A mediation for instance: The homeowner and the roofer
The Times asked Louisa Williams, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Mediation Program, to provide an example of a mediation case. Confidentiality is an essential part of mediation, so this is not a real case. The names and details are fictional, but the issues are typical.
Joan, a homeowner, and Fred, a roofing contractor, contacted the Martha's Vineyard Mediation Program after Joan filed a case in small claims court. Neither one had ever gone to court before, and the idea of trying to settle their dispute themselves, face to face and in private, appealed to both of them.
Joan, a single woman who lives in New York but has vacationed on the Vineyard for years, loves the Island and was thrilled when she could finally buy a house in Vineyard Haven. The house cost way more than she could afford, and even at that crazy price, it needed a lot of work. But she loved the place and had been told it had a good rental history. That was important because for the next several years, she would have to rent the house to pay the mortgage. Maybe someday she could retire here. But right now, repairs and rent were crucial.
Joan hired Ron, who was recommended by neighbors, to install a new roof. She paid him $2,000 up front, half his total price. He worked for a while, Joan said, but then disappeared, leaving an enormous patch of roof bare.
Joan said she had tried to reach Ron dozens of times, but after one brief, cryptic conversation, he wouldn't return her calls. Now it was May; she couldn't rent a house with a leaky roof. And if she couldn't rent the place, she'd have to sell it. What was going on? In frustration, Joan filed a small claims case asking for $2,000.
When Joan finished, the mediators restated what they had heard and asked two questions: "What matters to you now? What do you need?"
"Simple," Joan said. "I need a roof that doesn't leak. An apology would be nice, too."
During Joan's story, Ron sat silently, looking at his hands. When the mediators asked him to talk, without responding or rebutting Joan's account, he spoke softly and deliberately. He had had some trouble, he said, and he was sorry. He thought he could finish the roof soon.
"If you're so sorry," Joan said, "why haven't you called me back? You left once. Why should I trust you now?"
The mediators asked Joan to listen and encouraged Ron to talk more about himself and his work. How long had be been on the Island? How would he describe his business?
Ron said he had been a roofer for 14 years and was fiercely proud of his work. His reputation and his family, he said, were everything to him. He repeated, very quietly, that he was sorry, he had had some trouble, and he'd try to get back to the roof.
Understanding that Ron was uncomfortable and might have more to say, the mediators met separately with the parties, starting with Ron. They reminded him about confidentiality. He looked uneasy. What had he been thinking when Joan was talking? He had mentioned his reputation and his family - could he talk more about those?
Ron told the mediators his wife had developed severe depression over the winter, and he had had to take time off to care for her. His number-one interest was his wife's health, and she was finally getting the treatment she needed. A private man, he didn't want anyone to know about his troubles. That's why he had ducked Joan's calls.
The mediators asked what Ron thought of Joan's situation. He said he could understand her frustration. In her shoes, who wouldn't be mad? In the private meeting, the mediators asked Ron if he - or the mediators - could give Joan some indication of why Ron had left the job and relay his apology. He said the mediators could tell her that his wife was very sick, but he wanted to apologize himself.
In their private meeting with Joan, the mediators conveyed Ron's message verbatim. Joan, taken aback, said she was truly sorry about his wife. She understood his need to help his family. Could Ron perhaps help her find someone else to finish the job?
Back in joint session, Ron apologized and said he would contact a friend about getting him to finish the job. The agreement, written with the mediators' help, spelled out how and when Ron would contact Joan about the sub and set a deadline of May 20 for completion of the project.
Louisa Williams is executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Mediation Program.