Disaster Relief – by John S. Kiernan

John S. Kiernan

President’s Column, December 2017

Past disasters like the September 11 attacks and Superstorm Sandy have taught that the volunteer instincts of New York City’s lawyers in response to massive human suffering are profound and energetic, and that the City Bar can be an effective mechanism for marshaling and organizing those lawyers’ volunteer instincts. This fall, following a call by New York’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore for New York lawyers to help, the City Bar and its membership have demonstrated both that volunteer spirit and that organizing capacity, in response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

The development of effective volunteer legal responses to the 2017 hurricane season has presented challenges. These disasters occurred far away, so that lawyers could not just take a subway ride to meet the clients who needed their help. For an extended period, lawyer visits were disfavored because available space for overnight accommodations needed to be allocated to displaced victims and emergency relief workers. The storms’ immediate aftermath presented urgent humanitarian needs to provide essential food, water, housing and medical care, and urgent logistical needs to achieve restoration of power, communications and transportation infrastructures. Those needs commanded priority over, and diverted attention away from, the obvious needs for legal services. In Texas and Florida (but not in Puerto Rico, where the loss of electricity paralyzed nearly all local business activity), impressive volunteer efforts by local lawyers having the advantages of particularly acute sensitivity to the needs, physical proximity to clients and admission to their state bars tended to command the available attention directed to finding legal representation for storm victims, making the management of out-of-state volunteers seem like a less efficient exercise of the limited resources being directed to emergency legal services (even though the Chief Judge of the Texas Supreme Court had issued a so-called “Katrina” order permitting out-of-state lawyers to practice Texas law so long as their work involved free legal services for storm victims under some supervision by Texas legal services providers or bar associations).

Veterans of providing disaster legal services knew from the outset that given the scale of the hurricanes’ effects, the need for assistance from volunteer lawyers would certainly ripen and crystallize once the immediate humanitarian crisis advanced to the next recovery stage. The enormous scale of the legal need became even clearer when FEMA reported receiving over 4.5 million applications for flood-related benefits from storm victims. While the somewhat delayed ripening process for legal needs unavoidably meant that the call for substantial volunteer efforts from New York lawyers might feel somewhat distant in time from the immediate crisis that sparked many lawyers’ expressions of willingness to volunteer, we lawyers are familiar with the ways that legal processes arising from cataclysmic events in clients’ lives can often seem remote in time from the events themselves.

In mid-November, FEMA began issuing denials of requests for benefits. That development seemed to present the opportunity New York’s volunteer lawyers had been awaiting. Appeals from FEMA denials do not present the same need for local bar admission or knowledge of local Texas, Florida or Puerto Rico law as other legal undertakings, because they involve presentations on issues of federal law to a federal agency or court. The law is sufficiently learnable that volunteer lawyers can be useful after a manageable quantum of training, and the New York bar has some experts in FEMA appeals who can supervise inexperienced volunteers, arising from representations after Hurricanes Katrina and Irene and Superstorm Sandy.

Over the past few weeks, we have rolled out the volunteer effort, in collaboration with the Association of Pro Bono Counsel (an increasingly well-organized collection of pro bono counsel at many large firms), the Puerto Rican Bar Association, Ayuda Legal Huracán María, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the New York Legal Assistance Group, Touro Law School, the NYC Office of Civil Justice Coordinator, other members of the newly created Chief Judge’s Task Force on Disaster Relief, and many other supporters. We have helped organize two training sessions that together trained over 500 volunteers – one held at the New York County Lawyers Association, and the other held in our Great Hall on November 20. Those trainings were webcast out to dozens of volunteers from outside New York City who had also expressed interest in helping. In a departure from conventional trainings, the November session featured not only a presentation from a seasoned advocate before FEMA about how to pursue appeals from denials of benefits, but also presentations from internal FEMA lawyers offering their own insights about the most effective and efficient ways lawyers can pursue reversals of denials of benefits.

Beginning today, the City Bar will be hosting a series of Monday night clinics that volunteer lawyers can attend to help them manage their representations of clients seeking to pursue appeals of denials of FEMA benefits. The clinics will provide the lawyers with opportunities to collaborate and compare notes and strategies with other volunteer lawyers, and to seek inputs from experienced FEMA practitioners who will staff each clinic. The City Bar Justice Center, with particularly dedicated support from its Executive Director, Lynn Kelly, will be organizing and managing these clinics. Volunteers who missed the training events are welcome; the written materials from those sessions, and online access to the recorded training sessions, are readily available on the City Bar website. For up to date information on how to participate, please see the City Bar Justice Center calendar here.

For the initial sessions, lawyers will be obtaining their clients from one of two sources: 1. The City, working with volunteer lawyers from NYLAG, the Legal Aid Society, and Legal Services NYC, has been operating an Emergency Services Center at the Julia De Burgos Latino Cultural Center in East Harlem, directed to the needs (including legal needs) of a large number of hurricane victims who have temporarily or permanently moved to New York after having been displaced from their homes by the storms. 2. Texas legal services providers – Rio Grande Legal Services and Lone Star Legal Aid – have provided their first few matters to APBCo member firms, and are expected to expand the numbers of available representations over the next few weeks.  Over time, we hope to be able to develop volunteer FEMA appeal representations for Florida and Puerto Rico residents, too.

The response has been impressive. It will make a difference in many lives, and it illustrates once again what tremendous collective contributions our Association’s lawyers can make when special needs arise. 

John S. Kiernan is President of the New York City Bar Association.