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The Human Element

By Shane Nelson | Dec. 1, 2023

Dec. 1, 2023

The Human Element

Retired judge David De Alba's compassion helps parties see benefits of a deal, lawyers say

Read more about David De Alba...
Judicate West
Malcolm Maclachlan / Daily Journal David De Alba

​​Retired judge David F. De Alba, now a Judicate West neutral, spent more than two decades working for the California attorney general’s office, but when he started there back in 1979, he wasn’t planning to stay long.

“It was a job, and I needed a job,” De Alba said. “But I was not enamored with the prospect of being a civil servant. … I never dreamed I was going to be there 22 years.”

A 1979 UCLA School of Law graduate, De Alba figured he’d eventually move into private practice, but his goals shifted not long after he started handling cases as a deputy attorney general.

“I lost interest in private practice because I started to really enjoy public practice in that I was just lawyering,” De Alba explained. “I was just being a lawyer full time. I didn’t have to go find clients. I didn’t have to chase clients for money. I was representing the public interest. And I always was very proud when I went to court and they announced my appearance, saying my name: ‘David De Alba, deputy attorney general, appearing on behalf of the people of the state of California.’”

De Alba handled criminal matters for 10 years as a state prosecutor and tackled civil cases for another 10 years before working two years as a special assistant to the attorney general. De Alba was then appointed in 2001 to the Sacramento County Superior Court, where he ran probate, criminal and civil trial court calendars as well as settlement conferences. He was the court’s presiding judge from 2018 to 2020.

After his retirement from the bench in September 2022, De Alba joined Judicate West’s roster of private neutrals. Since then, he’s been mediating, arbitrating and working as a discovery referee in an assortment of cases, including personal injury, medical malpractice, business and employment disputes.

“Some of the same skill sets and experiences from my judicial career just transferred over naturally, and I find it very fulfilling,” De Alba said. “I really enjoy helping people get to a point where they say, ‘I’m done with this, and I’m glad I’m done with this.’ I love that feeling of having helped people get to that point in their lives where the most important thing is not a lawsuit anymore.”

Although he’s not yet reached the ruling phase in any of the many arbitrations now on his calendar, De Alba noted that his role as an arbitrator isn’t all that different from his responsibilities while presiding over bench trials as a judge.

“Arbitrations and bench trials are like cousins or brothers and sisters. There’s not a whole lot of difference between the two,” De Alba said, adding that during the pandemic he conducted several bench trials online.

“I did, I don’t know, half a dozen bench trials virtually with the lawyers on Zoom — or with two lawyers with me in the courtroom and witnesses testifying by Zoom,” De Alba recalled. “So I have — I don’t want to say a lot — but a healthy amount of experience conducting bench trials, which I believe will translate into presiding and hearing arbitrations.”

De Alba noted, meanwhile, that he likes to receive briefs and speak over the phone with counsel before his mediations. He won’t use joint sessions, but he will offer mediator’s proposals if parties consent and he feels that strategy might be effective.

“And of course, listening is an important aspect of the job,” De Alba added. “I have found over my career, and especially here in mediation, that it’s very constructive to allow people to speak their peace, to say what’s on their mind. Everybody has something about their case that’s on their minds, and they want to tell somebody about it.”

De Alba said that early on in his mediations, and typically throughout much of the day, he applies a more facilitative approach, trying to help the parties voluntarily reach a compromise. But as the day progresses, he will shift into a more evaluative role if asked.

“I, of course, have lots of experience with juries, and the parties and lawyers that come to me realize that,” De Alba explained. “I rarely, if ever, will give advice about the settlement value — other than in a mediator proposal — but if I’m invited, generally yes, I’m happy to discuss strengths and weaknesses with the lawyers.”

Sacramento defense attorney Robert L. Rediger used De Alba as a mediator recently in a difficult employment matter, and he described the Judicate West neutral as “very thoughtful and very fair.”

“He was very persuasive with my clients,” Rediger said. “What you want to do is brief him on the law — the facts that are important to persuade the other side to settle. And then let him do his job, which is basically trying to get the parties to that sweet spot, where both parties can say, ‘Uh, I really don’t like the settlement, but I can accept it to put this to bed.’”

Sacramento defense attorney Jennifer E. Duggan used De Alba recently to settle a challenging and emotional employment dispute.

“I thought he did a really good job navigating that emotionality,” Duggan said. “He really listened and understood the issues, and I think he did a good job of connecting with the clients and trying to figure out what was important to each side, including the nonmonetary issues.”

Sacramento plaintiffs’ attorney Robert A. Piering has used De Alba four times to resolve personal injury disputes, and he described the mediator as “nothing short of superb.”

“He understands what takes place during the course of a trial, understands the risks to both sides, and he can give a unique perspective that a lot of other mediators that haven’t sat on the bench just can’t,” Piering said. “He knows what can and will take place during trials and how the dynamics of a trial can really change the reality of somebody’s expectations around a personal injury claim.”

Piering was quick to add that De Alba is also terrific with litigants.

“He brings compassion to the room, and that makes a really big difference,” Piering said. “It adds the human element that a lot of times mediators seem to lack. And when you bring that, it really helps to lower the barriers and allows people to be much more flexible in working through an already difficult process. … He’s just very, very good at getting people to see the benefits of a settlement.”

Here are some attorneys who have used De Alba’s services: Jennifer E. Duggan, Duggan McHugh Law Corporation; Robert A. Piering, Piering Law Firm; Robert L. Rediger, Rediger Labor Law; William K. Blakemore, Davies Blakemore LLP; Kat Todd, Schuering Zimmerman & Doyle LLP.


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