‘Suits on the Ground': How Attorneys Can Help Harvey Victims

From Litigation on Bloomberg Law

August 30, 2017

By Melissa Heelan Stanzione

Legal aid groups are “pretty well organized” to help Hurricane Harvey victims, thanks in part to the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, a legal aid lawyer told Bloomberg BNA.

It’s important to have lawyers involved right at the start and it’s essential to be coordinated, John Eidleman, Senior Program Counsel for the Legal Service Corporation‘s Office of Program Performance, said. The Legal Services Corporation is the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the nation, according to its website.

Lawyers can give advice on insurance claims and tell hurricane victims whether they even have a legal issue, Eidleman said.

Pro bono attorneys can help storm victims with their applications for benefits from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as they did in New York after Superstorm Sandy, Margaret Becker told Bloomberg BNA. Becker is director of disaster recovery and community development for Legal Services NYC. Sandy pummeled the New York region in 2012.

More attorneys will be able to assist storm victims after the Supreme Court of Texas issued an Aug. 29 order allowing attorneys barred in other states to practice law in Texas for six months under certain conditions.

‘Suits on the Ground’

“Boots on the ground, suits on the ground” is a saying that came from Katrina, Eidleman said. Attorneys who can help should help because “it’s important to have lawyers right at the beginning,” he said.

One potential challenge, however, is “matching lawyers to legal needs,” Anthony Perez Cassino, assistant director of public services at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP, told Bloomberg BNA.

State and local bar associations can help with that by developing programs that allow lawyers to sign up for training and cases, Cassino said. This can take time, so lawyers eager to help should “donate to some local program that is providing basic assistance,” he said.

But Eidleman said there are ways beyond opening their checkbook that attorneys can help right away. Attorneys can help people navigate the system early on so they don’t have problems later, he said.

They can also give advice on insurance claims and tell hurricane victims whether they even have a legal issue, Eidleman said.

Pro bono attorneys were a big help right after Sandy, Becker said. They helped with a lot of FEMA-related issues, she said.

But one problem was that many attorneys didn’t have a background in a lot of the areas needed, she said. Further, the larger firms that did have experience in areas such as insurance and mortgage law had conflicts of interest because they represented the companies involved in the claims, Becker said.

Now that out-of-state attorneys can practice in Texas temporarily, there are more people who can be mobilized to provide legal help.

The Texas Supreme Court Aug. 29 order requires attorneys to meet several conditions before being able to practice there, including that they are in good standing where licensed to practice law; are retained by a legal-aid or pro bono program or a bar association that provides services to victims of Hurricane Harvey; submit the required paperwork; and agree to Texas rules of professional conduct.

Becker said she was worried about opening up Texas to outside practitioners because of her experience after Sandy.

A lot of outside firms came to help with flood insurance and “they’re a mixed bag,” Becker said. Some were conscientious but others were not, she said.

Out-of-State Help

Lawyers can help in other ways from afar.

The American Bar Association’s Young Lawyer’s Division has information on its website for attorneys who want to help, including a link to the National Disaster Legal Resource Center.

The resource center’s goals include serving as a centralized national resource for legal aid, pro bono and criminal defender attorneys across the country on legal issues related to all types of disasters, and recruiting and helping mobilize pro bono attorneys in the aftermath of a disaster.

The site was launched in 2008 and was a direct outgrowth of a site called Katrina Legal Aid, Eidleman said. It was created as a joint effort of four national partners—LSC, the ABA, the Pro Bono Network, and the National Legal Aid & Defender Association—in 2005 after Katrina, he said.

Two Texas legal aid groups— Lone Star Legal Aid, and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Inc. are also working with LSC to coordinate volunteers. LSLA, which operates out of Houston, is temporarily working out of Texarkana, Eidleman said, after a fire began in its offices during the hurricane.

The ABA will soon have a hotline running, which Harvey victims can call for advice or a referral to a legal services program for help with issues such as FEMA benefits and insurance claims, Eidleman said.

Volunteer attorneys will help staff the hotline. Volunteers will be trained and receive a manual on the type of legal issues they will confront, Eidleman said.

Tip of the Iceberg

Any work being done now is “just the tip of the iceberg,” Eidleman said.

“Once cases roll in, people will need a lawyer to go to,” he said. Storm victims will need assistance with FEMA applications and appeals, and landlord tenant issues.

After natural disasters, some landlords whose property is in decent condition try to evict low-income tenants to make more money, Eidleman said.

Insurance law, mortgage law, and family law are also areas in which people will need advice.

Storm victims are under extreme pressure and there will likely be an increase in domestic violence and volatile family situations, Eidleman said.

Lawyers can also help guide people to local and state programs that can help, he said.

In the long term, more aid will be needed for Harvey than for Katrina, which left severe damage in its wake along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas, because of the number of people affected and the sustained rain, he said.

“Katrina came and then left,” but the rain in Texas will increase the number of people who need help and exacerbate existing problems, Eidleman said.

The legal issues will last a long time, Becker said. Legal Services NYC is still working on Sandy insurance claims, she said.

“It’s a long haul,” Becker said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Melissa Heelan Stanzione in Washington at mstanzione@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bna.com

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