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Observations of the Los Angeles County’s, Department of Consumer and Business Affairs Online Dispute Resolution System

Some people think and plan and eventually get around to requesting that someone else do something;  other people see an opportunity and a need and make things happen.  Caroline Torosis is definitely one of the later group and the new ODR program at the DCBA is proof of that fact.

In 2014, Caroline Torosis attended the annual Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) Conference at Stanford and by the second half of 2015, she had an operational ODR program at L.A. County’s Department of Consumer and Business Affairs (DCBA.)  Online dispute resolution means many things to different people but for the DCBA it meant being able to deal with a case load that grew from fewer than 500 in 2012-13 to over 3000 in 2014-15.

The DCBA was fortunately well positioned to deal with the problem by having a trusted and efficient case management system and a great support staff in place.  However, lots of agencies across the U.S. have robust case management but never implement ODR in any real and significant way.  But the DCBA had Caroline Torosis and a staff of committed professionals in the DCBA office, as well as in IT support.

In order to implement ODR, the DCBA needed several new components as well as a well executed plan.  They needed:

  • an online communication and collaboration tool,
  • a scheduling system to arrange communications between mediators and parties,
  • a web presence to allow parties to make first contact, find forms and learn about the program,
  • a bunch of mediators trained in the concepts and best practices of ODR,
  • a plan to put it all together, and
  • the funding support of the DCBA and several other L.A. County agencies.

Starting with a strong and effective case management system provided a platform from which to develop the total ODR implementation.  Moving outward, toward the parties and the mediation process, required the development of processes and tools to enable the mediators and staff to capture case information, schedule meetings and communications events, and record the progress of the case.  This was accomplished by creating web based tools for scheduling and reporting to support the processes and procedures to use those tools.

The mediation staff needed communications and collaborations tools to support their online work – rather than trying to develop those tools, the DCBA chose to use the Zoom collaboration package.    Because Zoom is used by a number of other ODR programs it was possible for the DCBA to take advantage of an existing ODR training program that incorporates Zoom for chatting, collaboration, video calls, and end-user/party tools.  This eliminated the need for the DCBA to develop software for end-users/parties, other than web based tools supported by browsers.  Further, Zoom sessions provide simple links the parties can use to join a session without requiring user names and passwords.

Selecting Zoom as the mediation communications and collaboration tool realized one other significant advantage.  Using Zoom meant that the DCBA could leverage the expertise of Giuseppe Leone and his program to train mediators in the use of ODR.  It would be hard to overstate the importance of having a known tool for such a critical function and further having the experience of using that tool that Giuseppe and his program provided.

With the case management, scheduling, and collaboration components in hand and staff trained in the use of the tools, the only remaining components were the parties and the actual cases.  To find those parties and cases, the DCBA called on its existing administrative processes for filtering potential cases to identify those that were appropriate for ODR.  The DCBA also enhanced its web presence to provide potential parties web based tools to self-identify as potential ODR participants and request assistance.

It is important to acknowledge the importance of the role of technology support required in such a development.  Not only does the case management system have to have the normal security and administrative procedures IT administration demands, but so do all the special web procedures and processes developed specifically for the program.  Reducing the external requirements to a single package – Zoom, allowed IT to maintain the control required to ensure security and effective support.

Summary

The smart and effective use of available resources and best practices in the emerging ODR field made it possible for the DCBA to develop and implement a program which can serve a rapidly growing demand, integrates with other programs within the department, and can scale for use in other applications.  Anyone who has ever worked in a large bureaucratic organization such as the County of Los Angeles, understands and must appreciate the speed and great decision making that have gone into this development.  The ODR program at the DCBA stands as an example to hundreds of other agencies who have an acute and growing need for dispute resolution and especially the advantages provided by ODR.

Landlords – before you’re sued for the security deposit:

  • Remember settling the security deposit is part of the rental agreement and treat it seriously and honestly – the court will expect you have.
  • Know your responsibilities. Make sure you have documentation to show your appropriate actions and understand the rules about “normal wear and tear.”
  • Inform the tenants of their responsibilities and their rights. Refer questions to California Tenant.2
  • Don’t cut corners – do it right. If you need help with an unusual situation – get help.
  • Plan for potential outcomes. Calculate your costs, including your time.
    Do things to encourage

Landlords – before you go to UD court:

  • Remember the rental agreement is a business contract and the tenant is your business partner in that contract – treat her/him as such.
  • Know your responsibilities. Don’t cut corners – do it right.
  • Inform the tenants about the process and what an Unlawful Detainer court will and will not decide.
  • Inform the tenants of their responsibilities and their rights. Provide copies of or reference to the California Tenants document.2
  • Plan for potential outcomes. Calculate your costs – know how much you can afford and how long you can wait to re-rent the unit.
  • Do things to encourage good behavior and good outcomes.