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Law & Order

St. Louis-Based Federal Court Looks To Keep Option For Virtual Settlement Negotiations

eagleton courthouse
Stephen M. Scott
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The Eastern District of Missouri, which is headquartered at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis, is looking to keep in place a rule that makes it easier for civil case settlement negotiations to take place virtually.

The federal court district that includes St. Louis wants to make it easier for parties in civil cases to use videoconferencing during attempts to settle a case.

Federal law requires that in almost every federal civil case, the parties have to at least try steps such as mediation or arbitration to reach a settlement. It’s known as alternative dispute resolution.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, ADR almost always had to take place in person, unless all parties and the person leading the negotiation, known as the neutral, agreed to videoconferencing alternatives. But when the pandemic ramped up, most federal courts, including the Eastern District of Missouri, allowed for virtual ADR in more cases, though in-person was still preferred. Now, the Eastern District wants to make that change permanent.

“The court found through a survey that we conducted at the end of last year that favorability results, and the experience of those who participated, really was pretty consistent with what we were seeing with in-person mediation,” said Greg Linhares, the clerk of the Eastern District.

The court took steps to ensure that people are fully engaged in mediation even if they are remote. Participants must have their camera and audio turned on, Linhares said, and be in front of the camera at all times.

“And they can’t be doing multiple things at once,” he said. “In other words, they can’t be present on the mediation and doing other business or checking email.”

There are a number of reasons that virtual ADR might work better than in-person meetings, Linhares said. It can be cheaper for a corporation based out of state to have a high-level official participate virtually. And people who aren’t as familiar with the court process might feel more comfortable participating from their own home or office.

“Also, just the convenience of time,” he said. “Getting the scheduling in for a mediation, which sometimes can be lengthy, it can be difficult to find time in people's schedules, and arrange places to do that, and doing it this way might enable the cases to move more quickly.”

The court is accepting comments on the proposed rule change until Aug. 12. If public comments are favorable, the change will take effect Sept. 1.

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