New Mediation Plan Targets Backlog of Cases in Tennessee Courts

December 10, 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court has approved an innovative Alternative Dispute Resolution Plan prepared by the Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission (ADRC) to assist courts facing a backlog of civil cases caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. For many years, mediation has been used to successfully resolve disputes. The Plan creates a process that will make mediation more available to civil litigants as a means of providing a quicker, less expensive, and potentially more satisfying alternative to continuing litigation in a case without impairing the quality of justice or the right to a trial.

The pandemic has suspended civil jury trials and many nonjury civil trials have been delayed as the courts implement social distancing and capacity limits while prioritizing necessary emergency proceedings. While courts have embraced technology and thousands of virtual hearings and proceedings have taken place across the state, delays are inevitable in this unprecedented year.

 “The Supreme Court is pleased to provide judges across the state with a feasible and practical tool to assist in the administration of justice during these extraordinary times,” Supreme Court Justice Sharon G. Lee said. “People need their cases resolved so they can move forward. Mediation is an excellent option, and we are pleased the ADRC, community mediation centers, and mediators have stepped forward to create a program that is low-cost or free in some cases, efficient, equitable, and reliable. Good communication between the court, parties, and mediators is essential, and the Commission has been very proactive in accomplishing this goal.”

Under the Plan, the ADRC has partnered with three community mediation centers across the state and developed an expedited and efficient way to handle court referrals or orders for mediation. The Plan applies to all pending civil actions in general sessions courts, juvenile courts, chancery courts, and circuit courts. Judges are encouraged to review their dockets and refer any cases to mediation that may benefit from this new program. Recognizing that many people are facing economic hardships because of the pandemic, mediation will be provided at no cost to indigent parties who are not represented by an attorney.

In referring cases to mediation, judges are encouraged to give top priority to cases with parties not represented by attorneys.   Under the plan, a judge may request that the parties use mediation, order the parties to mediation, or decide the case is not appropriate for mediation. The types of civil cases that may benefit from mediation include: evictions, family disputes, medical debt claims, juvenile matters, personal loans, contract breach, and recovery of personal property. Criminal cases are not included because defendants have a constitutional right to “confront their accuser.”

The ADRC developed the Plan after a survey of the state’s judges indicated a growing backlog of cases in the areas of family, evictions, small claims and juvenile matters. A majority of the judges expressed their willingness to involve Rule 31 mediators in addressing these cases where appropriate.

 “Mediation has been crucial to managing cases during the pandemic,” said Judge Russell Parkes, a circuit court judge in the 22nd judicial district. “There are cases that just cannot wait and mediation is a great option for me to use as a judge to bring the parties together in a neutral setting to find a solution. I find it particularly useful when only one of the parties is represented by an attorney. The pandemic has forced courts to innovate like no other time and increased mediation is one option every judge should be considering.”

 “The community of mediators in Tennessee is quite amazing in its creativity,” said Larry Bridgesmith, chair of the ADRC and a mediator.  “The Covid-19 crisis has infected the administration of justice just like every other segment of society and commerce. In response, trained mediators approved by the Supreme Court have stepped to the plate and offered their problem-solving skills to help address the growing backlog of court cases resulting from the pandemic.” 

 “Mediation has been a life-saver during this pandemic,” said Judge Timothy Irwin, a juvenile court judge in Knox County. “We have a very full docket and issues involving kids cannot wait. Whether it is a question of custody, schooling, or delinquency, we must act quickly to serve the best interests of children in our community. The mediation process has allowed us to safely address and resolve some cases and allow the court continuing operating and managing emergency proceedings.”

Mediation will be conducted following Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 31 and by Rule 31 approved mediators. The Plan provides judges, court clerks, and mediators sample documents for referring a case to mediation, communicating with the parties, and informing the court of the status of the mediation. Mediation is a confidential process and does not influence the outcome of a case if unsuccessful. The mediations under the Plan will be conducted virtually, unless otherwise agreed upon by the parties and mediator.

To ensure the process is efficient, the Plan sets out specific timelines and deadlines for the mediation process. Under the Plan, each county has been assigned a community mediation center, which will triage requests for mediation assistance from the courts. Trained mediators are volunteering to provide these services and will be trained and deployed as needed. If a judge refers or orders a case to mediation, the parties will hear directly from the mediation center to begin the scheduling and mediation process.

“We have found that clarity and transparency in the assistance provided by the local mediation center is important," said Judge Deborah Henderson, a general sessions court judge in Shelby County. “Citizens who come to our court need the options and cost savings that mediation can provide, especially during these challenging times."

The three Community Mediation Centers that will coordinate resources and location details with all medication centers in the state are:  The Mid-South Community Justice & Mediation Center, Inc. in Memphis, the Nashville Conflict Resolution Center, and the Community Mediation Center in Knoxville.

“State courts have been hampered in processing legal disputes because of limitations on in-person activities. Offering to help resolve court cases which are appropriate for mediation at no cost, this group of Tennesseans shows again why this is the Volunteer State,” Bridgesmith said.

Judges, clerks, and mediators can access the Plan Toolbox from the AOC website (http://www.tncourts.gov/adrplan) and email ADRPlan@tncourts.gov with questions.