The mediator has worked on about a dozen cases so far using this new method.
By ED RUNYAN
VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF
WARREN -- If ordinary citizens ever thought there was a chance they would find operations of the 11th District Court of Appeals somehow relevant to their life, this is it.
The court, which is one of 12 in Ohio that hears appeals of cases decided in common pleas courts in a five-county area, has begun a program that can somewhat soften the ivory-tower appearance of the stately appeals court building on High Street downtown.
The program is called appellate mediation. In the several months since it began, it has already started to reduce the court's high caseload by getting some cases resolved more quickly and inexpensively, Judge Cynthia Wescott-Rice said.
Mediation at the appeals court is really as simple as bringing parties together to resolve issues that would have traditionally required expensive transcripts and many months of preparation and waiting for judges to decide the case, she said.
"Sometimes you just need to give people an opportunity to talk and resolve it," Judge Wescott-Rice said of civil cases that come to them. Mediation is only an option for a percentage of cases -- and only civil cases, not criminal.
Additionally, this option brings the law closer to the people, Judge Wescott-Rice said. Court cases traditionally involve a lawyer standing before a judge explaining everything on the client's behalf. Some people then feel like they don't have a say in the proceedings.
During mediation, the client can be involved and be more aware of what is going on, she said.
In the spring, the court used grant money to send administrative counsel Shibani Sheth-Massacci to the 8th District Court of Appeals in Cleveland to learn from its mediator.
Since July, she has begun work on 12 to 14 cases that may eventually be resolved this way. One case has already been completed, she said. John D. Pinzone also works on the cases with Sheth-Massacci.
"I'm making peace," Sheth-Massacci said of the program. "I'm happy with that. It's nice to see people sit in a room and get along."
Sometimes, even at the appeals court level, the parties in a case just need to figure out how to say they are sorry or talk it over, Judge Westcott-Rice said.
The judge said that with mediation, parties are brought together within 60 days of the case being filed. It does not require the use of trial transcripts, which cost thousands of dollars. Also, regular appeals court rulings can take years.
Though lawyers are still used, the parties are encouraged to participate, either in person or by telephone, she said.
One side benefit is that the discussions allow the parties to see "the big picture before they go through those thousands of dollars and years and years of litigation," Judge Wescott-Rice said.
Sheth-Massacci chooses which cases she thinks can be resolved this way, she said, and she has set a goal of resolving 40 percent to 50 percent of those cases.
The new program has a cost about $80,000 to $100,000 a year, the judge said.
The salary and benefits of Sheth-Massacci make up a big part of that amount, but she also handles several other administrative counsel duties for the appeals court.
Regardless, Judge Wescott-Rice said the ultimate goal is to save money. That's because when the court's caseload gets too high, another judge and his or her staff has to be hired at even greater cost. So, she said it makes sense to use mediation to reduce the caseload.