Sunday, August 31, 2003

Inmate death case referred to Judge Conrad for mediation

The Roanoke Times reported here on Saturday that a court order has been entered referring to Judge Glen Conrad for mediation the case brought by the estate of a former Wallens Ridge inmate against the Department of Corrections and others over the death of the inmate, allegedly as the result of the use of a stun gun.

I don't know what were the circumstances leading to this order. As in most things, the practice in the Western District is informal. What sometimes happens is that the judge will ask the parties whether they want to have a magistrate judge serve as mediator, and give them some chance to proceed with the mediation if that's what they want to do. I was surprised to hear at the 4th Circuit Judicial Conference that the Fourth Circuit's own mandatory mediation program results in settlements a third of the time. I've never come close to mediating a case in the Fourth Circuit - it seems to me difficult to compromise after someone has already been declared the winner. The uncertainty that generates settlement is harder to argue on appeal.

I never knew Judge Ted Dalton of the W.D. Va. He died in 1989, after more than 30 years on the bench. He was appointed by President Eisenhower after his second campaign for governor, which he lost to Lindsay Almond in 1957. (A good book about the 1957 election and other aspects of the career of J. Lindsay Almond, Jr., who was later a federal judge himself, is this one by Roanoke Times writers Ben Beagle and Ozzie Osborne.)

I have heard lawyers and judges describe how Judge Dalton could be very active in pushing settlements in civil cases. The closing thing to that kind of experience that I have had in the Western District (or elsewhere) was in Roanoke some years ago when, before the damages phase of the trial began, I got my money people on the telephone and got the trial judge (not Judge Dalton) to talk to them, and he said essentially this: "Good morning. It's my opinion that the jury will award substantially more than $200,000 in this case." Then he handed the phone back to me, said the trial would start again in five minutes, and left the room. Five minutes later, when he called the jurors into the courtroom, he told them to go home, since by then we had settled the case.

My favorite judge-aided settlement story of all time, though, involved a case where another federal judge from the W.D. Va. gave the lawyers (either at my request or with my enthusiastic agreement) one hour to try to settle a case before he ruled on my motion for a preliminary injunction. An hour later, he came back out, and when we told him that the case was over, he said very well, and went back to his office. As we were packing to leave, the opposing counsel said to me, "I wonder how the judge was going to rule on your motion for preliminary injunction." Seeing the possibilities, I told him that I thought the judge would probably tell us, if we asked, and so we went back to his chambers, and sure enough, the judge told us what he would have done - a rare chance to find out instantly whether the settlement was a good idea. (For my side, it was, and I have retold versions of that story 100 times, make it now 101.)

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