Login | September 19, 2017

Portage County breaks settlement rate records through mediation

TRACEY BLAIR
Legal News Reporter

Published: January 8, 2016

Richard J. Steinle has been a writer/photographer in the Air Force, a lawyer in private practice and a public relations specialist at Goodyear.

All of those experiences have helped him in his true calling as Portage County Common Pleas Court’s in-house mediator.

Steinle came to Ravenna in 1999 after the court received a two-year, $180,000 grant from the Ohio Supreme Court.

When the grant expired, then-judges John Enlow and Joseph Kainrad recognized the value of mediation and decided to keep the program going.

Portage County’s civil mediation program has continuously seen record-breaking settlement rates in Ohio.

“Our settlement rate is now more than 97 percent,” said Steinle. “Very few cases go to trial here. We’ve only had two cases go to civil jury trial this year. Mediation has really caught on.

“We mediate every civil case. When we first started, we were picking and choosing cases.”

The Uniontown resident grew up in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood.

Steinle served in the Air Force in 1966 through 1970.

He graduated from Notre Dame University with a degree in English, got a master’s degree in journalism from Kent State University and graduated in 1981 from Akron University Law School.

After law school, the father of two worked at the Scanlon & Henretta firm (now Scanlon Law Group) in Akron.

While a staff attorney for the 5th District Court of Appeals in Canton, Steinle was approached by Frank Motz – who was the coordinator of the Ohio Supreme Court’s pilot mediation program.

In July 1998, Steinle agreed to become Summit County’s first in-house mediator before going to Portage County.

“The cases change, the names change, but the underlying goals of mediation don’t change – to resolve the matter and get the case off the court’s docket,” he said.

Steinle predicts mediation needs will continue to grow.

“Civil litigation has become much more complicated with discovery issues,” he said. “The overall expense of litigation is increasing, and it’s not going to go back down. Settlement has become much more of an attainable goal than it used to be. Attorneys in many cases can’t afford to gamble taking a case to trial.”

Steinle estimates that a third of his cases are personal injury. Commercial cases are also big.

“Medical malpractice cases are extremely difficult,” said Steinle. “They are very volatile and complex. Employer intentional torts with serious injuries are difficult to settle. They are some horrible cases – people getting caught up in machinery, that type of thing. The easier cases are personal injury cases with non-permanent injuries. Some of the most volatile cases are property cases involving insignificant things like a property line or a fence.”

In 2008, Steinle began doing foreclosure cases.

“The goal there is to get the homeowner a loan modification to stay in their home,” he said.

Steinle said his English major and communications background comes in handy.

“After you’ve been sued, you’re in defensive mode,” he added. “One technique I use is to have litigants talk to each other without the attorneys. It takes a lot of the stress off. I always talk privately with each side. I explain that the mediator cannot make any ruling or finding. I’m just here to hear all sides’ positions.

“We then go over the facts of the case without anybody arguing. Then we split up and I talk to both sides privately. I stress in every mediation that I’m not allowed to discuss the case with anybody at all. This is an opportunity to speak freely about the case.”

Steinle does not handle any divorce or domestic relations cases.

Portage County’s domestic and juvenile court mediator, Benito Antognoli, handles all of those.

Antognoli estimates he has an 85 percent success rate in partial agreements.

“In here we’re dealing with division of property and all the issues involving kids,” said Antognoli, who has been a court mediator since 2007.

“Oftentimes, folks will agree on everything but one thing. Our program is different. We do everything – spousal support, the whole ball of wax. Most courts just do the kid issues. We also give people more time (to mediate) as long as they’re making progress. Our judge and magistrate have been very supportive.”

Antognoli said the average couple is finished mediating with him in three sessions.

“The longest mediation here was 21 hours, and the shortest was one hour and 25 minutes,” he said.

“Most folks are going to mediate, or at least give it a try,” said Antognoli. “More attorneys now are amenable to having their clients come to mediation. I think attorneys have found they like mediation because they’re getting the case done with the parties having input into the outcome, and they like the idea their clients are empowered. It also sets the stage for folks being able to talk after the divorce.

“It saves them time, money and emotion that’s better spent on their children. My philosophy is it’s all about the kids. Ultimately, it’s best for the kids if mom and dad don’t duke it out in court.”

As for Steinle, he doesn’t expect to ever get a perfect mediation settlement rate, despite the fact that his average has consistently risen.

“I won’t ever reach 100 percent,” said Steinle. “There will always be somebody who doesn’t settle.”


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