Recently the Texas Supreme Court addressed the issue of the enforceability of Mediated Settlement Agreements in the case In re Stephanie Lee, Case No. 11-0732. In this case, the trial court refused to enter a judgment based on a Mediated Settlement Agreement because the trial court did not feel the agreement was in the best interest of the child.
The Texas Supreme Court held Family Code section 153.0071 does not authorize the trial court to “substitute its judgment for the mediated settlement agreement entered by the parties”. Acknowledging that parents are presumed to act in their children’s best interests, Justice Lehrmann pointed to the public policy that encourages the parties to reach a peaceful agreement of their disputes and the Legislature’s choice to defer to the parties’ best interest determination. The Court’s ruling requires trial courts to enforce these mediated agreements regardless of the trial judge’s personal opinion as to its contents.
This case was particularly challenging because the child’s father was seeking to back out of the Mediated Settlement Agreement because his ex-wife was now married to a registered sex offender. The Mediated Settlement Agreement at issue contained specific provisions creating a five mile safety zone to protect the child from contact with the new husband. This issue caused the Supreme Court to resolve a conflict in public policy. At odds was the policy encouraging peaceful agreements between parties and the policy to provide a “safe, stable, and non-violent environment for the child”.
People will debate both sides of this case and obviously one would always defer in favor of protecting the child, but the Supreme Court made the wise choice in this regard. It is easy to the let the emotional drawstring of child endangerment cloud the ultimate issue. In this instance the parties made specific provisions to make sure the child was not exposed to harm. The Court wisely balanced the conflicting public interests, giving due weight to the intent of the legislature and a mother’s protective instincts. The simple fact is, it is becoming more and more expensive to litigate. When most courts are mandating mediation in lawsuits, how can you expect a client to bear the costs of mediation if the trial judge can substitute his or her judgment for the mediated agreement of the parties? In this case, at least, wiser heads prevailed, and the Court had the courage to ignore the sensationalistic side notes to reach a decision that actually works.