An elderly lady is screaming at her adversary across the table. She’s calling the defendant names, threatening him, pounding on the table, and otherwise acting clearly outraged. She brings up his character – he is a liar and a thief, and she hopes he will suffer greatly from his abuse of her. The final agreement, mutually agreed-upon in mediation, without a judge? A mere $100 to settle the dispute. Parties go home relatively satisfied and ready to move on.
How is this possible? Was the entire scene necessary for just $100? Neither party appeared desperate for this money. So why did they “waste” their time with a lawsuit? Was it really worth it?
The answer is: absolutely. Because it’s not about the money, really.
In New York, small claims court cases often head to mediation before being tried by a judge. Not only do some cases get settled without outside adjudication, even those that end in the courtroom benefit greatly from first airing grievances in mediation. Why is this so?
Most small claims cases aren’t really about the money. Or rather, money is the means to an end, but it’s not about the value stamped on the bill. Money is the means of demanding to be heard and to be respected.
When a judge hears a case, the courtroom is kept quiet, and parties must wait their turn to speak. They must control their speech and offer a modicum of respect that they may not share in the outside world. In short: they are given the opportunity to be heard. The same holds true in mediation: parties must wait their turn to speak, and the mediator sets a tone of patience and respect in the mediation room.
Ostensibly, a judge holds her position because of legal prowess. She isn’t a trained therapist or coach, and her time should be spent adjudicating cases that are truly legal in nature: figuring out how to apply the law to a particular case. But small claims cases are rarely about whether or not the law is being breached. More often, these cases are about hurt and a sense of being deceived or slighted.
Mediation offers the same opportunity as a court hearing, but without “wasting” a judge’s time. Mediation acknowledges that this is less about the law and more about feelings. Parties openly talk about how the other side is disrespectful, deceitful, or rude. They bring up feelings of disappointment, frustration, and exasperation. Once the feelings are aired, it’s easier and more natural to come to a resolution – both sides have had the opportunity to say their piece and be heard and therefore validated (by the mediator, if not by the other party). And if they don’t come to a resolution on their own, the mediation experience has eased the blow of what may be judged in court – they will know with certainty that the other side heard their grievances fully.
To appreciate the importance of mediation, one must first understand what small claims court is really about. The money, while important, is mostly symbolic. It represents respect, honor, and a measure of justice. Mediation delves deeper than the money to expose the feelings underneath, so that parties may leave the court feeling more satisfied, less hostile, and ready to move forward and past the dispute.