By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - For Bronx Supreme Court Justice Douglas McKeon, the meeting on November 28 with lawyers for Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the hotel maid who accused the former IMF chief of sexual assault was the culmination of months of shuttle diplomacy.
Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was considered a leading candidate for president of France until his career came crashing down with the accusation. Now the maid's civil lawsuit was all that remained of the scandal in the United States, and McKeon was looking for a resolution.
"A court can send messages to parties that it is willing to work with them, to put the time in, to play a constructive role" in reaching a deal, McKeon said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, a day after announcing that the maid, Nafissatou Diallo, and Strauss-Kahn had settled for an undisclosed sum.
"There are some judges who don't believe that is their role, and that's a legitimate position to have," McKeon said.
While McKeon declined to discuss the details of the settlement, he provided a rare glimpse into his behind-the-scenes role in helping the parties settle the case.
Over the course of several hours on that November afternoon, McKeon said he went back and forth between the lawyers and a side room where Diallo was waiting, keeping her informed of developments as a framework for a deal was hammered out.
Kenneth Thompson, one of Diallo's lawyers, on Tuesday credited McKeon for his "hard work" in facilitating a settlement. He declined to comment further on the details of the deal. William Taylor, a lawyer for Strauss-Kahn, declined to comment Tuesday but praised McKeon in court on Monday for his efforts.
Diallo accused Strauss-Kahn of attempted rape and forcing her to perform oral sex in his Manhattan hotel suite in May 2011, leading to his arrest and destroying his political career in France. The charges were dropped in August 2011 after prosecutors grew concerned about Diallo's credibility; she filed a civil lawsuit just weeks before the criminal case was dismissed.
The case, which drew international headlines, carried an unusual level of public and media scrutiny. McKeon said he approached the negotiations like any other civil lawsuit.
"When you have in-court proceedings that attract 100 reporters from around the world, it's not the typical personal injury case that you deal with every day," he said. "On the other hand, the trick to me in settling any case is to have perseverance, not grow discouraged, keep the parties talking and try to create a civil atmosphere so that one can have a productive conversation. Those rules apply in every case."
At the same time, McKeon said he entered the negotiations without a preconceived notion of the value of the case because he didn't know what kind of assets Strauss-Kahn had access to.
"In 99 percent of civil cases that I handle, there is some kind of insurance or entity which is clearly financially viable," he said. "I did not know what Mr. Strauss-Kahn's financial wherewithal was."
Strauss-Kahn paid the settlement with private money, not insurance, McKeon said.
REACHING COMMON GROUND
A veteran judge of more than two decades, McKeon has long advocated for judges to play a role in settlement talks.
He recently led an experimental approach to handling medical malpractice cases in which judges with medical knowledge mediate discussions, forestalling lengthy litigation.
The settlement process in the Strauss-Kahn case began earlier this year, soon after McKeon rejected Strauss-Kahn's motion to dismiss the lawsuit based on diplomatic immunity.
McKeon said he met with Diallo and Thompson -- with Taylor's permission -- to see whether she might consider a settlement.
"Up until the diplomatic immunity decision, there was never any indication that Ms. Diallo would even consider a settlement," he said. "Thereafter, there seemed to be more of a willingness on her side."
Over the next few months, McKeon served as mediator, discussing the case with one side and then the other in an effort to find common ground.
The tenor of the negotiations was respectful, and progress came relatively smoothly, McKeon said, in contrast to the barbs exchanged between the lawyers in public.
The final decision he made was to have the settlement announced in open court, rather than ending the case more quietly by filing documents.
"The public portion of the settlement process was a pronouncement that the system does work," he said. "I wanted everyone to see that Ms. Diallo was part of that process."
(Editing by Noeleen Walder, Daniel Trotta and Lisa Shumaker)