Mediation Good Way to Settle Disputes

Special to The Times

QUESTION: I was about to take my tenant to court over several problems when someone suggested mediation as an alternative. I am busy and I do not want to waste my own time, or anyone else's. What is the best choice for me, going to court or mediating?

ANSWER: It has been said that going to court is like going to war; going to court is simply a legally sanctioned way to continue a dispute in an attempt to end it. In court, one party wins and one loses, but you have no guarantee beforehand whether you will be the winner or the loser.

Mediation, on the other hand, allows the disputing parties to sit down with an impartial third person whose role is not to judge, but to help the people in finding a solution to the dispute.

Many people feel that mediation is effective in resolving disputes because people choose to sit down face to face and discuss all aspects of a disagreement. Together, and with the help of the mediator, the people involved not only come to understand the reasons behind their dispute, but they can also create their own solutions.

One study found that people who agree to make payments in cases that are mediated are nearly twice as likely to pay their obligations in full than defendants who are ordered to pay by a judge in small claims court. Most people who participate in mediations are willing to live up to their agreements because they are directly involved in shaping the outcome, instead of having a judgment imposed on them by an outsider.

Mediations usually are less expensive than legal actions, and many cities or counties provide tenant/landlord mediations free. It is easier to schedule mediations than court hearings, and often mediation sessions can be held in the evening, or even on weekends.

Even if you cannot settle your problem in a mediation, or if the agreement later falls apart, you may still file an action in court and seek a judgment. Trying mediation first does not reduce your options, although it can help to reduce the court backlog.

In this impersonal and litigious society, mediation provides one of the best and most humane ways to resolve disputes directly among the people concerned. Try it; you may find it to be more effective than pursuing a court action.

Child Artists Could Draw Eviction Notice

Q: I have young children who enjoy posting holiday decorations, like shamrocks and Easter bunnies, in our apartment windows. My manager has told me not to put anything up in my windows and if I persist the manager says he will serve me with an eviction notice. Can he do this?

A: Management may impose rules limiting or prohibiting window decorations, but these rules must be stated clearly in writing. The management may even impose new rules, but only with a 30-day notice for month-to-month tenancies. For a tenant with a fixed-term lease, the management has no choice but to wait until the end of the lease to make any changes.

If your rental agreement or apartment regulations do not mention any rules covering the windows, you should be able to display your children's decorations. If the manager persists with his threats, you should call your local tenant/landlord dispute resolution program.

However, if the apartment has strict rules prohibiting window decorations, your only option is to discuss the situation with the manager in an effort to persuade him that your decorations are unobtrusive and very important to your family. But if you cannot reason with him, try to find another place for your children's artwork inside the apartment.

It's Landlord's Job to Eliminate Rodents

Q: What obligation does a landlord have to keep the premises rodent free? The rats in my apartment scratch and squeak in the walls at night and regularly visit my kitchen in search of fast food. My upstairs neighbor says that the previous tenant saw rats coming in through a hole in the wall near the foundation. When I called the landlord, he told me to help myself to the traps stored in the utility room, a response that hardly seems adequate to me

A: Your landlord is obligated under state law (Civil Code 1941.1) to provide you with a residence free of rodent infestation at the beginning of your tenancy, and health codes require him to continue to take responsibility for rodent control throughout your tenancy.

You also have an obligation to maintain a clean environment that does not attract rodents. However, in the situation you describe, rodents appear to have been a problem before your tenancy ever began.

At this point your landlord should actively try to solve the problem. To engage his interest, send him a letter, return receipt requested, describing the problem and requesting assistance, and keep a copy of the letter for your own records.

If he doesn't respond, call your city or county health inspector who will inspect the premises and offer your landlord explicit instructions on how to correct the problem.

This column is prepared by Project Sentinel, a rental housing mediation service in Sunnyvale, Calif. Questions may be sent to 582-B Dunholme Way, Sunnyvale, Calif. 94305, but cannot be answered individually. For help in the Los Angeles area, call the Metro Harbor Fair Housing Council at (213) 539-6191 or the Westside Fair Housing Council at (213) 475-9671.

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