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Mediation Can Resolve Disputes Without Litigation

Paula Chin in Building Operations on February 4, 2019

Little Neck, Queens

Mediation I

Mediators serve as referees, defusing disputes before they result in litigation (illustration by Marcellus Hall).

Feb. 4, 2019

We live in contentious times, including those of us who live in co-ops and condominiums. “People are becoming less tolerant of one another, and there are more disagreements than ever,” says Claudine Gruen, vice president and director of operations at Garthchester Realty. When disputes prove intractable, there’s a tried-and-true remedy available to co-op and condo boards

It’s called mediation, a voluntary approach to settling disputes in which a neutral third party – usually a professional mediator or an attorney – assists the disagreeing parties in resolving conflicts. Mediation can work when there is friction between owners, between an owner and the board and, in newly constructed buildings, between owners and the developer. 

Compared with lawsuits, mediation saves money and time, and it can result in amicable settlements without any festering resentments. “It’s underused, but more co-op and condo boards are realizing it’s the best way to resolve disputes that don’t belong in courts, like noise and odors or people who aren’t paying common charges,” says Michael Graff, principal at Graff Dispute Resolution, who says he has had a 70 percent success rate mediating condo disputes over the last decade. “With mediation, you have nothing to lose and a great deal to gain.” 

Typically, a managing agent who gets a complaint from a resident will try to stop the problem before it starts – for example, getting someone to carpet 80 percent of their floor to mute the sound of footsteps, or install a fan to vent cooking odors. If that doesn’t work, the next step is having the parties talk it out in a controlled environment. 

At Deepdale Gardens, a 1,396-unit co-op in Little Neck, Queens, disputing sides meet onsite with the board’s five-member mediation committee. “We let them speak and listen to each other, and then we make suggestions,” says Fran Heaslip, the board secretary, who chairs the committee. In the two disputes she’s presided over during the past year, matters were settled after a single meeting. “With quality-of-life issues, getting things out in the open so they don’t escalate is sometimes all it takes,” she says. “Anything more serious, though, would be handled by our attorney.” 

Gruen, of Garthchester, brings the parties together with a lawyer, Mark Hankin, a partner at Hankin & Mazel, right from the get-go. “I’m always present, taking notes, so it’s on record that the co-op or condo is fulfilling its obligation to remedy the situation,” she explains. For Hankin, the goal is to get people – “even when they come in hating each other” – to come to an agreement after a 40- to 60-minute session, which he says happens more often than not. “Ideally, the parties will also sign a written agreement,” he says. “Otherwise, eventually they might sue each other, and then possibly sue the co-op or condo for not enforcing the regulations.”

Another option for boards is the New York City Bar Association’s (NYCBA) Co-op and Condo Mediation Project, which provides trained private mediators in a more formal setting. “We hardly ever keep people in the same room,” says Graff, a member of the NYCBA panel. “Instead, we start in the same room so each side can express their feelings, then the mediator goes back and forth between them. They’re kept apart until there is a resolution.” 

Richard Brewster, another mediator, adds: “It’s extraordinary how stoked up people get – they feel angry and betrayed and just dig their heels in. When parties aren’t ready to have a civil conversation, mediation can help them move forward.”

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