Legal: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Almost everyone remembers the iconic theme song from Fred (Mr.) Rogers, that goes “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” As it turns out, March 20th is “Won’t You Be My Neighbor Day”, meant to serve as a reminder of the very simple message Fred Rogers wished to convey, which seems to be that each and every one of us need each other in some form or fashion. All too often, however, the relationship among neighbors does not meet Fred Rogers’ simple life instruction.
Of the multitude of calls my office takes each year from prospective clients, one of the most frequent is from individuals having issues, and often vengeful disputes with their neighbors. These problems can range anywhere from nuisance complaints about noise (typically animal or vehicle related noise), to disputes over fence lines or deed restrictions, to the most severe situations where neighbors are literally threatening or engaging in violence with the intent to harm. The common thread I have seen over the two decades of taking these calls is that most disputes could be resolved with better communication and a bit of patience between neighbors. While legal intervention, or law enforcement intervention, is needed in the most extreme situations, an attempt to abide by Mr. Roger’s theme would save a lot of folks a lot of anxiety, and often money.
Solving Minor Disputes
Almost everyone that calls about a neighbor’s particular behavior believes it is a “major” issue because they can be very emotional issues that cause a lot of worry. However, when you look at the issue from afar (the way an attorney often will), the barking dogs, the dripping pipe or the loud music are not what one would typically call a major violation of one’s rights. That is not to suggest the issues are not important, its just to suggest that it may be worth it to try the most peaceful ways at reaching resolutions before getting lawyers or law enforcement involved.
The best place to solve minor disputes with neighbors, in my experience, is to simply talk to the neighbor. For this to be effective, the neighbor likewise needs to be willing to talk, and both parties need to be willing to communicate in an adult, respectful manner. Being respectful in discussions does not mean individuals need to agree, it just means that issues can be resolved or negotiated much easier when the parties approach it with a proper tone.
While this may seem obvious, it never ceases to amaze me how many neighbor disputes very quickly enter a stage of people yelling and screaming at each other. I find it very unlikely that any dispute can be resolved by yelling and screaming. Instead, that is likely to end up escalating the situation into something that lasts until someone gives up or moves.
If talking face to face is either impossible or not productive, then I suggest a letter or email. In drafting such a communication, keep it simple – identify the issue you are having and what you want to occur, again in a respectful manner. Avoiding sarcasm and a threatening tone, and instead relying on facts and how you think the matter should be resolved, will often help bring a resolution.
When an in-person discussion and written correspondence fail to produce any type of response, I suggest trying to find a third party to potentially intervene and act as a “mediator.” A mediator in the legal world is a trained third party that is neutral and attempts to negotiate a resolution to whatever the issue may be facing the parties. In the neighbor context, this person may just be another neighbor or a common friend. Again, the key is to facilitate communication to reach a resolution.
Finally, if these attempts and communication fail, a person may be left with two reasonable choices – do nothing and live with whatever the issue is, or alternatively seek legal intervention.
Considerations Before Seeking Legal Intervention
While no one likes the thought of backing down and just living with whatever the issue is, there are valid reasons to weigh your position before taking the dispute to the next level.
First, remember that no matter what action you take, whether calling the police to file a noise complaint, hiring a lawyer to send a letter, or filing a lawsuit – they are still your neighbor. The presence of legal proceedings does not typically result in neighbors getting along better. Quite the opposite, it often results in a more fractured relationship, and can cause the dispute to escalate into something worse. I have seen situations that started out as complaints about teens speeding through neighborhood, or dogs barking, result in physical violence, injuries, arrests or even worse.
Secondly, lawyers and courts often do not end with the solution that was originally hoped for, namely because of two constants – uncertainty and expense. The outcomes of any legal proceeding are uncertain; you may believe you have the best case ever and that no reasonable judge or jury could ever see the case any way other than the way you see it. Every person is going to view your set of facts a bit differently, especially a judge or jury that will have no emotional connection to the situation. This becomes particularly true when the other side (your neighbor) gets to present their story, because they likewise think the same way as you – that their case cannot lose.
Then there comes the issue of the expense involved. Hiring a lawyer and fighting these matters in a courtroom are expensive. I have seen some legal disputes between neighbors involving tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, which may or may not be recovered by the party that wins. In fact, most never get their spent attorneys’ fees back. Imagine how it feels if you spend tens of thousands of dollars and still end up losing? Remember, no matter how great you think your case there is absolutely no guarantee the judge or jury is going to agree (and often they do not).
ALWAYS Remember Fred Rogers
In closing, I find as I get older that it is the simplest rules of life that carry the most meaning. Fred Rogers’ “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is about as simple as it gets – the theory that we should all treat each other as though they were our neighbors – with respect and kindness. Yes, sometimes calling law enforcement or engaging an attorney are the only choices someone faces and one should not hesitate to do that when the situation has escalated too far or safety is at risk.
However, when the problem(s) with the neighbor can be handled by some neighborly behavior and communication (exercised by all parties involved), give it a try first. The result or compromise may not make you 100% happy, but avoiding an unnecessary and expensive legal battle and giving you more time and money to enjoy your home and family is a much bigger victory in the end.