Reflections on the Phoenix Post-Mediation Shooting

On January 31, during a settlement conference for a lawsuit, the defendant and his lawyer were tragically murdered by the plaintiff.  I would like to offer my condolences to the families of all involved and to the conflict resolution community of Phoenix, Arizona, where it occurred. This is truly a horrible event that I hope is never experienced again.  However, reflecting on this incident has raised two streams of thoughts in my mind that I’ll discuss in two consecutive posts.

In April of 2012, Arthur Harmon sued Fusion Contact Centers LLC (FCC) for breach of contract in local county court in Phoenix, Arizona. Mr. Harmon accused Steve Singer, the CEO of FCC, of fraud, alleging that he deliberately misrepresented the quality of the office furniture Harmon was hired to refurbish for the FCC’s California office. According to Harmon’s complaint, the furniture was too cheap to be refurbished and could only be replaced. Singer told Harmon to dismantle and store the furniture since the office was scheduled to have new carpet installed. In March, Harmon was notified that Singer had chosen a competitor to complete the project and directed to sell the stored furniture.

As a result of the April lawsuit, Harmon and Singer were scheduled to attend a settlement conference on January 31 at the law offices of Ira Schwartz, who was the appointed Judge Pro Tempore. (A Judge Pro Tempore is an attorney who has been specially appointed to temporarily handle a specific matter.  In the court where this occurred, settlement conferences can be used to resolve civil cases in lieu of going to trial.  That is, it is “a pretrial meeting between the parties, in an attempt to settle issues and avoid trial.”

Attorney Mark Hummels represented Singer and Harmon represented himself during the conference. According to the Detroit Free Press, Mark Harrison, who works with Hummels but was not present at the conference, said that the session was interrupted when Harmon announced that he needed to go outside to his car. When Harmon failed to return after a prolonged wait, Hummels, Singer and others assumed that he was not coming back.

What happened next is not known. According to the Arizona Republic “Schwartz has not divulged what occurred during mediation, except that proceedings ended with an impasse.” Most likely, Hummels, Schwartz and Singer discussed next steps and possibly rescheduling the session.

What we do know is that as Singer and Hummels exited the building, Harmon fatally shot both men and injured a bystander. At 8 a.m. the following morning, Harmon was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his car, along with a .45-caliber revolver, a .22 pistol and a Colt AR-15 rifle.

The Need for Situational Awareness:

My heart goes out all three victims, especially to Ira Schwartz. This shooting represents every mediator’s personal nightmare and should be a wake-up call to all of us.

As I learn more about this case, there appears little that Schwartz could have done to prevent this tragedy. Harmon did not have a prior history of violent behavior and even if he did, Schwartz would most likely not be privy to it. In addition, the case itself seemed resolvable.  A January motion filed by Hummels argued that the case should be dismissed because it “was premised on a mutual mistake of fact.”  Singer apparently proposed a compromise that would have covered Harmon’s expenses and anticipated profits but Harmon refused. So there were multiple indications that something could have been worked out.  Finally, the parties had had a relationship prior to the incidents alleged in Harmon’s lawsuit.  Singer had been one of Harmon’s customers when Harmon worked for a local office supply store. So it’s not unreasonable to assume Singer liked Harmon enough to hire him once he started his own business.

What Schwartz likely did not know is that Harmon had filed over a dozen prior lawsuits against multiple individuals for amounts ranging from $49 against a television-rental company to $426 against a mechanic.

In 2007, Harmon quit his sales position at the office supply store without notice. According to the owner, “less than one year after abruptly leaving his position, [Harmon] filed a frivolous lawsuit over the circumstances of his own resignation, which was easier for us to settle for a small amount than involve attorneys.”

From his history of litigation, one could infer that Harmon had become savvy at representing himself and extracting small settlement amounts from businesses that decided it was easier to pay him to go away than go to court and pay large legal fees.  For example, Harmon demanded $15,000 for “severe shock and painful injury” from the insurance company of a man who bumped into the rear of Harmon’s Corvette at a stoplight, causing minor damage. The insurance company’s preliminary offer was $13 and the case was eventually settled for about $4,000. Again according to the Arizona Republic an arbitrator assigned to the case had to admonish Harmon that “name-calling and personal insults will not be tolerated.” Carol Fredrickson, the defendant’s mother and a workplace-violence consultant, said Harmon’s demeanor became a concern to her son and others. “Everybody said they were nervous about him, afraid of him. He was very, very angry — over-the-top angry.”

Even if Schwartz knew all of this, however, I doubt that he could have prevented Harmon’s attacks. After all, Harmon left in the middle of the settlement conference that day to retrieve a loaded weapon from his car.  Given Harmon’s sudden change from likeable employee to serial litigator, his worldview apparently had become so antagonistic that he decided to commit murder rather than continue to discuss the problem or have it adjudicated by an impartial judge.

I doubt that Harmon would have admitted to his intentions even if Schwartz would have had the presence of mind to ask. Or possibly, Harmon made his decision in the heat of the moment, caught up in feelings of hopelessness and frustration. Maybe it was something else. We just don’t know. There are no magical powers granted to mediators, Schwartz is human just like the rest of us. We cannot see into the future or know the thoughts of others. And I am sure that Schwartz has spent many a sleepless night wondering what he could have done differently, just as we all do.

As a martial artist and somatic educator, I strongly encourage my fellow dispute resolution colleagues to think deeply about this case. What would you do in this situation? How would you have responded? Fostering situational awareness is the key to absorbing every nuance and subtle gesture disputants make and the foundation of personal safety. If we are really serious about taking care of ourselves and our clients, we need to move beyond simply ‘sitting near the door’ as our only form of protection if something goes wrong.

I regularly train mediators and professionals in the fundamentals of situational awareness derived from the Japanese martial art of Aikido. I continually emphasize in these trainings that developing these “somatic skills” will allow you to remain calm in the midst of incredibly stressful situations AND help you to stay safe in extremely dangerous circumstances.

Situational awareness is about being present and in the moment, absorbing everything around you while never fixating on any one particular thing. Unfortunately, it is the exact opposite of what many of us do. In meetings or out in public, I see many folks lost in their own thoughts without the slightest idea of what is going on around them. People’s eyes are glued to the screens of their phones or their ears are filled with earphones. Seldom to do I see folks who have any idea who is behind, next to, or quickly approaching them.

Situational awareness alone will not protect you from an armed gunman or a hostile client. What it will do is give you enough time to either run away or take the necessary action to resolve the situation. If you are really serious about staying safe, I strongly encourage you to become properly trained in situational awareness.

This concludes part one of my reflections on this post-mediation shooting, part two will be posted tomorrow morning.

 

Reflections on the Phoenix Post-Mediation Shooting

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