Summit County Probate Court develops mediation program
By Thomas Cardone and William Dowling
When Summit County Probate Judge Elinore Marsh Stormer took office in January 2013, she declared her intention to use mediation as one means of resolving disputes brought to her court. Judge Stormer developed a mediation program, and longtime Akron attorneys William Dowling and Douglas Godshall were appointed as court mediators. Concluding its first year of operation, the mediation program has proven to be a success, enabling the parties involved to resolve numerous disputes without the need for lengthy litigation and court trials.
Mediation is a process of assisted negotiation in which a trained mediator helps the parties analyze their dispute and reach agreement on a resolution. Mediation enables the parties to fashion settlements that address their underlying interests in ways that are often beyond the reach of the courts while avoiding the expense and emotional toll that often accompany long, drawn-out fights in court. Mediation programs have been instituted in most Ohio courts, but they are particularly well-suited to the matters handled in probate courts. According to Judge Stormer, “Probate court disputes often involve family issues that are highly emotional. Mediation allows the parties themselves to fashion a settlement that meets their own particular needs while also freeing up the resources of the court for other matters.”
Mediators Godshall and Dowling both come to the Probate Court with many years of private practice experience as litigators. In addition, they have each received extensive training in mediation, where they have learned the process of helping parties engaged in a dispute to find amicable ways to resolve their differences. Both attorneys devote substantial amounts of their professional careers to working as mediators.
Bill Dowling reports that probate disputes are often perfect candidates for mediation. “Many of the cases that Doug and I have mediated involve the division of estate property between competing heirs or disagreements about who is going to be responsible for taking care of an incompetent parent or other relative. The parties are often family members whose disagreements have arisen out of long-term relationships. Where we can, we try to help the parties resolve their disagreements in ways that will preserve their families and their assets.”
Probate Court has established a procedure to review cases and determine which disputes should be referred for mediation. In addition, the parties or attorneys can request that their cases be assigned for mediation. Once scheduled, in-person mediation sessions are held at Probate Court with both parties, their attorneys and either Godshall or Dowling in attendance. Oftentimes, disputes are resolved within an hour or two, yet more complicated or contentious cases can require multiple mediation sessions. The goal in all mediations is for the parties to reach an agreement to resolve their dispute in a way that best meets their unique needs.
Mediation cases over the past year have run the gamut of probate issues including: the division of estate property between the heirs of a decedent, business disputes resulting from contested estates, payment of fees to attorneys and trustees, contested guardianship applications, disagreements regarding the proper care for persons under guardianship, and disputes involving the value of real property being appropriated by a municipality. In 2013, of the 29 cases that went to mediation, 23 (or 79 percent of the total cases) were settled, three were returned to court for a hearing, two were dismissed and one has been continued into 2014.
Mediation disputes can range from intensely emotional matters to ones of a financial or business nature. But in all of the mediated cases, the parties involved have benefitted from the opportunity of working with Probate Court mediators to resolve their disputes without long and difficult fights in court. This was a goal of Judge Stormer when she took office, and the first year of the program has realized significant successes.
Thomas Cardone is deputy court administrator for the Summit County Probate Court, and William Dowling is a local attorney.
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