to obey an Injunction can be enforced by contempt, but this remedy is expensive, would require multiple trips to the courthouse, is difficult to obtain and would not likely make up for the harm caused by disclosure.  The second remedy – damages — would require you to file a lawsuit and your monetary losses are highly unlikely to be worth the expense of litigation.

Here’s another Confidentiality Agreement that expressly incorporates the  provisions of the California Evidence Code.  This agreement prevents the parties from:

disclos[ing confidential information] to anyone [who is] not involved in any existing litigation, or any litigation that may arise, concerning the subject matter of this mediation session . . . . 

The term “involved in . . . litigation . . . concerning the subject matter of this mediation” is broad and ill-defined. All homeowners might be said to be “involved in” the litigation subject of the mediation.  If you read the contract language broadly, you might convince your HOA Board member that talking about the medaition around the condominium complex or in the neighborhood violates the Confidentiality Agreement.

There’s nothing in this agreement, however, that states what the consequences of breach might be.  Nevertheless, if you suffered monetary harm as the result of the breach, you might well be able to file suit for damages in a breach of contract action.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any harm that might flow from the Board Member’s indiscretions that would cause sufficient economic harm to justify the cost of a lawsuit.

The commercial ADR panel on which I serve, Judicate West, makes a form Confidentiality Agreement available to the parties (here) which merely restates the controlling principles of confidentiality law in the State of California.  In light of the recent Thottam opinion in California, I would hesitate before asking parties to sign any agreement that:

  1. expands the scope of confidentiality beyond that provided by the Evidence Code, while at the same time,
  2. carves out an exception for the enforcement of the agreement.

For my analysis of that opinion and the problems it creates for mediators drafting confidentiality agreements, click here and here.


Victoria Pynchon

Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all… MORE >

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