Different conflicts are best resolved in different ways. Litigation – the process of hiring a lawyer to sue a person or business on your behalf – is only one way. But it is not always the best way. Indeed, despite the images of lawyers battling for justice in courtrooms that we see on television, litigation can be bureaucratic, time-consuming, and extremely expensive. It also might result in irrevocably damaged relationships.
There are certainly neighbor conflicts that do merit litigation. For example, imagine if contractors doing work on your next-door neighbor’s apartment negligently broke 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 necessary to get your neighbor or his or her contractors (or their respective insurance companies) to reimburse you.
But not all neighbor conflicts result in quantifiable, significant money damages. Neighbors can anger each other in all sorts of ways, many non-financial. There’s a reason for the adage that good fences make good neighbors; living in close proximity can breed conflict. Imagine that your neighbor routinely over-waters his or her grass, causing damage to the flowers on your side of the fence; or that your neighbor’s dog runs wild and barks constantly in the early morning; or that your neighbor’s teenage children constantly have loud parties on the weekends; or that your upstairs neighbor has a treadmill that makes a constant, headache-inducing pounding whenever he or she uses it. The potential conflicts are endless.
What all of these types of situation have in common is that traditional litigation would likely be an inappropriate solution. Sure, there are legal causes of action that you might be able to file against your neighbor for some of the above situations – like nuisance (for the teenagers’ party) or trespass (for the water leaking onto your property). But 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 annoying than whatever your neighbor was doing. And, depending on your lawyer, it could easily cost you thousands of dollars.
Mediation is 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 neighbor, and then running into him or her every week in the lobby or local drug store!) Mediation allows parties with genuine disagreements to discuss those disagreements in a structured way, and also in a way that preserves civility and promotes dialogue.
How can you suggest mediation? Imagine the scenario above, about the upstairs neighbor running on a noisy treadmill. Perhaps you asked your neighbor to stop using it, and he or she she promised to be more careful, but nothing has changed.
Try approaching the neighbor again, explain that the situation is not working. You might start the conversation by saying that he or she is a generally great neighbor, and that your problem is not with him or her but with thesituation. Make it communal a problem to solve. And then suggest that the two of you sit down at a table, for just an hour, with a neutral third-party.
Most people would have difficulty saying no to just an hour – especially if they see that you’re serious, and that the problem might escalate to involve lawyers if it is not resolved quickly.
After you've discussed this with your neighbor, where might you find a qualified, appropriate mediator? If you live in a large city, finding no-cost or low-cost mediation services is surprisingly easy. Consider the Center for Civic Mediation in Los Angeles, or the New York Peace Institute in New York.
Organizations like these will provide experienced mediators who know how to structure the conversation in a way to promote discussion, positive momentum, and compromise. They can also take the heat off the parties. Remember that you do not necessarily need an attorney to mediate; many mediators have backgrounds in psychology, social work, or negotiation. An advantage of an attorney-mediator, however, is that they might be better positioned to structure the conversation if substantive legal issues are involved.
In short, if you’re having a conflict with your neighbor, you needn't run immediately to court and open your wallet to a lawyer. The smarter course for dealing with some neighbor conflicts, while still preserving the relationship, might be mediation.