Public policy supports the resolution of disputes before a lawsuit is filed.  What happens when a contract calls for mediation prior to filing suit as a condition of securing attorneys fees, if the party filing the suit suggests mediation after the lawsuit is filed?  Is the failure to seek mediation a bar to a recovery of attorneys fees or is the request for mediation made just after suit is filed deemed to be substantial compliance?

In the case of Lange v. Schilling, No. C055471, 2008 WL 2192833 (Cal. Ct. App. May 28, 2008), the Court of Appeals enforced a contract term that established a condition precedent that required a party to attempt to mediate a conflict before proceeding to arbitration or litigation in order to recover attorney fees.

In that case, the plaintiff bought property from a real estate broker, using a standard residential property purchase agreement. The agreement provided that the parties would mediate any dispute before resorting to arbitration or court action. Under the agreement, if a party commenced an action without first attempting to mediate, that party would not be entitled to recover any attorney fees which would otherwise be available. The Plaintiff sued the broker for alleged misrepresentations made about the property’s condition. The Plaintiff then sent the broker a letter stating that he was willing to stay litigation in order to mediate the matter, but received no response. Thereafter, the trial court entered a judgment in favor of Plaintiff and finding the broker liable.

The Plaintiff, after succeeding in the lawsuit, filed a motion to recover attorney fees from the broker. In opposing the motion, the broker argued that the Plaintiff was not entitled to attorney fees because he did not attempt to mediate the dispute. The trial court determined that the plaintiff substantially complied by offering to stay the litigation in order to mediate and awarded the Plaintiff attorney fees. On appeal, the broker argued that the clear language of the agreement precluded an award of attorney fees if a party did not attempt mediation before commencing litigation. The Court agreed and found that since the Plaintiff filed his lawsuit prior to offering mediation, there was no basis to award fees.

The Court noted that while the agreement authorized attorney fees, that right was contingent on compliance with the mediation provision. The Plaintiff filed his lawsuit first and only later offered mediation. His failure to meet the condition precedent precluded any award of fees. The Court stated that the strong public policy in favor of mediation as an alternative to judicial proceedings is served by requiring the party commencing litigation to seek mediation as a condition precedent. Had the parties resorted to mediation, their dispute may have been resolved in a much less expensive and time-consuming manner. The plaintiff argued that his failure to seek mediation should be excused because he promptly offered to mediate, thereby complying with the spirit and intent of the language of the contract. The Court rejected this argument and noted that the plaintiff could have sent an offer for mediation before filing his complaint. The Court further determined that the doctrine of substantial compliance was not applicable because the contract imposed a clear and unambiguous condition.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the fee award.  The message set forth by the Court was simple and direct.  Public policy favors resolution of cases instead litigating them and the Court would therefore not allow the commonly used doctrine of substantial compliance to defeat that policy.