Litigation Makes Good Neighbors?

By John B. Swift II posted 09-05-2017 08:19


Neighborly disputes are nothing new. In fact, territorial disputes are one of those things that seem to be common among every society throughout history. Compared to the struggle of a nation-state to secure its borders from, say, the army of Genghis Khan, the arguments between your average residential street dwellers can seem rather petty. As a real estate attorney, I ran into plenty of these cases. Probably the most entertaining (and mystifying) were the dock disputes between folks who already had a house on the water and couldn’t find anything better to do than argue about whose dock should go where. Michigan Real Property Law §3.10 has a good discussion of the relevant cases on this issue if you’re into that kind of thing.

While some of these neighbors had legitimate issues requiring an easement or moving a fence, many times a lawsuit could have been avoided by a frank discussion between the parties. Perhaps coming home to a bothersome situation every day fosters a certain irrationality among people. I think the old saying about good fences making good neighbors remains true, but I think people should also focus on communication.

I’ve been following an interesting case in Delaware for a while now that just recently garnered a decision from that state’s supreme court. The short version of the case is that a guy built his dream garage next to his house and his neighbors didn’t like it. The chancery court’s initial opinion is a good read (complete with a Simpsons reference—see page 6) as is the opinion issued after posttrial briefing on the issue of building code violations (albeit not as colorful). The judge in this case seemed to recognize that the parties should have been able to settle the dispute over a beer at a picnic table: “These are issues that neighborly people could have resolved with reasonable give-and-take, and reached thereby a [superior] result .... Unfortunately, the parties were unable to achieve such a civil accommodation.”