Appeals Court Affirms Order Enforcing Mediation Agreement, But Does Not Address Consideration Of Mediator’s Statements

Plaintiffs, who were beneficiaries of the decedent’s estate, sued the defendant-executor for misappropriation of estate assets.

The parties engaged in mediation, and their settlement agreement was memorialized in a handwritten agreement that the mediator prepared. Thereafter, the plaintiffs’ attorney sent the defendant’s attorney a proposed consent order incorporating the terms of the agreement. When the defendant’s counsel failed to execute the consent order, plaintiffs filed a motion to enforce the mediation agreement.

The defendant opposed the motion. The mediation agreement provided for the defendant to make an initial payment, followed by monthly payments and, in seven years, a final “balloon” payment. The defendant claimed that the mediator had told him the amount of the final payment, and that the schedule of payments contained in plaintiffs’ consent order, which included interest, would result in a much higher balloon payment.

The motion judge ordered the parties to return to mediation to address this issue. Thereafter, the plaintiffs’ counsel wrote to the mediator asking for clarification on the interest payments. The mediator confirmed that the payment schedule suggested by the plaintiffs was correct. The plaintiffs’ counsel then asked the defendant’s counsel to join him in advising the court that the issue had been clarified. When the defendant’s attorney failed to respond, plaintiffs filed another motion to enforce the mediation agreement. In connection with the motion, the plaintiffs’ counsel submitted a certification that included the statements by the mediator.

The trial judge concluded that the terms of the agreement were clear and unambiguous, and that it explicitly provided for interest on the payments. The judge also noted that the mediator had further clarified the issue and confirmed the plaintiffs’ schedule of payments. The motion was granted.

On appeal, the defendant argued, among other things, that the judge had erred in considering the mediator’s statements, and that the mediator’s statements regarding the interpretation of the agreement were not permitted under the Uniform Mediation Act.

The appeals court affirmed the lower court, concluding that the mediation agreement was clear and unambiguous. In so doing, the Appellate Division concluded that “we need not address” the arguments regarding whether the mediator’s statements were permitted:

We are convinced that even if the trial court erred by considering the mediator’s comments regarding the agreement and the amortization schedule, the error was harmless. As we have explained, the motion judge chose to enforce the agreement in accordance with its plain language and the record supports that determination… whether the mediator agreed or disagreed with this interpretation of the agreement is of no moment.

A copy of In the Matter of the Estate of Edward Steven Owens can be found here – In the Matter of the Estate of Edward Steven Owens

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