The Velvet Hammer: Mediator tries to settle Morgan Hill Courthouse flap
But Randy Wulff is no man of the cloth.
Wulff is a nationally renowned Bay Area mediator who will try to settle an angry dispute between Santa Clara County and a group of contractors over work on a courthouse in Morgan Hill that's still unfinished after four years of wrangling.
Heading straight to court might be an easier choice. But there is good reason that in mediation circles Wulff, whose fees are fat, is famously known as The Velvet Hammer.
"He's worth every penny,'' said Palo Alto attorney William Eliopoulos, who regularly uses Wulff's considerable skills as a mediator. "I call him the patron saint of lost-cause cases.''
In a blue shirt set off by a bright white collar and cuffs, the mediator and former trial lawyer with the sun-reddened cherubic face could pass for someone in a more peaceful pastime — perhaps a cleric for a wealthy church.
But in the mean, pricey, head-butting world of high-end mediation, Wulff's settlement record is impressive, and includes the California class-action suit against Microsoft that made up to $1.1 billion available to the plaintiffs. Wulff, 60, rose to the national ranks after U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, once a federal judge in New York, chose him to mediate the insurance dispute in the World Trade Center attacks. Wulff spent 21/2 years jetting from the Bay Area to New York to help craft the historic, multibillion-dollar settlement.
To get some idea of what Wulff will bring to the thorny Morgan Hill situation, it is instructive to look at the vast mix of techniques he used as he brought together another set of warring parties.
The recent battle, played out inside his Oakland office, was over multimillion dollar delays in overhauling Southern California highway bridges. And even his comical quip about "hold your peace," offered a peek at the kind of sure-handedness Santa Clara County taxpayers can expect from Wulff next spring.
"Sounds like we're at a wedding, doesn't it,'' he asks the two hostile camps glaring at each other recently from opposite sides of a long table inside a suite overlooking tranquil Lake Merritt. But the work Wulff does, he admits, is "more like a divorce."
And like most divorces, the universal sticking point is money. About $7 million is at stake in the Southern California case. In Santa Clara County, the "divorce" between the county and its contractors could cost taxpayers a lot more — an extra $17 million, on top of the $50 million the courthouse has already cost. To avoid a costly lawsuit, the parties have agreed to split the cost of hiring Wulff for two days in May — at $14,500 a day.
Wulff's path to success as a top-flight mediator probably began with his father. His dad owned a construction-related business, so the son grew up in Stockton reading blueprints. In the construction litigation world, contractors are known as the last of the riverboat gamblers: They don't bet in Vegas; they bet they can make a profit on public works projects like the courthouse.
When the gamble doesn't pay off, the parties frequently try nonbinding mediation. Such dispute resolution has saved private companies and local governments tons of money since Wulff helped pioneer the tactic in the 1980s.
The flip side
But not everyone is a fan of Wulff's mix of soft-spoken earnest attentiveness coupled with stiff reality checks.
The city of Milpitas replaced Wulff with a retired Monterey judge after he failed to settle a lawsuit over problems with City Hall construction.
"Put it this way — the city manager was so offended by Randy he walked out," said Kevin Gilbert, an attorney for the city in the case. "He's just one of those mediators you either love or you hate."
In the highway bridge dispute, the 17 lawyers, expert witnesses and contractors aren't wildly optimistic that Wulff can resolve four futile years of angry correspondence and help them avoid a looming trial that could cost each side $1.5 million in legal fees. The one-day marathon session in his Oakland office began at 9:30 a.m. and lasted well past the time when janitors begin vacuuming the beige-carpeted halls.
As an opener, Wulff invites the general contractor and the subcontractor to present their sides of the story. "Questions are allowed,'' he says, "But not, 'Do you always lie like that?' ''
That gets a laugh, but Wulff has to separate the two factions earlier than usual and spend the next 45 minutes shuttling from room to room smoothing feathers after a chance comment angers the general contractor.
Reads their minds
Asked privately after the equally convincing presentations how he can evaluate which side was really at fault, Wulff credits tone of voice and body language, as well as 35 years of experience as a former trial lawyer. He says, "I just go around pointing radar guns at people.''
His ability to read people comes in handy later when the subcontractor digs in his heels over money. The sub tells Wulff plaintively, "We've been in too much pain for too long to take that little.'' The mediator lets him vent without interruption. But as the night wears on, Wulff begins living up to The Velvet Hammer moniker. With calm urgency he warns the sub, "You've got to be sure your legitimate justified anger doesn't interfere with a business decision.''
The talks reach a breaking point when the contractor's side refuses to budge above an offer to the sub of $1.3 million, even though its defense is weak and its legal fees and possible losses are likely to exceed the proposed settlement. But the dynamic shifts in favor of the sub when the company's lawyers whip out a damning government document.
Wulff calmly reads the bomb of a memo to the contractor's attorneys, carefully calculating their reaction from the corner of his eye. Their deadpan faces don't fool him.
"When a trial lawyer doesn't react at all," he says, "that's when you know they're the hardest hit.''
The contractor tries bluster and bluff, but Wulff, talking softly but intensely, finally gets the contractor's chief attorney to step back from the financial cliff.
Even after the deal is struck 10 intense hours after the session began, there's work to do late into the night to make sure no one has buyer's remorse and everyone signs. Though weary after a grueling day, Wulff still reveals one of the secrets of his success.
"I've discovered a universal truth,'' he says with a smile. "Everyone wants to stop paying their lawyer.''
Contact Tracey Kaplan at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 278-3482.
Randall W. Wulff, 60Education: University of Oregon; law school at the University of California-Hastings College of the LawFamily: Lives in Piedmont with wife Krystyna; has two sons, 32 and 29What he loves about mediation: "There aren"t very many fields in life where you can do the right thing and prosper.—Most unexpected skill: Tank mechanic (in Army Reserve)Inspiration: His older brother, paralyzed in a surfing accident, ran his own construction supply company and became a champion sailor.Passion: Grows 100 tons of grapes and makes wine on his Napa Valley ranch.Gripe: "We send contingents to try to mediate human strife in the Mideast instead of sending people really qualified in dispute resolution.—