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Shirley Leung

Demoulas fray needs a breath of impartiality

Kenneth Feinberg, who has helped settle claims from the 9/11 bombings, the BP oil spill, and the Boston Marathon bombings, says family disputes are the toughest to settle.

Bloomberg News/File

Kenneth Feinberg, who has helped settle claims from the 9/11 bombings, the BP oil spill, and the Boston Marathon bombings, says family disputes are the toughest to settle.

If there is anyone who knows how to resolve a dispute involving family, money, and high emotions all on a tight deadline, it is Ken Feinberg.

He is the 68-year-old Brockton-bred lawyer everyone from President Obama to Tom Menino has called upon to figure out how to disperse millions of dollars to victims of tragedies from 9/11 to the Boston Marathon bombings.

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So how would he handle the Greek tragedy known as Market Basket?

Feinberg, who has been following the issue closely from his perch in Washington, said he would first hire a neutral mediator to forge a comprehensive settlement between the two warring factions of the Demoulas family, which owns the supermarket chain.

This person, he warned in his booming voice, faces a monumental task. Perhaps peace in the Middle East might be easier.

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“There is nothing more difficult, in my experience, than a mediation involving competing family members,” said Feinberg, reached at his D.C. office, where Verdi’s “Requiem” and other operas play in the background all day long.

“I saw it at 9/11, I saw it at BP. If parties are that emotionally invested in their hardened position, the greatest mediator in the world won’t be able to get the parties to yes and consensus,” he said. “Reasonable, rational alternatives are dead on arrival.”

‘The most complex lasting disputes are often family disputes, where the parties dig in their heels.’

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With the turmoil at Market Basket in its fourth week, the Demoulases and the company board have not brought in a third-party mediator. Employees are still protesting and customers are boycotting the understocked stores, vowing to shop elsewhere for groceries until the chain brings back beloved boss Arthur T. Demoulas.

Market Basket is bleeding tens of millions of dollars, and thousands of workers have lost paychecks. To regain control, Arthur T. has offered to buy out Arthur S. and his family, but negotiations have been painfully slow.

The situation has become so dire that Governor Deval Patrick has stepped in as an informal mediator, making calls Wednesday to board chairman Keith Cowan and the two feuding cousins in an attempt to prod everyone closer to a deal.

Feinberg praised Patrick’s decision to try to get things done over the phone rather than assemble everyone in the same room. Feinberg said this “shuttle diplomacy” approach — similar to how negotiations over Gaza and Israel are being handled — is preferable in this case.

“It’s probably not the kind of dispute where face-to-face mediation would be very productive,” he said of the Demoulases. “They would probably start throwing things at each other.”

As a mediator, Feinberg added, the governor needs to be a good listener. It’s crucial to allow those involved “to vent about the merits of the dispute,” he said.

Feinberg has never shopped at a Market Basket, nor does he know the family. I asked if he was surprised by how long sale talks have dragged on. After all, there’s a buyer, there’s a seller, and there’s urgency with 25,000 jobs and 71 stores on the line.

“Nothing surprises me anymore about disputes. I’ve seen it all,” he said. “The most complex lasting disputes are often family disputes, where the parties dig in their heels. Not only do they feel they have the better of it on the merits, they also feel wronged.”

So who is wronged here?

“Everybody,” said Feinberg. “One major reason there is not a deal is because everybody involved feels wronged. Family members feel wronged, the public feels wronged, the employees feel wronged, the board feels wronged.”

He wouldn’t dare predict when an agreement could be struck, but thought it was a positive sign that the governor has intervened. But if there is another impasse, Feinberg said he would offer his services — pro bono, of course.

“I would be glad to serve in the public interest,” he said.

If Feinberg could settle this decades-old family feud, his legacy would be complete.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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