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Sandy victims have the law on their side Attorneys work pro bono for low-income residents struggling with claims

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Karen Sacks is executive director of Volunteer Lawyers for Justice whose staff provides free legal assistance to low-income New Jerseyans. – AARON HOUSTON
Karen Sacks is executive director of Volunteer Lawyers for Justice whose staff provides free legal assistance to low-income New Jerseyans. – AARON HOUSTON

The day after Super Storm Sandy wreaked havoc on New Jersey, the state bar association was scheduled to convene a conference on “pro bono” — the free services lawyers provide to the financially hard-pressed who need legal help but can't afford it. But Sandy's devastation forced the bar to postpone that Oct. 30 conference, although it didn't deter lawyers from donating their services to those affected. Instead, lawyers statewide mobilized a Sandy pro bono response that is helping storm victims grapple with the daunting task of getting government assistance and filing insurance claims.

Karen Sacks is executive director of Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, whose staff provides legal guidance to low-income New Jerseyans and spearheads pro bono work by lawyers throughout the state. New Jersey attorneys working at law firms and as in-house corporate counsel have embraced pro bono work for years, according to experts, who said Sandy has focused attention on the need to deliver fast and free legal help to low-income residents devastated by disaster.

Free legal clinics were offered in the days following Sandy, and Sacks expects this work to continue for some time. A $100,000 grant from the foundation of Merck & Co. and the law firm of McCarter & English is allowing VLJ Coordinating Attorney Karen Kielczewski to work full time with Sandy victims through the next year.

The state bar association set up a hotline for Sandy victims and "within a week we were able to staff 13 of the 30 (FEMA disaster centers) with volunteer teams of lawyers," Sacks said. The next phase of VLJ's work will be training and recruiting more volunteers and creating "a more global legal response program, so that lawyers in New Jersey are prepared to react immediately the next time disaster strikes."

Immediately after Sandy, volunteer lawyers helped overwhelmed victims navigate the government and insurance bureaucracy. "Then insurance claim denials began coming in, so the volunteer attorneys were reviewing specific policies and helping craft appeals," Sacks said.

Kielczewski said VLJ is getting cases from a New Jersey State Bar Association hotline that gets 20 to 50 calls a day, and victims typically have multiple disaster issues. "One gentleman came to us for help with his auto insurance. After speaking with him we learned that his automobile was used almost exclusively for employment, and he was also applying for unemployment compensation. His unemployment application was filled out entirely wrong, and most certainly would have been rejected if we didn't revise it with him." Another client had a Sandy-related insurance question, but also still faced lingering problems from Hurricane Irene.

Pro bono work by lawyers is voluntary: the American Bar Association urges all lawyers to perform at least 50 pro bono hours a year. In New Jersey, attorneys can be assigned a pro bono case unless they do 25 hours of pro bono a year. The New Jersey Judiciary set the 25-hour standard in 1992. "I am happy to report that volunteer lawyer involvement is increasing," Sacks said.

One of the Sandy volunteers, Adam Budesheim of McCarter & English, said he advised a homeowner that his insurance company was wrong to deny his claim for the damage to his basement caused by a malfunctioning sump pump. "His policy covers the damage when a sump pump breaks, unless it is caused by a flood," Budesheim explained. The damage was caused by ground water seeping into the house, not by flooding, which is water that flows over the surface of the ground, Budesheim explained.

"You have to read the policy, and the language can be very confusing," said Budesheim. "I was able to help (the homeowner) understand what is in his policy, so he can more effectively work with his insurance company and get the claim covered."

Another Sandy victim in Hoboken has both flood and homeowners insurance, but the two companies "are pointing a finger at each other and saying 'it's not our problem, it's the other guy's problem.' We will review her policy and determine which one is right — or maybe they both should cover it," Budesheim said. He said lawyers can help Sandy victims figure out what their insurance policy covers "so they can deal appropriately with the insurance company and fight for their rights."

Budesheim said his work with Sandy victims is very rewarding: "This is an enormous tragedy for many people, and some of them have (insurance) protection and they don't realize it. This can be a huge difference for people. Some of these claims can result in thousands of dollars to rebuild their homes and put their lives back together."

Newark-based Gibbons is also involved in Sandy relief efforts. Patrick C. Dunican Jr., managing director of Gibbons, said the day after Sandy hit, "Governor (Chris) Christie's office reached out to us, and our corporate lawyers created the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund within 24 hours of that phone call." First Lady Mary Pat Christie chairs the fund, which has so far raised about $30 million from about 20,000 donors.

New Jersey lawyers tackle a wide range of issues on a pro bono basis, including homeless and tenant advocacy; civil rights; inner city school funding and domestic violence.

Corporate attorneys at Merck partner with Lowenstein Sandler in a bankruptcy clinic that helps low-income debtors discharge their debts and get a fresh start — without having to pay bankruptcy legal bills.

"Our pro bono programs are focused on helping those without access to legal advice get equal justice under the law," said Matthew Leff, director, Legal, Merck. "The Bankruptcy in a Box program honors this commitment by relieving the burden and stress associated with overwhelming debt that low-income individuals and families in our community deal with on a daily basis."

Mary E. Seymour, a bankruptcy attorney at Lowenstein Sandler, said volunteer Lawyers for Justice screens potential bankruptcy clients, and the Merck and Lowenstein lawyers guide them through the process. "It really feels great to be able to help people," she said.

Seymour still gets calls from a woman who went through bankruptcy a year ago to get relief from $35,000 in medical and credit card bills she incurred after she got sick and lost her job. "She went back to school to get job training, and she told me, 'Now I have the ability to start over.'"

E-mail to: beth@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @bethfitzgerald8

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