Have a question about how to use the law in your story? Need a character, plot twist or setting? Ask me in the comments section and I'll be glad to answer. I welcome all comments and questions.

Monday, January 21, 2013

666 Park Avenue Starts With An Employment Law Lesson

The new television show, 666 Park Avenue, is a fun show about a luxury apartment building that has issues way beyond the normal plumbing problems. And the landlord? Well, as the Church Lady used to say on SNL, "Could it be Satan?" I think I had that landlord once.

The first show starts out with our hero couple finding the ideal job as managers of the building from hell. It all looks so nice, the tenants so happy. The new boss offers them more money than they imagined and a gorgeous apartment. He shoves a lengthy agreement in front of them. What's the worst that could happen?

Of course, our heroes sign without reading. And there's the big lesson for all employees: read what you sign. Your could be making a deal with the devil.

What could be in the agreement in this show makes me shudder to think. I'm sure we'll find out some of the worst provisions as the show progresses.

What could be in your employment agreement? There could be a noncompete provision saying you can't work for a competitor for a year or two. Or a nonsolicitation agreement, saying you can't solicit or communicate with clients, vendors and employees of the company for a year or two. I saw one that was so broad, my client couldn't talk to her bank about her own bank account if she signed. One would have barred my client from talking to his son for three years. You might have waived your right to a jury trial for any disputes against your employer, or have agreed to arbitrate, meaning you'll never get your day in court.

For writers, horror of horrors, there could be an intellectual property agreement saying that, if you thought of it or wrote it while you worked for them, even on their own time, they own it. That's right. Your blog, Twitter account, novel or nonfiction book about the workings of your industry might not be your own.

While you enjoy this fun new show, let it serve as a reminder to you: no matter how nice someone seems, read what you sign. You just might be making a deal with the devil.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Hey Good Wife Writers: Mediation Is A Settlement Conference, Not A Hearing

I just finished watching Episode 11 of this season's Good Wife, called, "Boom De Yah Da." Where do I begin? The writers must be watching that idiotic show about "mediation," Fairly Legal for their research. They couldn't have been more off base if they tried.

First of all, our heroes get a "Notice of Mediation" ordering them to attend a mediation on short notice regarding their bankruptcy. Sure, mediators do sometimes issue notices. But that's about all they got right. While a court may order mediation between parties, nobody can unilaterally set a mediation. The parties agree to both the mediator and mediation date. If they agree on neither, the judge sets it. There's no such thing as a surprise mediation. Usually, a party issues the notice after both parties agree on a date, location, time and mediator.

But it gets worse.

The mediator arrives and calls herself an "empress." It is clear that she intends to conduct a hearing and make a ruling. That's not what a mediator does. A mediator is a facilitator. She is not a judge, an arbitrator, a hearing offer, or an empress. She is there to help parties to a legal dispute reach a voluntary settlement. She can't take testimony. She can't make an order.

I'm so sick of writers getting this wrong. Mediation is a great thing to write into a legal show or a story involving the law. The Wedding Singers was a comedy that started with the main characters conducting a mediation, and they did it right. It was a great introduction to the characters, funny but true to the law.

Why has Hollywood gone off the deep end about mediation? It's simple. If you want someone who isn't a judge make a ruling in your story, they can be several things, just not a mediator. Here are a few:

Court-appointed special master
: A special master is someone the judge appoints to make rulings on a specific matter. It might be discovery or a complex legal issue. That would have been perfect here.

Arbitrator: If the parties agree, the whole case can be ruled on by an arbitrator instead of a judge. It's a great process that saves time and money, and is not public. I doubt it would have worked here since the parties didn't agree and I've never heard of a bankruptcy arbitration. Arbitration can be forced on people like consumers and employees who signed an agreement in fine print they didn't read, and you can't appeal an arbitrator's ruling, so it's an excellent vehicle for a writer to use. It creates tension, drama, and gives finality to your story's outcome, unlike a judge's ruling, which can be appealed.

Hearing officer
: Some cases, usually minor ones like traffic matters, use hearing officers instead of judges. They can make rulings just like judges. It wouldn't have worked here.

Magistrate judges: Federal courts also have Magistrate Judges, appointed but not for life, who hear federal matters. They take some of the burden off the judges and can hear cases by agreement or by court order. That would definitely have worked here.

Why oh why can't writers be bothered to get this right? It really ticks me off since I'm a mediator. Any lawyer, party to a lawsuit, mediator, or judge who is familiar at all with mediation knows this wasn't even close to realistic.

C'mon, Good Wife writers. I know you can do better.