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

You thought you had an agreement with your neighbor -- can it be salvaged?

Question

Last year, my neighbor and I were arguing over his habit of regularly throwing loud parties on weekend evenings. We went to mediation to resolve the situation, and for the most part, everything has been great. Our mediation agreement stated that I’d get 48 hours notice before 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 got no notice at all! What do I do?

Answer

Even more frustrating than the initial noise you experienced is the feeling of having worked everything out in mediation, only to see it all fall apart. The time, and perhaps money, that you invested in the mediation now seems wasted. What can you do?

First, don’t overreact. Here, there is clearly noncompliance, both in terms of the time of the party and the lack of notice. But perhaps, if everything has been mostly fine for the past year, you should not escalate the situation over this single incident. Wait and see if it repeats; if another noisy late-night party presents itself next week, you’ll know that you have a severe breach of the agreement.

Second, if this does happen again, don’t quietly seethe in your home; immediately bring the situation to your neighbor’s attention. Call or email your neighbor the very next morning and see what happened. 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 he had with you. If this was the case, your neighbor will realize that he needs to talk with them.

Third, if the issue reemerges and there is no justifiable excuse, perhaps you should go back to mediation. Something about the original agreement is clearly not working. Many mediation agreements will have a clause built into them indicating that any future disputes between the parties will be automatically returned to mediation. It is particularly helpful to go back to the same mediator, since he or she 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 you to brainstorm new solutions to avoid future noncompliance.

Finally, of course, 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.” Remember that in many small claims courts, a judge can only award monetary damages, which is 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” – legal documents that order your neighbor 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.

Remember, though, that calling the police or initiating legal proceedings should be a last resort. Coming back to the mediation table, more often than not, is the better route. But 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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