Should You Sue a Neighbor in New York Small Claims Court?

When a small claim suit is -- and isn't -- a fitting response to a neighbor dispute.

There are all sorts of ways that neighbors can anger one another. From making too much noise, to disruptive construction, to the intentional or unintentional destruction of property, neighbors in New York, particularly in the heart of the city where people live at close quarters, can cause you grief. You may be wondering whether you can solve your problems by suing your neighbor in small claims court.

What a Small Claims Court Can Do

Sometimes, the answer to that is “yes.” In small claims court, a claimant (like you) can sue a defendant (your neighbor) for an amount limited by law: up to $5,000 in New York City, and typically $3,000 in other parts of the state.

You do not generally need an attorney. (This is referred to as being “pro se” or “self-represented.”) Representing yourself saves a substantial amount of money. You must file your lawsuit in the county where you and/or the defendant live, or where the alleged injury occurred. In disputes between neighbors, that’s usually pretty easy to figure out, since you both obviously live in the same county and that’s the same place that the injury occurred. If you are unsure about the name of your county, try looking on the New York State map on the Census website. You can contact the county courthouse about its specific procedure and forms for filing a lawsuit.

A small claims lawsuit might be a smart idea if your neighbor has injured you or your property in a provable,financial, and quantifiable way. This is because, in New York, small claims court judges are empowered to award only monetary damages. They cannot issue orders forcing your neighbor to do (or not do) something. They also generally do not issue punitive damage awards, meaning that the “damages” you show must be actual, ascertainable financial harm.

An example of this would be if your neighbor engaged in reckless construction in his apartment, breaking through your wall and destroying a painting worth $2,000. A small claims court could order that he repay you for the value of the painting (assuming, of course, that you can substantiate its value).

Monetary awards can make sense in other contexts, too. For example, suppose you discovered that your neighbor was running a power line from your property to his property, effectively running up your electrical bill and lowering his. Assuming you could quantify the amount that you overpaid because of his actions, you could sue him for that amount in small claims court, up to $5,000.

What a Small Claims Court Cannot Do

A small claims court judge cannot order that your neighbor stop playing loud music, or order that he stay 100 feet from your family, or order that he put mousetraps on his property. To get these types of non-monetary orders, you would need to sue him in New York State Supreme Court. This court has a much broader jurisdiction, meaning the judges have broader powers over the losing party in a lawsuit.

Note, however, that lawsuits in Supreme Court tend to be more expensive and time-consuming. You are more likely to need to hire an attorney to prepare extensive motion papers and give oral arguments for a Supreme Court judge to issue an order like those described here. In small claims court, by contrast, you can generally represent yourself and file your own paperwork. Assuming it goes to trial, you can eventually explain the situation in your own words to a judge.

As you can see, the power of a small claims court is narrow. An important point to keep in mind is that a judge cannot force your neighbor to be a good and reasonable person; a judge cannot force your neighbor to treat you with respect. These are remedies that are better sought outside of the litigation process.

Consider Non-Litigation Alternatives

Having said all of this, suing your neighbor is rarely the best option for most disputes. Indeed, it is almost never should be someone’s first recourse in response to a disagreement. Remember, your neighbor is likely to be your neighbor for a while. Even if you’re a renter rather than an owner, most leases are for at least one year, and there is a good chance you could be stuck with one another for longer than that. Few things can rip a relationship apart more effectively than a lawsuit. You are likely to see your neighbor regularly – in the elevator, in the lobby, or on the street. It is in both of your interests to develop a civil relationship in which you don’t need to fear the awkwardness of coming home.

Have a Conversation With Your Neighbor First

With that in mind, your first step when a conflict arises should be to have a conversation. Take the initiative to knock on your neighbor’s door, explain your concern in a calm and non-hostile tone of voice, and gauge the neighbor’s reaction.

Perhaps your neighbor will acknowledge the problem fully. In this case, great! You've avoided the time and cost involved in filing an action, and you also will maintain a civil relationship. Perhaps your neighbor will accept partial responsibility and offer you a settlement (for example, by paying you $1,500 instead of the full, $2,000 value of the painting).

Don’t be afraid to compromise. Even if you believe your neighbor is completely wrong on the facts and the law, you can save yourself many headaches by swallowing your pride and forging compromise.

Consider Mediation With Your Neighbor Instead of a Lawsuit

It might become clear from your initial conversation that you and your neighbor see the world very differently, and you don’t seem to be achieving any compromise. If this is the case, consider mediation before rushing to file a small claims court action.

Mediation is essentially a structured conversation organized by a neutral third party who does not know either you or your neighbor. Mediation promotes mutual understanding (certainly more than an adversarial lawsuit does), and can provide a good chance of arriving at a settlement between you and a neighbor.

Once your neighbor understands that the dispute is likely to go to court if it is not settled, he might be willing to take the time to mediate. If neither your conversation nor your mediation proves fruitful, however, filing a case in small claims court might be your best recourse. See the “Small Claims Court” section of Nolo’s website for more guidance on preparation and procedures.

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