FAQs About Mediating Neighbor Disputes

Forming an agreement with a neighbor, bringing about compliance with that agreement, and other important issues when mediating a neighbor disagreement.

Mediation is one of the most effective ways to deal with disagreements with neighbors. But how does one deal with some of the thorny details of reaching and living by a compromise? Find answers below.

Question: When can mediation help solve a neighbor dispute?

I've got difficult neighbors on both sides, whom I've spoken to about various issues (barking dogs, loud teenage musicians, and more), with no results. 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?

Answer

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, imagine if contractors installing a music studio in your next-door neighbor’s apartment 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. Initiating legal action might be the only 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. (Consider the awkwardness of suing your neighbors, and then running into them every week in the lobby or local drug store!)

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

Question: Is compromise possible when neighbor is completely in the wrong?

I'm fed up with my neighbor, who is irrational, antagonistic, and just plain stubborn about things like feeding local deer that then eat up my landscaping, playing loud music, and putting 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?

Answer

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 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 to these subjective realities. Consider these examples.

  • If you claim your neighbor’s music is annoying, and your neighbor says it would be impossible for you to hear it, you can agree to let your neighbor play music while an objective neighbor enters your dwelling to see whether the music is unreasonably loud. You can both agree to be bound by the decision of this neutral neighbor.
  • If you believe the ostentatious Christmas decorations are harmful to the value and appearance of the neighborhood, you can both agree to consult real estate appraisers, who might be able to weigh in on the effect of the decorations.
  • If you see the deer that your neighbor feeds wandering onto your property, see whether you can take pictures to prove that they come directly from the feeding bowl on your neighbor’s lawn onto your lawn and eat your plants.

If your neighbor still refuses to abide by these objective standards, see if you can suggest compromises. For example, your neighbor might be willing to agree to:

  • play music only during certain hours, ideally when you are not home
  • consider different Christmas decorations next year, perhaps in consultation with a unified neighborhood association to create aesthetic uniformity, or
  • split the cost of a fence with you, so that your neighbor can continue feeding the deer but the deer would not be able to go onto your property.

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 that larger administrative body would take up your cause.

Question: How can my neighbor and I write a solid mediation settlement agreement?

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?

Answer

What matters in a mediation settlement agreement is whether both parties are able to 1) understand its terms, 2) willing to follow them, and 3) able 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, 2015.” The legalese might look more “official” but it 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 next Wednesday, 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.

Question: What do I do if my neighbor violates our mediation settlement agreement?

Last year, my neighbor and I were arguing 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’d get 48 hours' notice of any party, and that parties would always end by 12 a.m. Last week, there was a loud party that lasted until 4 a.m., and I received no notice at all! What do I do?

Answer

Even more frustrating than the initial noise is the feeling of having worked everything out in mediation, only to see it fall apart. What can you do?

First, don’t overreact. Here, there's 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’ll know you have a severe breach of the agreement.

Second, if this does happen again, don’t quietly seethe; immediately bring the situation to your neighbor’s attention. Call or email your neighbor the next morning and ask: Was there a reason you were not notified or 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's 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 or call the police. You can also sue your neighbor for a cause of action known as “private nuisance.”

In many small claims courts, however, a judge can only award monetary damages, which are hard to quantify. You may 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. 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 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.

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