Pilot program helps in settling landlord disputes

By Tom Gantert

Legal News

Larry Socie is sitting in a downtown corner office in the United Way building in downtown Jackson, Mich.

It's not unlike the rooms in which Socie works as a volunteer mediator for a landlord-tenant dispute resolution pilot program run out of Jackson County 12th District Court Judge Darryl Mazur's courtroom.

"It's the fact we can sit around a table and talk," says Socie. "That's big ... We are not sitting in front of a judge."

About a dozen cases a month are heard in the pilot program which started in May. To be eligible to participate, a tenant must be sued to be evicted.

Then the case must be assigned to Mazur's docket. The three other district judges don't participate in the program.

The mediation is held on the day the case is to be heard by Mazur, and if the dispute is settled, Mazur goes over the agreement and the parties sign a document agreeing to comply.

"Those cases don't touch me anymore," Mazur said, who estimated three out of four cases are resolved before getting to him.

The pilot program involves evictions and land forfeitures. Landlords and tenants can still go to small claims court over disputes under $5,000.

Erica Zimny, supervising attorney for Legal Services of South Central Michigan, said her office is not involved in the mediation, but does offer attorney services if no resolution is found and the case goes before the judge.

Zimny said if the case goes before a judge, it becomes "winner takes all."

She said that in a mediation, the tenant is allowed more time to talk with the landlord about specific issues that may not be allowed in the court room.

Socie says sometimes the two parties have never met in person or had a chance to communicate other than in written communication.

"This creates more of a forum for negotiation," Socie says.

Many times, the resolution can be simply that the tenant is given more time to vacate the premises, or the landlord and tenant can work out a deal in which the tenant continues to live on the property, he says.

The pilot program was the idea of the Southeastern Dispute Resolution Services and the Legal Services of South Central Michigan.

It was pitched to Mazur in the fall of 2012.

However, the program is so new, area lawyers don't know many private attorneys who have participated in the process.

And even the Jackson Area Landlord Association doesn't know much about it yet.

"All we know about it is what Judge Mazur told us," said JALA President Robert Tulloch. "Sounds like a reasonable approach. The question is, 'How many folks opted for it and how is it working out?' We can't answer that."

Zimny said the program has been successful enough thus far that she would like to see it expanded to include the three other district court judges.

Published: Fri, Jul 26, 2013