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Multi-Door Dispute Resolution-Part 3: The Houston Story

Written by special guest author Kimberlee Kovach

Kimberlee Kovach has been actively engaged in the dispute resolution field for over forty years. She is a leading practitioner, teacher, trainer, and scholar in the field of mediation and dispute resolution processes. Her involvement in dispute resolution has been at the local, state, national and international levels.

The Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Courthouse story will be told in four blog entries. Part 1 will focus on the concept. Part 2: the Tulsa, Oklahoma, story. Part 3: the Houston, Texas project. Part 4: District of Columbia Superior Court Multi-Door.

Overview: The Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Courthouse Story (by Larry Ray)

In the early 1980’s the ABA (American Bar Association) Dispute Resolution Initiative* decided that they wanted to be actively involved in a futuristic dispute resolution project. Under the leadership or Chair Ronald L. Olson, Vice Chair Harvard Law Professor Frank E. A. Sander and Executive Director Larry Ray, they rediscovered Sander’s visionary idea of the multi-door courthouse which had been presented at the Pound 1976 Conference.**

Professor Frank E.A.Sander in 1976 presented the vision of a multi-door courthouse. Each door would represent a dispute resolution process ranging from mediation to arbitration. Each dispute presented to the courts would be analyzed in an attempt to match the complaint with the most appropriate dispute resolution process. This matching might be called the taxonomy of dispute resolution.

The Houston Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Story

In 1979, Judge Frank Evans (then an Associate Justice, and later Chief Justice of the First Court of Appeals in Houston) heard an address by then Chief Justice Joe Greenhill of the Texas Supreme Court. In his address, Justice Greenhill (who had attended the Pound Conference) discussed the possibilities of ADR implementation in Texas. With funding of the Houston Bar Association, Judge Evans and others visited several of the established programs and made a recommendation that such a community center be established in Houston. Additional funding was secured, the first 40-hour mediation training was held in September 1980, and the then Neighborhood Justice Center, now Dispute Resolution Center, mediated its first cases on Monday, October 6, 1980.

In the early eighties, several other Texas counties expressed an interest in establishing centers, and the Houston staff was called in to train and provide technical assistance around the state. As a result, several DRCs were established throughout Texas, and in 1982 legislation was enacted which secured ongoing funding for these community centers. Specifically, the statute allowed counties to add a surcharge to all filed civil cases, which monies became the ADR Fund in each county that elected to do so. It was this ADR Fund that supported (and continues to support) the work of these nonprofit centers that utilize volunteer mediators. Currently the Texas centers offer mediation in a wide variety of cases, including some court-annexed matters. In some views, these centers have essentially lost their community identity and philosophy when integrated, even in part, with the court system.

Soon after, Houston became a leader in terms of innovation in dispute resolution programs, and was selected by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Dispute Resolution in 1983 as one of three national pilot ‘multi-door’ projects. At the time, Houston had a very active dispute resolution center, focused on mediation as an option for citizens. The focus was on those matters where the individuals involved were not represented by counsel. Although most of the judiciary in Houston was very supportive of mediation, the view at that time was that such alternatives were for smaller cases where parties were not represented. As a result, the development of the Multi-Door was initially primarily focused on increasing the options available to citizens in terms of processes for resolving matters. The intake personnel, those who first interviewed the citizen with a complaint, were trained to offer a variety of options, in addition to mediation. These included information about options such as the justice of the peace courts, small claims, domestic violence programs, and social service agencies. These intake centers were placed at a variety of locations throughout the city to make access easier for those individuals with complaints.

Within a few years, however, more effort was placed on integrating ADR within the court system, in other words in pending litigation. Initially, lawyers were very reluctant to use ADR processes to assist in the settlement of cases, and viewed mediation as “too touchy-feely” for litigation. In 1987, however, the Texas legislature passed what is commonly known as the Texas ADR Act. This Act provided the courts the power to mandate participation in five different ADR processes: mediation, arbitration, moderated settlement conference, summary jury trial, and the mini-trial. Essentially, the statute itself was establishing a Multi-Door Center within the context of pending litigation. That is, rather than have the multi-door options available before cases entered the courthouse, the Act established the mechanism for choosing or mandating options once a lawsuit was filed. In addition, because of the hesitation of the lawyers to engage in mediation, a program focused on neutral case evaluation was founded within the Houston Dispute Resolution Center. In 1986, many pending lawsuits were referred to the Moderated Settlement Conference, which provided case evaluation feedback to assist parties in settlement of their cases. A few years later, mediation was integrated into court mandates, as well as the summary jury trials.

Today, the idea of having “multi-doors” available for dispute resolution in a wide variety of matters exists in commercial practice, as well as many, many contract, employment agreements and business transactions. While it was not as once imagined, people do indeed have options. And mediation is now the most common.

*The ABA created the Washington, D.C. based Special Committee on Resolution of Minor Disputes in 1979 which then evolved into the Standing Committee on Dispute Resolution and eventually into the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution.

**The Pound Conference is short for the name of the conference: The Popular Dissatisfaction with the Administration of Justice, 1976. This conference was inspired by US Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger. Judge Griffin Bell who then became US Attorney General attended this conference. This was a commemoration of the 1906 conference by essentially the same name.

In 1906 Roscoe Pound who later became the Dean of Harvard Law School gave a remarkable major address outlining the dissatisfaction with the US justice system.


See Recommended Books under “Blogs” drop down menu. Clicking on any book will lead one to the discounted Amazon site.

Roy J. Lewicki is the author of 'Essentials of Negotiation', published 2015 under ISBN 9780077862466 and ISBN 0077862465. Publisher: McGraw Hill Higher Education

The Conflict Resolution Training Program, Leader’s Manual, ISBN: 0-7879-6077-2. Prudence Bowman Kestner and Larry Ray

'5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.

Getting Your Way Every Day.


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