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Mediation becoming popular

By Ed Brock

Rachel McCullouch didn't want to go to court against the owners of her old apartment complex.

Having already been the victim of an assault in that apartment that led to the suit (the apartment management failed to fix the back door through which her assailant entered), the 26-year-old Smyrna woman didn't want to go through a trial.

"I'm a criminal justice major, so I've learned a lot about being a victim in the courtroom," McCullouch said.

So she chose to handle her complaint through a mediator. By the end of the process she received a sizeable settlement.

"It went a lot smoother," McCullouch said. "There wasn't a lot of torment having to prove my case."

McCullouch's lawyer, Bill Ordway, is now practicing with the Jonesboro law firm of Millar, Mixon and Hunt.

"Mediation is a great tool," Ordway said. "It saves time and money. It's an opportunity to resolve the case without going through the entire legal system and going to court and having a judge impose his or her decision on you."

Last year 622 civil cases were processed through Clayton County's Superior Court, and so far this year there have been 304 cases, according to the Superior Court Clerk's Office.

One floor down from the courtrooms through which those cases pass, Nancy Parkhouse and her staff at the county's Alternative Dispute Resolution office are trying to keep other people from going upstairs before a judge.

Each year they receive about 1,200 domestic cases (divorces, custody battles, etc.) of which 500 are mediated, Parkhouse said. Domestic cases make up most of their caseload, but Parkhouse said they often help refer attorneys to mediators for civil cases.

And then there are the 181 cases they received last year from the county's Magistrate Court, what Parkhouse called the "Judge Judy cases," civil cases for under $15,000.

The mediators are usually contracted out by Parkhouse's office and paid for by the participants in the case. A mediator can be a lawyer, a therapist, a financial planner or somebody from some other walk of life who has been trained in the profession.

"People who are good at listening and processing and not judging," Parkhouse said.

When both parties are represented by attorneys the agreement they reach before a mediator is legally binding.

"It's a binding contract like any other contract," Parkhouse said.

Those who go through the mediation without an attorney have 10 days to get legal counsel before the agreement becomes binding.

But "binding" can be a relative term if you ask Lisa Denny, another of Ordway's clients who did not have a good experience with mediation.

"I just think it's a waste of time and money," said Denny, who went through mediation while divorcing her husband. "We come to all these agreements and my husband didn't do any of the things he agreed to."

Denny, who lives in Fairburn, said she has to go back to mediation in July before she can bring the case to court.

"I was hoping it would go straight to court," Denny said. "I figure if a judge was telling him rather than me maybe he'd listen."

Sometimes mediation doesn't work out, Ordway said.

"But if it doesn't work out then you just move on to litigation," Ordway said.