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Free-range lawyers

Volunteer lawyers make sure storm relief arrives where it's needed most

Mimi Rosenberg grew up in the housing projects in Coney Island. Superstorm Sandy has now blown her back there.

One or two days a week, she sits face-to-face with neighborhood residents like Larissa Konon, an immigrant from Estonia with four children, limited English and no idea how she and her family will get by now that the storm has destroyed their livelihoods.

Konon, 44, met with Rosenberg last Wednesday in a sleek new RV with the Legal Aid Society’s logo emblazoned on the side. Rosenberg has been a Legal Aid staff attorney for decades, and her desk is usually covered with briefs from housing litigation. But in recent weeks, she has become a familiar face in Coney Island, dispensing free legal advice and supportive words to a steady stream of clients.

“I have no friends, no parents, nothing, it’s only I, my husband and kids,” lamented Konon, after a consultation with Rosenberg.

Mimi Rosenberg, a Legal Aid Society staff attorney, is one of hundreds of lawyers who have lent their services to storm relief. Photo: Gianna Palmer

The ground-floor Coney Island apartment where Konon lives with her family was ruined in Sandy, and while her landlord had provided her family with temporary use of a grubby, unfurnished unit upstairs, she said she was still expected to keep paying rent. Konon said her husband and oldest son both lost their jobs working for an ambulance service after the storm flooded the company’s vehicles, and now were being denied unemployment benefits. They were out of money.

Rosenberg couldn’t make Konon’s problems disappear on the spot, but she could use her experience as an attorney to ease them. The same day she met with Konon, Rosenberg filed an appeal for the family’s unemployment benefits — luckily, she informed them, there was still time before the 30-day window for that closed. She also began writing a letter informing the landlord that it should not charge someone for rent who, in effect, had been evicted from her apartment. Here, in the van, the journey back to stability could begin.

Legal Aid’s ongoing presence in Coney Island, and in the Rockaways before that, was made possible by the organization’s new Mobile Justice Unit, purchased earlier this year with the help of a grant from the Robin Hood Foundation. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. the RV, with Legal Aid and volunteer lawyers in tow, has been parked outside Coney Island Gospel Assembly, a church-turned-relief-center on Neptune Avenue and West 29th Street.

Inside the RV last week, Rosenberg and another attorney counseled a steady stream of storm victims on emergency unemployment applications denied, FEMA applications rejected and in limbo, unresponsive landlords and much more. In the RV’s waiting area, a woman sat speaking French on her cell phone as she waited for help filling out a FEMA application.

Rosenberg is one of at least several hundred attorneys around the city who have sought to lend their professional skills to those hit by the storm. Now that the first responders have done their jobs, they have arrived to help residents reassemble the pieces of their former lives.

In theory, no one needs a legal professional to fill out an application for federal aid or other assistance. But for people overwhelmed after Sandy upturned their lives, getting advice from a lawyer can come as a big relief. This is particularly true for applicants who have reported long waits to talk with FEMA representatives on the phone and insurance companies that won’t return calls. Ongoing questions about insurance, unemployment, housing, immigration and more collide and combine in unexpected ways, and bring clients streaming in.

As big-firm lawyers sought a way to use their professional skills to help Sandy victims — and fulfill their firms’ pro bono service requirements while they’re doing it — established nonprofit legal services organizations like Legal Aid have been a natural place for them and prospective clients to turn.

Stephen A. Marshall, a partner at SNR Denton, contributed his time to a legal clinic for small businesses at the Red Hook Ikea, organized by the Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project, and was able to help business owners reckon with insurance policies, real estate issues and questions about FEMA coverage.

“Every person we’ve seen has indicated they do not have a lawyer,” he said. “So the people here who have volunteered are the only source of legal advice that they’re receiving.”

Half the job is making sure prospective clients even know what attorneys can do for them. During breaks in between sessions in Coney Island, Rosenberg made her way up and down a long line of people waiting outside the church for food and supplies — “stomping the neighborhood,” as she put it.

“If there are any legal questions that come up, call these numbers,” Rosenberg said as she handed out Legal Aid fliers to the crowd. “But you can also come and talk to us right over there,” she said, gesturing to the RV.

Legal Aid’s RV isn’t the only one roving storm-hit streets. The New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) has dispatched its own law office on wheels, the Mobile Legal Help Center, fueled by grants, donations and a staff of 100 lawyers willing to work long hours.

“A disaster like this exacerbates the types of problems that our clients have always struggled with,” said Ann E. Dibble, an attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), a legal services organization that subsists on private donations and pro bono hours from law firm attorneys.

Dibble is the newly appointed interim director of NYLAG’s Storm Response Unit, a disaster relief program that NYLAG created in the days immediately after Sandy and is currently hiring more attorneys.

Legal Services NYC, like Legal Aid, usually represents low-income New Yorkers in family, housing and other proceedings and relies on a combination of public and private funding. Since Sandy, it has mobilized to make sure disaster relief gets to residents who needed it. Less than two weeks after the storm, Legal Services NYC trained more than 250 lawyers on a disaster assistance legal manual it had created for Sandy response, and the group now helps organize a biweekly call of legal service providers to coordinate their work.

Like NYLAG and Legal Aid, Legal Services NYC has also set up a Sandy recovery phone hotline, which storm victims can call with legal questions. On the phone and in the field, much of the work is being done by staff attorneys, on their own time.

“We have a number of staff who have dedicated themselves, but they all have full caseloads doing other things, too,” said Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NYC “We’ve been at churches, in parking lots, out in FEMA tents in fields,” he said.

Just showing up to a hard-hit area, it turns out, isn’t always enough. Last Tuesday, the NYLAG RV was stationed in a parking lot in Sea Gate in Coney Island. Though the gated community was devastated by the storm, its foot and car traffic proved minimal; the attorneys met with just seven people in five hours.

The previous Friday, however, was a much busier day for the RV, parked outside Sen. Andrew J. Lanza’s hurricane relief headquarters on a busy boulevard in Staten Island. Lanza’s office and the Staten Island Advance had let local residents know the van would be there, and visitors streamed in; NYLAG attorneys met with 36 people in six hours.

Angela Toscano, 56, who described her house in Midland Beach as “flooded, destroyed, red tag, condemned,” came to the NYLAG RV for advice on how to submit an appeal to her homeowner’s insurance company, which had denied her claim. Toscano said that talking with NYLAG, a “legal voice” had given her a sense of reassurance.

“Everyone else, you know, they give you advice ‘Oh you should do this, you should do that’ but you’re very uncertain. There’s always doubt and question marks,” Toscano said.

Amy Hozer, supervising attorney of NYLAG’s Mobile Legal Center, said that another big part of the job is myth-dispelling. Residents may hear from a neighbor or friend what, for example, FEMA will or won’t cover, but second-hand information isn’t necessarily accurate.

“Unfortunately, it’s a bad game of telephone,” Hozer said.

Even a simple inquiry about benefits can be confusing for clients, Hozer said, and just sitting next to them on speaker phone can make all the difference.

“The FEMA agent will talk to our client, and the client will look at me, and I’ll translate what the FEMA agent is saying,” Hozer said — from technical talk into plain English.

But applying for aid and appealing rejections could be just the beginning for some of the most vulnerable storm victims. Many of the issues people are facing, such as ongoing struggles with landlords, are unlikely to end neatly, and may well end up in court.

“As time goes by, problems are going to get more and more legalistic,” acknowledged Rasmussen of Legal Services NYC.

Though legal service organizations say they are committed to representing low-income Sandy victims free of charge — and in some cases, referring higher income people to pro bono attorneys  — how they will continue to meet demand remains perhaps the most vexing question moving forward.

Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief at Legal Aid, said that before the storm hit Legal Aid could help only one out of every nine families seeking its help. Now, he proposes, it will be up to Legal Aid funders — individuals, corporations, foundations and government agencies — to help fill the gap created by the increased needs from Sandy.

As to whether or not those funders will likely provide adequate support, Banks said, “Unfortunately, it’s too early to tell.”

 

Free Sandy Legal Help

New York Legal Assistance Group: 212-584-3365, StormHelp@nylag.org

Legal Aid Society: 888-663-6880

Legal Services NYC: 347-592-2411 (weekdays 10-3)