Enforcing Mediation Agreements: Are They Binding?

One of the biggest benefits of mediation is that it allows parties with a dispute to voluntarily negotiate a solution. However, some people assume that, since mediation agreements are voluntary, they are not binding. This is simply not true. 

Mediation is valuable because it offers the flexibility of informal negotiations and the ability to finalize your chosen solution with legally binding contracts. If you are considering working with a mediator to resolve disputes for your business, you should know it can be just as effective as taking matters to court. Here’s what you need to know about enforcing a mediation agreement in California.

Are Mediation Agreements Enforceable?

Yes, mediation agreements can be enforced under California law. In most cases, the process ends with the participants’ attorneys drafting a contract that finalizes solutions reached during negotiations. This covers both parties’ rights and responsibilities to resolve the dispute and the penalties for failing to follow the terms. If either party tries to ignore or renege on their promises during mediation, the other can take them to court for breach of contract.

Of course, just like any other type of agreement, mediation contracts must be written with care and attention to detail or may not be legally binding. California courts expect all contracts to be:

  • Written in accordance with the law: Every contract must be carefully drafted to ensure it meets legal requirements and judicial expectations. Failing to use appropriate language may cause part or all of the agreement to be thrown out if it is challenged in court. Furthermore, if a contract requires either party to do something against the law, it is unenforceable. 
  • Signed by parties in full understanding of what they agree to do: Everyone signing the contract needs to know what it means and how it affects their rights and responsibilities going forward. If anyone misunderstands the contract or fails to receive appropriate legal guidance, it may be unenforceable.
  • Free from coercion: Threatening someone to get them to sign a contract is never permissible. For example, requiring an employee to sign a mediation agreement or lose their job may be considered coercion, especially if the employee’s job is not otherwise at risk. If it is found that either party was coerced into signing a contract, the court will usually refuse to enforce it.
  • Relatively equitable: Even if all signatories understand and sign a contract freely, courts will often refuse to enforce blatantly unfair or “unconscionable” agreements. Suppose an employee agrees to cede all rights to future litigation against a company after a workplace accident without receiving any workers’ compensation funds in return. The court may find that grossly inequitable and allow the employee to litigate the matter despite the contract.

As long as a mediation agreement is reasonably equitable, well-written, and signed freely and with full knowledge of its implications, California courts will usually enforce them. 

The Importance of Enforceability in Mediation

This enforceability is why mediation is so effective in many circumstances. Parties rarely request outside help if informal, unstructured methods of dispute resolution work. For instance, a business is unlikely to mediate an employee scheduling dispute if the worker’s problem can be fixed by talking to Human Resources. Instead, it works with a mediator to resolve the issue because the standard internal dispute resolution processes haven’t succeeded.

Mediation works because it allows parties to collaborate on solutions while ensuring both parties comply with the final agreement. In the example above, the employee and the Human Resources representative could use meetings with the mediator as a time to:

  • Outline the problem
  • Fully understand how it is impacting the employee
  • Explain the possible solutions the business can offer
  • Negotiate a fair compromise
  • Draft a contract to ensure the compromise is followed.

Since both parties will have the security of knowing the meetings will result in an enforceable, actionable contract, negotiations are more likely to be productive. As a result, the parties can find an appropriate and equitable solution that genuinely resolves the fundamental dispute.

How to Enforce Mediation Agreements 

The purpose of a contract is to ensure both parties honor the promises made during their negotiations. Sometimes, that means you’ll need to know how to enforce a mediation contract. If either party believes the other hasn’t fulfilled its responsibilities, it may be necessary to seek legal enforcement. 

You have several options here. First, you can seek mediation again. In some cases, these disputes result from a genuine misunderstanding, and returning to the negotiation table can be enough to resolve the issue. 

However, if the other party is acting in bad faith, you may need to litigate the matter. This works like any other civil or commercial breach of contract lawsuit. The party with a complaint will file a claim against the one who has allegedly breached the contract. Both parties’ arguments will be heard by the court. If no settlement is reached, the judge will issue a ruling in favor of one party. 

As long as the mediation agreement is well-drafted and consistent with California law, courts typically enforce the terms of the contract. The final ruling will usually order the party who breached the contract to rectify the breach and apply any penalties listed in the contract.

Experienced Legal Guidance for Enforcing Mediation Agreements

In most cases, mediating conflict is enough to resolve it. However, if the other party fails to abide by your agreement, you can enforce its terms. That’s where the Law Offices of Denise Eaton May can help.We have decades of experience on both sides of the mediation table and in the courtroom. We can help you mediate conflict within your organization or take legal action if your agreement is not respected. Learn more about how we can assist you by scheduling your consultation with our skilled attorneys today.

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