When conflict erupts in a multifamily community, be it between neighbors, between a resident and the board, or between board factions, it has the potential to cause real problems beyond just the immediate parties involved. Feuds between neighbors can turn meetings into shouting matches and derail the actual important business of running the building or association; disputes between residents and the board can have the same effect - plus legal costs and long term acrimony if the situation deteriorates to the point of litigation.
One key tool for avoiding these costly and unpleasant possibilities before they take root is alternative dispute resolution, or ADR. ADR is a catch-all term for several different methods of resolving legal conflicts outside of the traditional court system. ADR methods tend to be faster, more affordable, and less stressful than going to court, and are particularly useful in the context of residential disputes. In some cases ADR is even mandated by law before litigation can be brought.
Multiple Methods, One Goal
There are several different ADR methods that can be used to resolve neighbor disputes, the two most common being mediation and arbitration.
Mediation involves the use of a neutral third party, known as a mediator, who helps the parties reach a mutually agreeable solution. The mediator does not make decisions for the parties, but rather helps them communicate effectively and understand each other's perspectives. Mediation can be particularly effective in neighbor disputes because it allows the parties to maintain a relationship and find a solution that works for both.
Arbitration also involves the use of a neutral third party - known as an arbitrator - who listens to both sides of a dispute, acting as a judge and making a decision that resolves the parties’ dispute. In binding arbitration, the parties agree the decision of the arbitrator is final and enforceable in court, and there is no right to an appeal. Arbitration is often faster and less expensive than going to court, but because the arbitrator makes the final decision, there is no real opportunity to challenge that decision if one party believes it was granted in error.
Other ADR options include collaborative law, guided negotiation, or a combination of methods that involves the parties and their lawyers working together to find a mutually agreeable solution. The key is to find a method that works for both parties and allows them to resolve their dispute in a way that is effective and efficient, and avoids the stress and expense of court. More information on different ADR methods, resources, and professional mediators is available through the American Arbitration Association (AAA).
Not a Cure-All
While ADR has been shown to be effective in many situations, it’s not for everyone, or every conflict, says Michael J. Ciarlo, a partner with Manhattan-based law firm Nadel & Ciarlo, P.C. “It won’t lead to a successful result unless both parties are willing to compromise. Also, in arbitration, parties do not have the same protections and rules to follow as in litigation, and the matter cannot be guided by legal precedents or discovery rules. It can be difficult to predict the result.” And, he adds, “Many times, a party will use ADR as a stalling tactic and will eventually decide to stop negotiating, which will lead to litigation anyway.”
“ADR is great because it puts [the conflict] before a truly impartial arbiter of facts,” says Chip Hoever, vice president of operations for Matrix Property Management in North Brunswick, New Jersey. In New Jersey, housing-related disputes must go through ADR before they can be litigated. “[However,]” says Hoever, “it’s a little harder to get things coordinated when you have another person involved. COVID was a double-edged sword because [in the beginning] it was still difficult to schedule, but Zoom meetings made it easier.”
An Ounce of Prevention
When it comes to neighbor disputes, the pros agree that prevention is often the best approach.
Hoever says that dealing with any conflict needs to be direct and to the point, and the quicker you handle things, the better. “Having clear, concise rules helps set expectations for everyone. Make sure rules resolve a problem and don’t make them overly burdensome. Keep in mind that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle of what the two sides are telling you. And above all, stay impartial and try to build consensus between the two sides. Remember, this is someone’s home and they have the right to peaceful enjoyment.”