Mediation is one of the most effective ways to deal with disagreements with neighbors. It certainly has advantages over calling the police or suing, given that you will possibly be living in close proximity for years to come.
But how does one deal with some of the thorny details of reaching and living by a compromise? Find answers below.
I've got difficult neighbors on both sides, whom I have spoken to about various issues (barking dogs, loud teenage musicians, and more), with no results. In fact, they basically refuse to answer the door or pick up my calls by now. Whenever I describe the situation to friends, they suggest mediation. But if my neighbors won't respond to me personally, why should they respond with someone else in the room who has no real power over them?
Different conflicts are best resolved in different ways. Litigation (hiring a lawyer to sue a person or business on your behalf) is one. But it can be bureaucratic, time-consuming, and expensive. It also might result in irrevocably damaged relationships.
There are certainly neighbor conflicts that do warrant going to court. For example, if contractors installing a music studio in your next-door neighbor's apartment were to negligently break through your wall, destroying the wall itself, the carpet, your television, and your artwork, there would be tens of thousands of dollars of damages at stake. Initiating legal action might be the only realistic way by which to obtain reimbursement.
But not all neighbor conflicts result in quantifiable, significant money damages. Plus, the time involved in meeting with an attorney, engaging in discovery, and ultimately having an attorney present the situation to a jury, could be far more burdensome than whatever your neighbor was doing, and easily cost thousands of dollars.
Mediation is often an easier way to solve conflicts. It works particularly well in situations where the parties have an ongoing relationship that will exist after the dispute.
If you live in a large city, finding no-cost or low-cost mediation services is surprisingly easy. Various groups and organizations, in some cases affiliated with small claims courts, will provide experienced mediators who know how to structure the conversation in a way to promote discussion, positive momentum, and compromise.
You'll likely want to draft a letter to your neighbors, requesting that they join you for a mediation session, and reminding them that your next step will be to pursue more serious (and binding) legal remedies.
I'm fed up with my neighbor, who is irrational, antagonistic, and just plain stubborn. He feeds local deer that then eat up my landscaping, plays loud music, and puts up horrible holiday decorations (no doubt lowering my property value) including lights that create a late-night strobe light effect in our house. Is mediation even a possibility given that I don't have any hope that he'll compromise?
First, consider whether you are arguing over something objective, like whether your neighbor's behavior violates any law or local rule/regulation. If you're not sure, it can help to research local laws or consult a third party, such as a lawyer, and follow up accordingly.
If your dispute with your neighbor is subjective, your discussion will be more difficult. Still, it might be worth trying to come up with ways of attaching objective benchmarks. Consider these examples.
If your neighbor still refuses to abide by these objective standards, try to suggest compromises. For example, your neighbor might be willing to:
You might feel that these ideas are unfair to you because your neighbor should refrain from the offending activities in the first place. This might be true. But remember, it might not be worth your time and effort to initiate legal action. In the above situations, as in many others, your neighbor's conduct is annoying but not necessarily illegal.
If your property is governed by a building management company or a neighborhood association (if you live in an apartment or a common interest development), talk to the board or other leaders about the problem. Perhaps the behavior violates community rules, and that larger administrative body would take up your cause.
My neighbor and I were arguing over his home construction project, which is taking about a month to complete. There were many issues, including property destruction and noise levels. We went to mediation, and for the most part, have agreed on solutions. Now the mediator would like to draft a settlement agreement. How can I make sure this agreement is as strong as possible?
What matters in a mediation settlement agreement is whether both parties are 1) able to understand its terms, 2) willing to follow them, and 3) given room to improvise in unexpected situations. It need not be written in obtuse legalese.
For example, "I agree to pay John $3,500 by next Wednesday" might be preferable to "Party A hereby warrants, represents and covenants that it shall remit payment to Party B in the amount of not less than three-thousand and five hundred USD on or before the 21st Day of June, 2022." The legalese might look more "official" but can easily result in confusion and ambiguity.
Also, make sure that you are both able to follow the terms of the agreement. This involves what is called "reality testing"; you should each be honest with yourselves and one another about your ability to perform what's required. It's easy for your neighbor to say that he agrees to pay you $3,500 by a certain date, but can he really? Does he have this money in his checking account or in cash? If not, how quickly could he realistically liquidate money from a savings or investment account? Avoid potential breaches of the agreement by ensuring that the terms are reasonable and likely to be met by both parties.
A crucial detail is that you and your neighbor cannot bind third parties to your agreement, unless you bring them into the process and have them sign. For example, in your construction project, you might want your neighbor to promise that his general contractor will treat your family with respect. Your neighbor can promise that he will talk to his general contractor about this, or even fire him if there is noncompliance, but your neighbor cannot compel another man to change his behavior.
Another feature of a solid mediation settlement agreement is its ability to encompass unanticipated situations. For example here, you have a major home construction project that's anticipated to last one month. What if construction runs late, or the contractors need to return in a couple months to fix part of the project? Do the terms of this agreement apply in such future scenarios? Adding a simple clause indicating that, at the request of either or both parties in the future, you will both return to mediation to resolve future disputes can help to ensure accountability if circumstances change (particularly if you're able to use the same mediator).
Like any contract, a mediation settlement agreement can be broken or bent by either party. But making the agreement realistic, concrete, and flexible will surely reduce your chances of winding up back in mediation, or worse, in court.
Last year, my neighbor and I had an ongoing argument over his habit of regularly throwing loud parties on weekends. We went to mediation, and for the most part, everything has been great. Our mediation agreement stated that I would get 48 hours' notice of any party, and that parties would always end by 12 a.m. Last week, however, there was a loud party that lasted until 4 a.m., and I received no notice at all! I'm worried the neighbor is reverting to old habits. What do I do?
Even more frustrating than the initial noise is the feeling of having worked everything out in mediation, only to see it fall apart.
First, don't overreact. Here, there is clearly noncompliance, both in terms of the time of the party and the lack of notice. But if everything has been mostly fine lately, you might not want to escalate the situation over this single incident. Wait and see whether it repeats; if another surprise late-night loud party happens next week, you will know you have a severe breach of the mediated agreement.
Second, if something this does happen again, don't quietly seethe. Immediately bring the situation to your neighbor's attention. Call or email the next morning and ask whether there was a reason you were not notified or that the party went late. Perhaps your neighbor wasn't even home, and it was his children who threw the party totally unaware of any agreement. If so, your neighbor will realize that he needs to talk with them.
Third, if the issue reemerges with no justifiable excuse, you should probably go back to mediation. Something about the original agreement is clearly not working. Many mediation agreements will have a clause built in indicating that future disputes between the parties will be automatically returned to mediation. It can be particularly helpful to go back to the same mediator, who is already familiar with your situation.
In a new mediation session, address the noncompliance. Did your neighbor agree to something a year ago that is no longer practicable? If so, how can you be made whole? Perhaps the mediator can help brainstorm new solutions to avoid future noncompliance.
Finally, if none of this works and your neighbor has decided to entirely breach the agreement, you are left with the usual remedies. For noise complaints, you can complain to the neighborhood association (if you live in a planned community) or call the police. You can also sue your neighbor in small claims court for a cause of action known as "private nuisance."
In many small claims courts, however, a judge can award only monetary damages, which are hard to quantify. You might need to sue your neighbor in a higher court in order to get something called an "injunction" or "restraining order." These are legal documents ordering someone to do, or refrain from doing, something harmful. A court is likely to be more sympathetic to you, given that you entered into a mediated settlement that your neighbor has violated.
Calling the police or initiating legal proceedings should always be a last resort. Nevertheless, your neighbor should realize that his breach of the settlement agreement is tantamount to a breach of contract, giving rise to a cause of action in a court of law.
I've got a neighbor problem, and communication has fallen apart between us. But neither of us are high-income, and the idea of paying for mediation feels like a deal breaker. What can I (we) do?
Even mediation costs money in most cases, and takes time and planning. Many nonprofit organizations and court systems actually offer mediation services at no cost, and even provide meeting rooms. But perhaps you won't find any of these in your area.
In a financial pinch, it's possible to resolve a conflict without running to a professional mediator. You and your neighbor are both adults, perhaps with ample professional and life experience. You've no doubt both had conflicts with others in the past, and have probably solved those the old-fashioned way: by talking. Many neighbor disputes are no different than those with family, friends, and coworkers, even if they sometimes involve more legal issues, like property rights or boundary disputes.
If you and your neighbor are having conflict and tension, chances are the neighbor recognizes it too. Approach your neighbor. See whether they are amenable to talking through the issues. You might suggest the discussion in a friendly, non-hostile way, asking the neighbor over to your house for tea or to a coffee shop.
Once you begin a discussion, work towards identifying the main issues of dispute and then, one by one, see if you can resolve them. Remember that you might perceive very different areas of dispute than your neighbor does.
Having this sort of conversation might be best in situations where you and your neighbor have specific, concrete issues to work out; for example, whether the neighbor owes you a certain amount of money, or whether your plants are encroaching on the neighbor's property.
It is important to go into the mediation session with a firm grasp of your "side of the story" (the relevant dates and facts) as well as a strong sense of what outcomes you are looking for: Do you want money? Do you want your neighbor to stop doing or start doing something? Do you just want your neighbor to be cordial? And finally, think about what you might be willing to compromise on, financially or otherwise.
Ultimately, the decision on whether to negotiate or mediate is between you and your neighbor. Participating in mediation is entirely voluntary, and might be unnecessary depending on the type of dispute and the nature of your relationship. But it can be an effective means of breaking through an impasse and strengthening communication patterns so as to create a healthier long-term rapport.
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