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Superstorm Sandy: Lessons Learned for the Legal Profession

On April 12th, City Bar Justice Center Managing Attorney Alice Morey testified before the ABA Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness. Her testimony follows:

Thank you for this opportunity to present testimony.

The City Bar Justice Center, which is the nonprofit legal services arm of the NYC Bar Association, provides low-income individuals with pro bono civil legal services in over a dozen areas.  We recruit and train volunteer attorneys; match them with opportunities in a range of subject areas; screen cases before assigning them to pro bono attorneys; and provide experienced staff support and ongoing mentoring to the pro bono attorneys.  Our clients cover a broad spectrum of New York City’s needy, including, among others, consumers filing for bankruptcy, homeowners facing foreclosure, veterans seeking VA disability benefits, battered and trafficked immigrant women, homeless families, and immigrant detainees. Augmenting these subject-matter-specific projects is our Legal Hotline, the city’s busiest civil legal telephone hotline. The Legal Hotline provides free information and advice, brief services, and referrals to thousands of callers on a range of civil legal matters.

The Justice Center’s work is to mobilize the legal community to respond to unmet legal needs, and we have a history of training and mobilizing pro bono volunteer attorneys to meet those needs when disasters strike.  This has been exemplified by the pro bono programs we built following September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Haiti.  When Superstorm Sandy hit, we were lucky – our offices, located in this building in midtown – were not directly affected by the storm.  As a result, we were able to immediately launch a response to Sandy, a response that is continuing and will likely go on for an extended period of time, as the need for legal assistance is seen to extend well beyond the present humanitarian crisis.   We also were able to house part of the legal department from DC37 for several months, as their offices in lower Manhattan had been destroyed by the storm.

My discussion of the Justice Center’s response to Sandy will provide a lens into our work as a pro bono organization. This testimony will focus on the key responses by our organization, which entailed: collaborating with major legal services players and firms, training hundreds of volunteers for legal clinics in the affected neighborhoods, directly assisting hundreds of affected individuals, following up on emerging issues, and setting up a framework for longer-term help. We utilized our connections with the private bar and legal services providers in order to anticipate both short and long-term legal responses to Superstorm Sandy.

I would like to give you a brief road map of our key actions responding to Sandy.

On November 5th, a week after the storm, the Justice Center convened a meeting at the City Bar of the legal services community and bar association pro bono groups to strategize on information sharing and best practices for providing free legal services to Sandy victims.

By the end of that week, on November 9th, we hosted a training program for pro bono attorneys on disaster assistance for individuals and families, which was attended by over 250 pro bono lawyers.  The materials from that training (as well as all subsequent ones) were posted on ProBono.Net to help grow the pool of attorneys capable of providing service.

On November 13th, we organized a training on Small Business Disaster Assistance, which was attended by over 125 pro bono attorneys.

Starting in early November, the Justice Center expanded the hours of the Legal Hotline, shifting personnel to provide coverage, so that the hotline would be open Monday through Friday from 9:00 to 5:00 p.m. to handle the increased volume of calls.

Beginning on November 17th, the Justice Center organized and supervised disaster relief legal clinics by taking a group of volunteer attorneys out to the Rockaways. During that first weekend we had a dozen or so lawyers at two sites – a vacant lot on the street and an unheated dusty storefront – and we helped 68 people in two days.

Early integration of legal services into the city’s disaster recovery efforts is crucial and should be prioritized.  Recognizing this, we negotiated access for pro bono legal clinic teams at the NYC Restoration Centers, which the City was setting up as a convenient single stop venue for storm victims seeking assistance from various federal, state and city agencies. With the help of the ABA, whose subcontract with FEMA facilitated our entry into the Restoration Centers, the Justice Center was ‘invited’ to staff all seven sites; so we recruited pro bono firms and legal services offices to handle the service delivery – in partnerships – at each site on at least one day a week.

The staffing of the NYC Restoration Centers began in December, with the Justice Center providing the ongoing management of the entire process and also staffing a Saturday pro bono clinic at one of the sites in the Rockaways.  These clinics continued every week until the City closed its Restoration Sites at the end of February.  In March, FEMA took over a few of those sites and some clinics remained in operation. Our staff continued to supervise these clinics in addition to handling their existing duties, until January, when we were able to hire a dedicated disaster relief attorney, Victor Tello.

From November through March, we coordinated a total of 25 Sandy relief clinics that were held in the Rockaways, Staten Island, and Coney Island, with 85 volunteers from 39 different law firms and corporate legal departments, assisting over 450 people.

In addition, since early November, the Justice Center’s Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project (NELP) has organized 14 Sandy-related Small Business Legal Clinics in Red Hook, Sheepshead Bay, Coney Island, Rockaway, Staten Island and the South Street Seaport, assisting a total of 116 clients with Sandy-related legal issues.  In addition to organizing and staffing legal clinics, NELP has assigned pro bono counsel to represent seventeen small business owners facing denials from their commercial insurers, having landlord-tenant disputes, and/or seeking assistance with applications for loans and grants for their affected businesses.

Additionally, in December, the Justice Center began outreach clinics in cooperation with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  We once again recruited staff and pro bono attorneys.  To date, three clinics have been held in conjunction with the Federal Reserve Bank: in Staten Island, Coney Island and the Rockaways.

From our experience at these clinics, we have been able to see what issues were paramount to affected persons and how those issues are changing. Initially, residents were focused on applying for immediate aid, so we helped them apply for FEMA, disaster unemployment and replacement food stamps, and answered many landlord tenant questions. As months have passed, clients increasingly are needing help dealing with their insurance companies, filing FEMA appeals, facing possible foreclosure, and with family law issues (as families struggle to survive after displacement and loss).

Accordingly, on December 14th, the Justice Center held a training session focusing on FEMA and insurance issues.  At this time, we also brought together members of the legal community to discuss making FEMA appeals a priority pro bono effort.   Insurance and FEMA denials remain a significant issue for most victims, and further trainings on handling insurance cases – an area most legal services providers are not familiar with – are planned for later this month.

A lasting legacy of our efforts is the model pro se FEMA appeal form that the Justice Center drafted based on initial research by Skadden and with input from some legal services providers. We created a model FEMA appeal form, along with instructions, to simplify the process of appealing FEMA denials. Subsequently, ProBono.Net turned this into an A2J form – an online interactive form that walks you through the required steps to generate a FEMA appeal letter at the end. We are pleased to say that our form is being used nationwide as the template for a FEMA appeal.

Unfortunately, many of the victims’ concerns cannot be resolved in a brief consultation.  The Justice Center alone has opened over 450 cases, many of which involve complicated insurance issues. To deal with the many cases needing more than just advice or a brief service, we have created a clearinghouse for Sandy cases, both those screened by the Justice Center and those referred by other legal services programs.  Without the partnership of the firms who have offered to take some of these cases and represent clients, especially against insurance companies, many more people would be struggling to rebuild their lives.

Nevertheless, the pool of pro bono attorneys able to take on cases for full representation is modest.  To date we have placed about 30 insurance and FEMA cases for extended representation by pro bono counsel.   The need continues and we are working with the private bar and the legal services community to increase the capacity of the nonprofit legal offices to evaluate and handle the insurance issues that are arising post-disaster.

To quote one of our clients, Felix: “After Hurricane Sandy, it was lovely to meet the genuine, articulate and compassionate people who advocated on my behalf to get my life back to normal.”  We at the Justice Center realize that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and are happy that the bar associations are and will continue to help for the long-term.

 

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