YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Center Resolves Disputes and Cuts Costs : Mediation: People who normally would go after each other in court have an alternative--one that avoids a winner-take-all confrontation.


It was the kind of case that usually ends up in court: A man lost his job and fell behind in his rent. By the time he found work, the landlord already had begun eviction proceedings.

What made this case different was that the parties found the Claremont Dispute Resolution Center in Glendora. At a conference with a landlord-tenant mediator, the landlord agreed to lower the rent for six months and the tenant promised to catch up over time.

"That's the kind of thing the court can't do," said Jerry Pearson, executive director of the center. "The thing that makes it exciting is that the court would not have had the opportunity to look into the needs of the parties."

The Claremont Dispute Resolution Center, which operates five facilities in the San Gabriel Valley, is one of 11 agencies that have sprung up across Los Angeles County under legislation designed to help clear the court dockets by providing mediation, arbitration or conciliation to civil-issue opponents.

The programs have been thriving. But Pearson is facing the unhappy prospect that they might be killing themselves with success.

The problem is that the center competes with all the others for support from a fund established by the 1986 legislation. The county dispute resolution trust fund comes from a $3 surcharge on court filing fees. But court filings are down 15% this year, apparently in part because of the growing use of mediation.

The fund is shrinking because fewer court cases are being filed, said Kaz Nimori, senior community analyst for the Department of Community and Senior Services.

There were 453,000 civil filings in 1989, but the number has dropped substantially in the past two years. The fund collected $1.9 million for the 1991-1992 fiscal year ending last June. Of that, the Claremont Dispute Resolution Center received $133,726, a drop of $22,000 from its previous share.

Fees charged by the center--ranging from $35 an hour for clients with monthly incomes of $3,501 or more to nothing for those with low income--do not fully cover the costs.

Pearson has had to reduce the center's staff and paid interns and search for other sources of funding to avoid closing two of the facilities. With a staff of three--reduced from five--and a core of 40 to 50 volunteers, the center operates from headquarters in Glendora, with satellites in Pomona, West Covina, Diamond Bar and Claremont.

Before the cuts, the program was expanding every year, adding mediation in schools and work with the elderly, said Ellen Sherwood, administrative assistant and mediator. Now, she said, closing an office would be a tremendous hardship because many of the elderly clients and those "not familiar with the American way" would have no place to go.

Lauren Burton, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.'s Dispute Resolution Services, said that dispute resolution agencies are trying to find a legislator to sponsor a bill raising the filing fee. Even if they succeed, the benefits would not be seen until the 1992-93 fiscal year.

Meanwhile, the Claremont center has been appealing to local governments for grants.

Pearson is suggesting to cities that the center offer mediation as a service to relieve city agencies of complaints over which they do not have jurisdiction and to help unclog the court system.

Help has come in the form of grants of $11,000 from Pomona, $1,500 from West Covina, $2,200 from Diamond Bar and $1,500 from Claremont.

The services these grants help to support are varied. Landlord-tenant problems are the most common disputes. Next come disputes between neighbors, followed by family and consumer fights. The center also handles employee-employer disputes and those involving accident victims and businesses.

Diamond Bar provides the center with a rent-free building so that city residents can receive free mediation services for complaints ranging from barking dogs to overly high fences. In hilly communities, the center often handles construction and obstruction-of-view conflicts.

In Pomona, the center gets referrals from the court system and also handles housing disputes.

The Claremont center was started in 1987 by four people whose interest in dispute resolution arose from facing each other on opposite sides for nearly a decade in teacher contract negotiations in Glendora.

Pearson, a representative of the California Teachers Assn. before he became a lawyer, and Dee Kelley, a former representative for the Glendora Teachers Assn., were on one side. On the other side were Glendora Unified School District board members Ronald Leos and Patrick Bushman, who is currently a center director. They fought over contracts, teacher grievances and disputes between faculty, administrators and parents.

"We had some intense battles, but we worked a lot of things out," Pearson said. During their negotiations they frequently talked about finding a better way to resolve disputes.

Los Angeles Times Articles