Is Mediation Privilege Absolute or Qualified? 1

Many incorrectly assume that all evidentiary privileges are absolute, meaning that a party seeking privileged information may not override the privilege despite the level of need.  But several evidentiary privileges are qualified, meaning that a party may obtain privileged information upon a sufficient showing of need.  For example, the attorney-client privilege is absolute and inviolable once established.  But the work-product doctrine is qualified, and a party may obtain the protected information upon a showing of substantial need and an inability to obtain the material elsewhere.

What about the mediation privilege?  mediationThe Uniform Mediation Act, published by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and accessible here, includes a qualified mediation privilege.  This uniform act provides that a mediation communication is privileged from discovery unless the party seeking discovery shows that the evidence is not otherwise available, that there is a need for the evidence that substantially outweighs the interest in protecting confidentiality, and that the mediation communication is sought or offered in a criminal proceeding or in a proceeding to rescind or reform or a defense to avoid liability on a contract arising out of the mediation. Unif. Med. Act § 6(b).  Some states have adopted the Uniform Mediation Act, including its qualified privilege, while others have adopted it with some modifications.  Other states forego the uniform act in favor of their own mediation rules or statutes.  And in these states, the privilege may arise by statute or in the common law, and may be absolute or qualified.

A recent Indiana Supreme Court decision highlights this distinction.  In Horner v. Carter, 981 N.E.2d 1210 (Ind. 2013), copy available here, a husband sought to modify a divorce settlement agreement and attempted to offer his mediation statements as evidence.  In rejecting evidence of mediation statements, the Court followed the Indiana Alternative Dispute Resolution Rules, accessible here, which include an absolute mediation privilege. Rule 2.11 provides:

Mediators shall not be subject to process requiring the disclosure of any matter discussed during the mediation, but rather, such matter shall be considered confidential and privileged in nature. The confidentiality requirement may not be waived by the parties, and an objection to the obtaining of testimony or physical evidence from mediation may be made by any party or by the mediators.

Interestingly, the Court noted the distinction between Indiana’s absolute privilege and the Uniform Mediation Act’s qualified privilege, and expressly “decline[d] to follow [the uniform act’s] approach to mediation confidentiality at this time.”  Perhaps Indiana will amend its mediation privilege rule to make it a qualified privilege, but at this time the privilege remains absolute.  Practitioners should note this decision, avoid assumptions of an absolute mediation privilege, and know where your state falls on the absolute vs. qualified issue.