Everyone knows by now that the Center for Disease Control is responding to an outbreak of a respiratory disease caused by a new coronavirus that was first detected in China and which has now been found in more than 100 locations internationally, including Minnesota. The CDC named the virus “SARS-CoV-2” and the disease it causes has been named “coronavirus disease 2019” (abbreviated “COVID-19”).
On January 30, 2020, the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concernexternal icon” (PHEIC). The next day, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II declared a public health emergency for the United States to aid the nation’s healthcare community in responding to COVID-19. As the virus spread around the world, a few days ago the World Health Organization (WHO publiclyexternal icon) declared COVID-19 as a pandemic.
Lawsuits go on and the pandemic does not stop our mediation practice. Things have changed a bit at our office in order to do our part to minimize the potential for transmission of the virus. We have taken on a number of mediations that will now be handled by telephone. The parties will remain at their respective offices and we will use a scheduled time slot for caucuses. Some parties like to use video conferencing as well. This will allow the parties to maintain “social distancing” and still negotiate a settlement. We scan and email proposals to the parties in order to work toward a settlement even when parties are not able to attend in person. The parties are still able to meet their mediation deadlines issued under any outstanding court scheduling order.
For those parties that are healthy and asymptomatic, we continue to hold in person mediations as well. The parties are separated in different rooms which limits exposure to others. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to wash hands when they arrive, and periodically during the mediation. Our staff continues to disinfect surfaces like doorknobs, tables, desks, and handrails regularly. Yes, we have a stock of sanitizers. We rarely use joint sessions so the number of people in one room is limited. The only exposure will be the small group that include the client and their attorneys. They will be able to make the judgment call on whether they want to stay the same conference room together before coming to the mediation.
We continue to do our job at each successful mediation by providing a different pen for each party to use for signing the settlement agreement. You will even get to take the pen home as a souvenir. We think of everything.
At the end of the successful mediation, the only difference is that there will be no customary handshake. Instead, the parties will be encouraged to smile (or wince), wash their hands, and leave for home knowing that their dispute will no longer be getting free rent in their heads. They will have other things to worry about for the next few months.