What is a Settlement Conference? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
Opposing parties often hold a pre-trial meeting to solve their disagreements. A settlement conference is one of many procedures used to avoid a trial, and in this lesson, we will define these and provide examples.

Settlement or Trial

Bert and Ernie were business partners for years. One day, Ernie decided to take his share of the business and go out on his own. Their contract allowed for this, but it also called for a fair division of all their business assets. Ernie's departure infuriated Bert, and the two started arguing. A couple years later, standing in court, the judge asked how their mediation attempt went, and both attorneys told the judge that it was futile to try to settle, so they went straight to court. The judge dismissed the case and sent the parties and attorneys out of the courtroom. Now Bert and Ernie were not only mad at each other, but at their attorneys and the judge as well.

Was the judge right? In some cases getting the parties to agree on anything is impossible, let alone settle their entire dispute. However, most states have laws requiring settlement attempts to occur before the parties can go to a trial.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Most pre-trial settlements attempt involve the parties meeting and trying to resolve the disputed issues.
Settlement Conference

Alternative dispute resolution is a broad term that means any formal attempt to settle a lawsuit before it goes to trial. These can be mandatory or voluntary and include conferences and meetings designed to persuade the parties to resolve their issues. If they come to an agreement, then a settlement agreement is drafted and once the parties sign, then the lawsuit is dismissed. If they fail to come to a resolution, then the case heads to trial.

Mandatory vs Voluntary

Mandatory dispute resolution takes place where the law in that state requires a formal settlement attempt to take place prior to a trial. Voluntary dispute resolution is a broad term meaning any non-mandated attempt to settle. These can take place before a lawsuit is filed, during and after discovery and even during the trial at any time before a jury verdict is reached.

Where mandatory ADR is the law, there are typically a few court-approved methods that the parties use to satisfy that requirement. The one used most often in mandatory ADR states is the settlement conference. The law can't force the sides to come to an agreement, but the law does require them to try. Voluntary ADR can be anything from discussions between parties before attorneys are involved and settlement offers made by the attorneys throughout the pretrial and trial process.

The Settlement Conference

A settlement conference is an ADR in which a meeting is held by the parties with the purpose of settling the issues prior to a trial. In some states, a settlement conference is held by the trial judge and takes place in the judge's chambers or in a conference room at the courthouse. There is no court reporter present, and only the parties, their attorneys, and the judge attend. In other states, the term settlement conference denotes any meeting between the parties where the goal is to settle the dispute.

We can look at Bert and Ernie's situation as an example. Since the state they are in requires mandatory ADR, at some point after the lawsuit is filed, they have to formally attempt to settle the dispute. When the judge learned that they didn't, by law he or she had to either send them to an ADR settlement attempt, or in some cases, dismiss the suit and have them start over.

So now when they start over, they go to a settlement conference. In some states, this means the attorneys and parties would meet with the judge to try to talk things out and maybe come to a resolution. If they do, a written agreement is drafted and signed by all parties, the attorneys, and the judge. This is filed in the case, and the suit is dismissed.

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