Eric P. Tuchmann, senior vice president and general counsel at the American Arbitration Association®-International Centre for Dispute Resolution® (AAA-ICDR) discusses with CCBJ how the AAA-ICDR has been handling their dispute-resolution cases during COVID-19 and what mediations and arbitration hearings could look like as states lift restrictions on sheltering in place and in-person dispute-resolution procedures become available.
CCBJ: As businesses commence reopening, is there a timetable for the AAA-ICDR to open its facilities?
Eric Tuchmann: The AAA-ICDR remained fully operational and never shut down since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, for the safety of our employees, customers, arbitrators, and mediators, we shifted our case management to our virtual operations—an option that has been available to parties for years--and closed our physical offices.
Did the filing of cases continue?
Certainly—much happens with a case before it goes to the arbitration hearing stage. In fact, only about one-third of cases filed with the AAA-ICDR reach the hearing stage; nearly two-thirds of disputes filed with us settle prior to the first hearing, many without accruing any arbitrator compensation.
Now, as cities and states have started a phased-in approach to reopening businesses, the AAA-ICDR has begun opening our case-management offices. Since these facilities reside in multiple locations around the country, the AAA-ICDR will be able to schedule in-person hearings in certain AAA-ICDR facilities depending on state and local guidelines as well as logistical considerations.
In addition, AAA-ICDR has created a database of alternative hearing locations in a number of locales, which can be made available to parties.
What will an in-person arbitration or mediation look like in this environment?
A dedicated team experienced in business continuity has spent weeks reimagining the entire arbitration or mediation experience--from entering the hearing facility to moving into the hearing room and proceeding through an actual hours-long hearing.
We’re committed to creating a comfortable, safe, and welcoming environment that safeguards the health of our employees, parties, attorneys, and panelists.
That translates into:
- Limiting the total number of people who are allowed into the facility daily,
- Limiting the number of cases in each hearing facility at one time, and
- Limiting the number of people in one hearing room at a time.
In addition, we will:
- Provide COVID-19 packets that include a bottle of hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes for computers and surfaces, and an antimicrobial pen.
- Space out seating to allow for the required six feet of distance between people
- Provide direction regarding where food and beverages can be obtained.
- Require the use of masks or face coverings (and provide them if necessary)
- Set up hand-sanitizing and disinfectant stations throughout the hearing facilities.
What about precautions with the offices and hearing facilities?
As each facility reopens, it will be cleaned thoroughly and disinfected using Environmental Protection Agency-(EPA-) registered cleaning products. Common areas, such as waiting areas, break rooms, and cafes may be closed or limited to small numbers of individual that can be present. All hearing rooms will be cleaned daily.
How do you see the reopening transpiring?
In the near future, at least, we envision that a number of hearings will take a hybrid approach--due to the limitations of the number of people in a room--where arbitrators, parties, representatives, and others will be present in person, while others participate remotely. Many of our hearing rooms have video conferencing technology installed.
We have been quite successful with our telephonic and video conferencing hearings for caseloads with smaller, less complex disputes, so those likely will continue and perhaps the use of virtual hearings even will increase. However, I don’t believe in the long run that virtual hearings will replace in-person ones for the large, complex cases.
Specifically, what uniform protocols will the AAA-ICDR observe with regard to requirements of personnel and attendees?
AAA-ICDR personnel will observe the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations, and we ask that all visitors to hearing facilities do so as well. These are:
- Maintaining good social distance—about six feet, which is very important in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
- Washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Covering mouth and nose with a cloth face covering when around others.
- Staying home if sick.
Where can additional information on this subject be found?
Please visit www.adr.org/covid19, which provides the latest information on hearing facilities, online options, virtual hearings, and case filings.
Published July 22, 2020.