But I Can't Afford a Lawyer! Help Exists, Even On a Limited Budget

Lawsuits, by their very nature, are acrimonious affairs. They can be messy, they’re time-consuming, and even when they’re relatively uncomplicated, they’re expensive. For a lower- or median-income co-op or condo resident, getting sued or needing to bring legal action against someone can trigger serious panic.

There are low- or no-cost legal resources out there, however. Arbitration and other methods for alternative dispute resolution, or ADR, have existed for some time and can provide a lawsuit-free path to harmony—or something like it. These methods aren’t right for every co-op- or condo-related dispute, but for the shareholder who can’t afford a lawyer, it might be the way out of an otherwise sticky, costly situation.

An ADR Primer

According to the American Arbitration Association (AAA), arbitration is “the submission of a dispute to one or more impartial persons for a final and binding decision, known as an ‘award.’” If that sounds a lot like a lawsuit, it’s supposed to: The primary difference between arbitration and a lawsuit is essentially the degree of formality used by the people involved. Arbitration was actually here first: the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all resolved conflicts using the arbitration method before instituting a formal court system. Mediation and negotiation, other forms of ADR, are similar to arbitration in terms of process, except that the decisions made in those processes are usually non-binding.

Though the formal court system certainly has its advantages, (the right to appeal, recognized precedents, etc.) when a plaintiff brings a problem into a court of law, there’s a lot of red tape involved—tape that is theoretically eliminated in ADR. Lawsuits must be scheduled far in advance; arbitrations can be heard quickly. If you file a lawsuit, there are many rules of evidence to follow; those rules don’t apply in ADR, so you can take your time explaining your case and bring in as many homemade pie charts as you like. Juries hear most lawsuits; there are no juries in ADR proceedings. With ADR, an award is decided by a neutral third party that could be an attorney, a retired judge, a teacher, businessperson, psychologist, or anyone with expertise relevant to the case.

Arbitration decisions are not final or binding unless specified in a contract’s arbitration clause. If the decision is binding, an appropriate court will make the award an enforceable judgment. If either party is unsatisfied with the way things worked out, they are free to pursue formal legal action from there.

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6 Comments

  • What is considered unreasonable cooking odors or other odors in common element
  • Personally, I believe if you live in a Co-op you agree to certain things right off the bat. 1. Noise, you agree that you will hear your neighbors more than if you lived in a house with a yard. 2. Smell, you agree to show the air with your neighbors and thus smell is hit or miss. If you live in a condo or apartment building you pay less, own less, and have less say so. If you don't like it then buy or rent a house.
  • I HAVE AN UNBEARABLE SQUEEK COMING FROM THE FLOORBOARDS FROM THE UPSTAIRS APARTMENT. NO ONE WANTS TO FIX IT. CONTRACTORS SAY THE ONLY SURE FIRE WAY TO REPAIR IT WOULD BE TO RIP UP THE FLOOR. AM I REPONSIBLE FINANCIALLY FOR THE REPAIR OF THIS FLOOR TO ACQUIRE SOME PEACE????
  • I lived in the same condo 20 years and the new person who moved in below smokes. It comes in my unit through the shared wall space and HVAC vents. It also comes in all open windows. I have a heart condition that is made worse by this and I have told my new neighbor about it and she said she would enjoy her home any way she pleases. I cannot sit out on my deck because she is out there every day smoking and talking on the phone. Inside she starts as soon as she wakes. My Association says there is nothing they can do and they won't even look into it even though I have something from my doctor regarding the health issue. I wanted to live here until I retire. What about my right to breathe and not feel like I am having a heart attack? Why should someone's addiction have all the rights?
  • Going to court SOON to save my apartment. Jury trial / no attorney. Pretty strong 'Tenancy' case (in my opinion). Is there any way I could run my presentation before a Housing Attorney (30 minutes) for a fee? Just want ADVICE on what to expect & how to query a potential Juror. Thank you.
  • to kathryn: your association is wrong. there have been significant inroads made in terms of protecting those impacted by second hand smoke. your neighbor can not subject you to this. google second hand smoke renter and owner rights