As New Jersey copes with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, lawyers are pitching in with hotlines, handbooks and on-site pro bono help.
They are giving advice on dealing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, insurers and landlords, and answering other questions confronting those impacted by the storm.
Leading the efforts is Volunteer Lawyers for Justice of Newark, which stepped in after hearing, a few weeks after Sandy, that there was “no legal help on the ground.”
Executive director Karen Sacks says VLJ, after receiving clearance from FEMA to offer legal services at the agency’s more than 30 disaster recovery centers in the state, identified 12 locations that welcomed and had room for lawyers, including Bay Head, Harvey Cedars, Hoboken, Jersey City, Paterson and Union Beach.
VLJ attorneys, aided by others from public interest organizations such as the Community Health Law Project and volunteers from private law firms, so far have visited three FEMA sites — in Sayreville, Brick and Hackensack — with visits to other places lined up.
They are primarily assisting with FEMA applications and appeals, landlord-tenant and insurance issues and in obtaining public benefits such as food stamps and disaster unemployment insurance, which may be available when unemployment benefits are not.
To avoid potential conflicts for volunteer lawyers whose firms represent insurers, VLJ is having insurance questions answered by lawyers at McCarter & English, Lowenstein Sandler and possibly other firms, who get calls from the on-site lawyer and have no contact with those asking the questions and don’t even know their names.
VLJ is dispensing with its usual low-income screening, though Sacks says it is selecting sites that by the nature of their location draw low-income visitors who especially need pro bono help.
Sacks’ intention is to move to direct representation, and income will matter at that point.
Another piece of VLJ’s response is to put together a disaster-preparedness program, based in part on lessons learned in Louisiana and Vermont after Hurricanes Katrina and Irene.
With help from lawyers at McCarter in Newark, Lowenstein in Roseland and Drinker Biddle & Reath in Florham Park, as well as law students, Sacks hopes to have “a plan that can be kicked into high gear” when a disaster strikes.
VLJ’s efforts to help Sandy victims were made possible by donations — $75,000 from McCarter and $30,000 from Merck & Co. Inc., Sacks says.
Emily Goldberg, McCarter’s pro bono director and a VLJ boad member, says $50,000 came from fees the firm won in a special education case referred by VLJ and the Education Law Center.
The firm planned to give the money to VLJ anyway, so when Sandy struck, “it was a no-brainer,” Goldberg says.
The other $25,000, along with funds the firm gave to the Hurricane Sandy Relief Program, would have been spent on holiday gifts for clients. Instead, clients will receive a card saying the firm felt it was better to assist storm victims.
McCarter is providing more than dollars. About 20 attorneys in a range of practice areas have written a handbook addressing issues such as housing, taxes, education, family and medical concerns and the loss of vital records.
Goldberg expects it to be distributed to volunteer lawyers and Sandy victims, in paper form and electronically, through VLJ and the New Jersey State Bar Association.
McCarter will also supply VLJ with volunteer lawyers to take questions on site or by telephone and for the direct-representation phase, says Goldberg.
Another firm providing a pro bono role is Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, which held the second of two pop-up legal clinics on Tuesday. The pro bono effort is being spearheaded by Tanya Bosi in New York and Stuart Slotnick, the managing partner there.
The first clinic, held at the storm surge-damaged Moonachie firehouse on Nov. 14, was set up by Bosi, who grew up in the town, though she now lives in New York. A dozen or so Buchanan lawyers from several offices assisted 110 to 150 people that day. Bosi says Buchanan lawyers are limiting their advice to questions about FEMA applications and appeals, Small Business Administration assistance, unemployment disaster benefits and food stamps.
Due to risk of conflicts with insurer clients, they are not reading or interpreting policies, merely advising people to contact their carriers and make claims.
Those seeking help do not become clients of the firm or sign engagement letters. Some are referred to a State Bar Association hotline, which is matching people with volunteer counsel.
Tuesday’s clinic was at Downs Ford, a Toms River car dealership on Route 37 near the bridge connecting the mainland with the devastated barrier island communities.
The clinic was advertised on the website and Facebook page of Restore the Shore and on the dealership’s website, and Bosi was expecting a lot of traffic once the 4 p.m. curfew had people driving past after returning to the mainland over the bridge.
The Bar hotline, 888-541-1900, launched on Nov. 12, has fielded hundreds of calls and had more than 160 lawyers ready to help. The Bar has arranged training for volunteers.
Legal Services of New Jersey has its own Sandy hotline, 888-222-5765.
It is not just large firms and organizations that are making a difference.
On Nov. 1, Eric Brophy of Diegnan Brophy, a two-lawyer firm in Wall, asked officials in Belmar, where he is the public defender, whether the borough hall — which was already being used to shelter storm victims — had space for lawyers to answer questions.
After emailing every Monmouth and Ocean County lawyer for whom he had an address, he showed up the next day with five lawyers who started helping people file FEMA claims.
For the next two weeks, lawyers he organized were there every day providing general information, referring people to other sources of help and taking on some as pro bono clients.
Among those he represents are 20 residents of a Belmar apartment building whose owner allegedly disposed of property they had stored in the basement while cleaning up after Sandy.
The lawyers are not present on a daily basis but have a sign-up sheet for those seeking help.
Brophy is now helping VLJ and showed up at its first Sandy effort, on Nov. 30 in Sayreville, and has advised other lawyers seeking to help out in other locations.