Chasanow's mediation cuts through litigation

Ex-judge's new job is to keep lawsuits from reaching court

July 20, 2000|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

You're a lawyer with a tremendous legal headache - you've got clients who don't want their case to drag on for years and run up tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Whom do you call?

Lawyers and judges in Maryland would give you the telephone number of a man they say is one of the state's smartest peacemakers: retired Judge Howard S. Chasanow.

"You can't stump him," said one of his oldest friends, Prince George's Circuit Judge Joseph S. Casula.

Chasanow, a retired Court of Appeals judge, has found a new career as a mediator, who is called upon to settle complicated legal disputes before they get to trial.

He recently mediated a potentially protracted case involving the June 8, 1999, collapse of a Baltimore Beltway footbridge.

In that case, an improperly loaded rig on a tractor-trailer knocked the bridge onto the roadway in the middle of the evening rush hour, killing one person and injuring three.

Lawyers for the victims and the Canadian trucking company met for several months to discuss a possible settlement, then brought the dispute to Chasanow.

He brought the parties together and hammered out a settlement in one day, he said.

The agreement, under which the trucking company paid $2.6 million to the victims and their families, was reached without any of the parties setting foot in a courthouse.

Chasanow, 63, has been working in the Maryland legal community for 40 years - as a prosecutor, a District and Circuit Court judge in his home county of Prince George's, and on the state's highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals.

After retiring in 1999, he took a course in mediation and began work in Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Howard counties as a "settlement judge," ending legal disputes after lawsuits are filed, but before they go to trial.

Now, he's taking cases before they make it to a courthouse.

In the half-dozen private cases he's accepted - involving multimillion-dollar business disputes, malpractice claims and disagreements between doctors and health care corporations - he's had a 100 percent success rate.

"I really try to be careful not to push. I don't want to twist arms. My settlement rate has been astounding to me," he said yesterday.

To colleagues, Chasanow's successes reflect his knowledge of the law, his ability to remain neutral and his enjoyment of people. That's one reason he left the Court of Appeals, where judges deal only with lawyers - he missed the people he encountered at trial, he said.

But for most who know him, his intellect is what stands out.

"Nobody's ever walked out [of a settlement] and said he didn't know what he's talking about," said Prince George's Circuit Judge Steven I. Platt.

"Besides sheer brain power, he knows what will happen when you go into the courtroom. He knows how a trial judge thinks and how the appellate court thinks," Platt said. "He can look somebody in the eye and say, `I've been there.'"

Good lecture

Casula once walked by a conference room where Chasanow was mediating a case and overheard him talking.

"It was like a good law school lecture. There was not a rustle of paper, not a cough. Everybody was spellbound," he recalled.

Chasanow did his undergraduate work and earned his law degree at the University of Maryland. He was awarded an advanced law degree by Harvard University.

But he didn't start out in life as a peacemaker.

As a child, he could be a typical big brother, remembers his younger sister, Phyllis Richman, author and recently retired Washington Post food critic and editor.

"He was hardly a mediator then," she laughed, recalling their childhood in Greenbelt.

But he was always smart.

"He had the Gettysburg Address memorized when he was 3. He taught me to read when I was 4, and he was 6," she said.

"He wasn't a geek-smart kind of guy. He was a very sociable and adventurous boy. I just remember my parents always taking him to the emergency room because he fell out of a tree," Richman added.

As children, she said, they both loved to cook and played at being chefs.

"He became the lead chef and I was sous chef," said Richman. "I had a toy stove, and it was the one toy I had that he was interested in."

Today, cooking remains one of Chasanow's hobbies.

His wife, Deborah K. Chasanow, a U.S. District judge in Greenbelt, said her husband enjoys experimental cooking - "checking out different recipes and improving on them."

Fulfilling work

But much of his time these days is spent on his new career, at an age when most people are enjoying a more leisurely retirement.

"He'll come home exhausted. It's not easy work, but it is fulfilling," she said.

Chasanow said he never imagined, as a young lawyer eager to try cases and later as a judge presiding over them, that he would one day be a pioneer in a legal movement aimed at saving money and time.

"I loved being a judge, I loved every day of it, except maybe the Court of Appeals," he said.

"There is just no question for a large number of cases, mediation is a far better alternative. I am delighted to be doing it."

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