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Centered Calmness

By Shane Nelson | Mar. 15, 2024

Mar. 15, 2024

Centered Calmness

Mediator Cynthia Aaron resolves cases with a respectful, honest approach, lawyers say.

Read more about Cynthia G. Aaron...
Judicate West
Personal injury, employment, business, appellate, civil rights, real estate, insurance
Thomas Kurtz / Special to the Daily Journal

Retired Justice Cynthia G. Aaron spends far less time reading these days.

"I was reading briefs literally seven days a week," Aaron said of her 20 years on the 4th District Court of Appeal. "I took briefs on every vacation I ever went on. I even took them to my son's sports events when he was little because the amount of reading was crushing."

A 1984 Harvard Law School graduate, Aaron worked four years with Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc. before striking out into private practice with a partner, focusing on civil rights cases and criminal defense. In 1994, she was appointed as a U.S. magistrate judge in the Southern District, where she conducted hundreds of civil settlement conferences before Gov. Gray Davis appointed her to Division One of the 4th District in 2003.

"I loved the job, but I thought 20 years was a good long time and a round number," Aaron said of her decision to retire in January of 2023. "I felt like I needed a change."

Aaron joined Judicate West's roster of private neutrals shortly after stepping down from the appellate bench last year, and she's since been working to resolve several wrongful death, catastrophic injury and business disputes as a mediator. To this point, however, the retired justice hasn't accepted any arbitration work.

"I haven't completely ruled it out," she explained. "But I've been the decision maker for a long time, and I just wanted to try something less adversarial."

Aaron said her interest in mediation, meanwhile, dates all the way back to her time settling federal civil cases as a U.S. magistrate judge, and she was quick to note she's found her return to dispute resolution work invigorating.

"I could not believe how energized I felt when I got back to it," Aaron explained. "I feel enormously satisfied when a case does settle, and everybody seems happy and relieved. ... It's just nice to feel I played a role in helping them reach that conclusion."

Aaron asks for briefs from all the parties prior to her mediations these days. She mentioned with a chuckle that those are "generally much shorter" and require "so much less reading" than her former job.

"And I definitely have phone calls with all of the attorneys before the mediation," Aaron added. "I want to break the ice a little bit. It's almost like we've met if we've talked on the phone, so we don't have to go through those steps during the mediation. And I also want to give them the opportunity to tell me anything they might not want to say in front of their client."

Unlike when she was settling cases for the Southern District, Aaron noted that joint sessions have typically been frowned upon by the attorneys she works with these days.

"Probably because lawyers do a lot of posturing in those sessions, and it's not particularly productive," she said. "If parties wanted to get together, I would certainly not prevent that from happening. I would encourage it. It's just that oftentimes they don't want to see each other or talk to each other, and I understand that - there can be a lot of bad feelings."

Aaron also said she's only issued one mediator's proposal over the last year largely because she would really prefer to help parties ultimately reach their own conclusion. And building a foundation of trust through active listening plays a big role in that effort.

"I'm determined that every party - whether it's an individual plaintiff in a serious tort case or people in a business case - I want everybody to feel they're truly being heard and understood," Aaron explained. "I'm always telling them, 'Look, I'm not going to make you talk,' because some people are nervous. But I try to make them comfortable, tell them this is an informal process, off the record. It's a discussion. 'I want to hear from you, if you're willing, about what's going on and how you're feeling.'"

San Diego plaintiffs' attorney Marlea F. Dell'Anno used Aaron recently to settle a difficult negligent supervision case involving the San Diego Unified School District.

"It was just a terribly sad case with a very vulnerable client," Dell'Anno said. "And what really struck me is that she's tenacious and effective, but she also had an incredible way of putting my client at ease with some very heavy topics."

Dell'Anno said Aaron accomplished that by being respectful but honest throughout the mediation.

"She just has a very centered calmness," Dell'Anno explained. "And to have somebody that was calm but still able to say the tough things out loud in a respectful way really, at the end of the day, got the job done. ... Sometimes you don't need to be the loudest person in the room to control the room, and I felt like she had a really good handle on the process."

San Diego litigator Thomas A. Leary used Aaron recently to resolve a personal injury case in which he represented the plaintiff, and he agreed that the Judicate West neutral mediates without a great deal of ego.

"You don't often come across a person with both her skill set and her manner at the same time," Leary said. "The trick is to not only be able to understand and debate the law with the lawyers, it's also to have the client feel calm and to feel understood and to explain the situation to them. ... We come across arrogance all the time in this profession. But to have someone who isn't arrogant and is as smart as she is - it's just a rare combination."

Huntington Beach defense attorney Evelina M. Serafini used Aaron recently to settle a complex contract dispute, and she said the mediator's take on her case's strengths and weaknesses was particularly helpful.

"It was sort of a binary thing, where either my client is right or they're wrong, and if my client is right, the other side gets zero. But if they're wrong, the other side gets seven figures, so it was potentially very risky," Serafini explained. "We had, frankly, a really good case, but it was so helpful to get her input to show that it was basically a coin toss. ... It was so helpful for me to convey that to my client, who really needed to get a perspective like that before spending the money to go to trial."

Like Leary and Dell'Anno, Serafini also described Aaron as tremendously personable.

"I've had experiences with mediators where they're just - pardon the pun - very judgy or combative, and I sense a lot of that is playing devil's advocate," Serafini explained. "But I just found her easy to talk with, easy to deal with and very available, and she didn't ever make me feel like I wasn't working hard enough to get my clients to the table. She was just very supportive."

Here are some attorneys who have used Aaron's services: Thomas A. Leary, Law Offices of Thomas Leary APC; Marlea F. Dell'Anno, Dell'Anno Law Firm; Evelina M. Serafini, McMillion & Hirtensteiner LLP; Ingrid M. Rainey, Rainey Law PC; Michael R. Marrinan, Law Office of Michael R. Marrinan


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