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Mediation Center Gives Small Claims a Big Hand

September 20, 1987|SUE AVERY | Times Staff Writer

Steven Ling, agent for the owner of an Arcadia apartment building, did not want to cause trouble for a tenant who moved out still owing $510.

The tenant's check had bounced because her former boyfriend had withdrawn funds from their joint bank account. In an effort to settle the matter, Ling and the former tenant went to the Community Dispute Resolution Center in Pasadena.

"The tenant knew I didn't want to go to small claims court, so she was reasonable about going to the center," Ling said.

"We met in April with the mediator, Peg Holton," Ling said. "Peg worked out a schedule in which the tenant agreed to make monthly payments of $100. She has made the first payment and it worked out because both of us were willing to resolve the dispute."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 24, 1987 Home Edition San Gabriel Valley Part 9 Page 5 Column 1 Zones Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
It was incorrectly reported in a story in the San Gabriel Valley section Sunday that the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation had severed its ties with the Community Dispute Resolution Center. The foundation has continued to provide funding for the center, donating $25,000 this year.

The center was founded four years ago to keep such minor disputes from clogging the legal system. Since then, 95% of the 1,800 cases handled have been resolved successfully, Executive Director Frank Zupan said.

"Most disputes are resolved in one session that rarely lasts more than an hour," said Holton, who is in charge of community outreach. "It is businesslike but relaxed, with the mediator trying to defuse hostilities. Generally one person will make a concession and then it is easier for the other person to do it too."

The center, 330 S. Oak Knoll Ave., uses 11 volunteer mediators who handle 60 to 80 cases each month. Referrals come from the courts, police, former clients and community organizations.

The nonprofit organization was started with funds provided by the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation, which had researched other centers across the country. The foundation, which no longer has ties to the center, agreed to finance it for two years with a beginning annual budget of $70,000.

Among the founding members who still serve on the board of directors are Dorothy Nelson, a U. S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judge, and her husband, James Nelson, a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge.

The board also includes a deputy district attorney, the assistant to the Pasadena police chief, the president of the Parsons Corp. and three attorneys.

Most of the cases handled by the center involve landlord-tenant disputes. Others include consumer-merchant disagreements, disputes between neighbors, domestic disputes and auto accidents.

And it is not uncommon for a case to involve an animal.

For example, Niall Hassett of Hayes and Co., a Pasadena property management company, faced a problem in which a tenant's dog ruined the garden at an apartment building.

"The tenant was moving out and wanted his security deposit back, but we wanted the garden fixed," Hassett said.

Compromise Arranged

"We went to the center last December and the tenant got his security deposit but he paid to fix the garden."

Solutions like that are common, the mediators said. Both parties must be prepared to give a little.

Holton said emotions are especially intense in neighborhood disputes because conflicts may be longstanding.

In one case, a couple filed a complaint against a neighbor because a branch from a tree in his yard fell and damaged the couple's fence. Neither party had insurance and the tree owner was angry because he thought the couple had insulted him.

As a result of the mediation, both parties agreed to help rebuild the fence.

Holton said that a hidden problem often underlies a conflict between neighbors.

Trying to Get Attention

"Often an elderly person will say the neighbor's children annoy her when actually she feels lonely and ignored so she picks on the children to get attention," she said.

"Sometimes the outcome is that the children do yardwork for the senior citizen and everyone is happy. Those cases are very rewarding for us."

Auto accident disputes often involve a party at fault who has no insurance. In those cases, she said, a payment schedule is set.

Financing for the center's $200,000 annual budget comes from corporate and foundation grants. Under a new state law, however, the center will be eligible for a portion of a $3 fee to be collected when a civil case is filed in a local court.

"Our center and one in Santa Monica are the only two in the county," Zupan said, "but once the money from the courts is available, I expect that 10 to 15 additional centers will open.

Still Must Raise Funds

"We hope to collect some of this money by January but the law provides that it cannot be more than 50% of our budget so we will still have to raise funds."

Zupan, Judy Skalnik, who acts as mediation coordinator, Holton and a secretary are the only paid members of the staff. Holton and Skalnik also serve as mediators.

A case begins when someone files a complaint and pays a $5 fee, Holton said. The center then sends a letter to the other party and, if that person agrees to participate, the complainant and respondent meet with a mediator. In those cases, the conflict is either settled or ends up in court.

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