About the Series

Pro Bono Net is proud to present this series of interviews reflecting on the legal help provided to victims of Superstorm Sandy in the months following the storm. Our New York-based Program Associate, Jake Hertz, sits down with leaders of the legal relief efforts to get their thoughts on the successes, lessons, and challenges that remain. These themes will also be the subject of tomorrow’s Disaster Lawyering Conference, co-sponsored by the City Bar Justice Center, the Legal Aid Society, and Pro Bono Net. This blog series, and much of Pro Bono Net’s Sandy work, is made possible through the support of the New York Community Trust.

This week, we are delighted to share our interview with Victor Tello of the City Bar Justice Center.


Victor Tello

JH: How did you come to work at the City Bar?

VT: My first job out of law school was with the Office of the Corporation Counsel where I worked for four years doing state and federal litigation. I came to the Justice Center in January of 2013 to work on the Sandy Disaster Assistance Project out of a desire to work in public interest.

JH: What do you think have been the biggest successes in Sandy legal relief work?

VT: I think the initial outpouring of support from the legal services community, including the private bar, was a significant step in providing the type of assistance that Sandy victims needed. The City Bar Justice Center helped train approximately 250 attorneys in the weeks following the storm, and that momentum has carried through a significant portion of the disaster recovery process.

As far as specific victories, one example I can give is the proof of loss issue. The proof of loss form is a document through the National Flood Insurance Program that requires policyholders to itemize their damage. Initially, the deadline for this form was two months after Hurricane Sandy; it was later extended to a year. The legal services community realized this timeline was unrealistic for many, so we started actively working to address it on two fronts: first, trying (and succeeding) to get a further extension; second, learning how to complete the forms and to assist policyholders who were unable to do so on their own. The Justice Center organized two insurance roundtables and invited experts in the field to help with this effort.

JH: As the organizer of the insurance roundtables, can you talk a little about the role they’ve played?

VT: The impetus for the insurance roundtables was that the legal services community was feeling behind the curve in regards to a lot of insurance issues. In normal times, the typical legal services client does not have insurance issues. And, while the Justice Center’s role as a pro bono organization is to place low-income clients with pro bono attorneys for legal representation, most of the big firms represent insurance companies, and this conflict made matching Sandy clients with insurance issues with attorneys a difficult process.

We started thinking outside the box about ways that we could provide some type of assistance to victims. The Justice Center established monthly roundtables to advance the knowledge base of the nonprofit legal services community by bringing the legal community together with experts in the field to discuss and learn about arising issues in an informal setting. We felt that getting everyone in the room and providing clarity on these insurance issues was one of the best ways to help our clients. The roundtables gave advocates a venue to ask questions and discuss issues they know less about; they have been a place where people can learn as much as possible about these issues. The evaluations and the responses that we’ve received have been amazing.

JH: Have pro bonos been helpful in the roundtables in terms of providing background knowledge?

VT: Yes. They were extremely helpful with regard to training on these issues. One firm provided an insurance expert at one of the initial trainings back in November, which was incredibly helpful in providing general and basic insurance information immediately after the storm.  Another firm held a webinar on homeowners insurance and flood insurance, which also was incredibly helpful. A lot of knowledge that we have been able to develop came from these presentations and through discussions with pro bono attorneys.

JH: Can you talk a little bit about what you think the legal services community could have done better, and what lessons we can apply if this happens again?

VT: As far as what could have been done better, a big issue we have confronted was the timing in regards to when the legal community can become involved in disaster relief. There is this idea that, immediately after a disaster, the sole focus should be humanitarian relief. However, many of the issues that we’ve seen stem from the fact that, immediately after the storm, people were so involved in dealing with humanitarian needs that they kind of let other things lapse. This is especially true for insurance cases. People did not file their claims on time or preserve their insurance policies. Furthermore, they did not focus on keeping the detailed documentation that was needed when they eventually filed their insurance claims. This also occurred when Sandy victims started reconstruction and they didn’t seek out licensed contractors, but rather found the first contractor available, or they did not sign formal contracts that would offer protection when conflicts arose.

So there is a major role for legal advice immediately after a storm. However, it’s necessary to be able to organize, synthesize, and present that advice in a much more streamlined and efficient manner because, immediately following a disaster, there’s just so much going on.

JH: Are there messages that the community needs to be giving people proactively? Document what happens, have a camera, understand your policy, etc.?

VT: Absolutely. On a basic level – people need to have insurance. Many individuals had no flood insurance whatsoever. It was something that never crossed their mind or, in particularly sad situations, they had flood insurance up until a couple of years or months before the storm and chose for financial reasons to cut it off. For those that had insurance, the legal community must convey to policyholders the importance of knowing what one’s insurance covers, what one needs to do to make a claim, and what documents one needs to substantiate that claim.

Unfortunately, there are many vulnerable groups, including the elderly and non-English speakers who may not receive these messages or heed this advice. For example, some elderly individuals who have owned their homes in these lower-income areas didn’t have flood insurance because they couldn’t afford it on the social security or other benefits they depend on for income.

JH: What are the main issues and challenges that CBJC is still seeing and trying to serve?

VT: Insurance denials are still a significant concern. That is something that is probably going to continue for a while. In cases where the insurance denials are significant and there’s enough conflict with the insurance company so that litigation may be necessary, these cases could lag on for several years.

As far as FEMA assistance, there are significant concerns with gaps in regards to where and when people were able to receive assistance; this is something we’ve tried to address directly with FEMA. Fortunately, FEMA has spoken with the legal services community about our experience on the ground filling out the applications and making appeals when applications were denied. This communication allowed FEMA to see where things worked and where they didn’t, which has been helpful. We really appreciate that FEMA opened itself up to getting feedback from the legal services community.

Another area that is becoming more pronounced is home improvement contractor disputes. As the recovery continues, this is going to continue to be a significant problem. Sometimes people felt that getting an unlicensed contractor would be the best or fastest way to repair their homes, and other times there just weren’t enough licensed contractors due to high demand.

We have a lot of people who wound up working with contractors who are not licensed with the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA). These unlicensed contractors many times engaged in questionable business practices and sometimes committed outright fraud against these vulnerable Sandy victims.

JH: On these issues and in terms the of longer-term phase of the recovery, what are the ways that you think pro bono attorneys can be most helpful?

VT: I’m continuing to work with and manage a lot of pro bono attorneys who are getting very positive results. At this point, I think our highest recovery was around $75-80K – that was for a family with a flood insurance dispute. And then many smaller cases: for example, $5,000 to repair a roof so that it won’t leak during the winter. The amount of help that has come in through pro bono attorneys taking on these cases has really been phenomenal.

Having the law firms provide basic advice and information, or holding seminars, workshops, webinars – that is incredibly helpful and is an area where we could probably use more help in the future. The firms are also capable of doing a great amount of research and work that doesn’t require direct client interaction but will still help a lot of people. That is something that we should definitely explore in the future.

JH: How do you think law students can be most helpful to both providers and victims?

VT: The City Bar Justice Center did work with some law students doing research on home improvement contractor disputes/fraud issues. We held a clinic back in the spring; a group of law students from the University of Southern California were doing an alternative spring break, so they reached out to me and wanted to know what they could do to help out. At the time, I was working on a handbook that would give homeowners information about what to do when they had conflicts with home improvement contractors.

We set up a daylong clinic where the law students researched New York law and the agencies available to help homeowners. The amount of information and raw data that they provided was really helpful in writing this contractor handbook, which I hope will go a long way in helping people and making them better informed when they deal with contractors.

I know in other situations law students have also assisted on individual grant applications for funds available directly to Sandy victims. With oversight from attorneys, students can sit down and conduct interviews, determine eligibility, and help people complete forms.

JH: Could you briefly expand on the handbook? I’ve heard other people mention it.

VT: The handbook came from a manual created in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. We found out that after Katrina vulnerable population groups were being taken advantage of by contractors, so a legal services group there created a basic manual on how to deal with those situations.

We were able to get a copy of that manual, and we updated it with New York law. It turns out that New York law is a lot more complicated than Louisiana law – there are a lot more agencies involved and a lot more minutia that has to be covered. So we’re trying to address all of these different issues and synthesize everything down into an accessible guidebook that a layperson can read, understand, and use to effectively improve his or her situation when dealing with a dispute with a contractor.

JH: Where do you hope to go from here, both for Sandy recovery and future disaster prevention generally?

VT: I think future efforts could focus on preventing a lot of the problems that we’ve encountered: making people understand that they need to buy insurance if they are able to do so and that they need to have documentation ready in case they do actually suffer damage.

It’s also necessary to have a legal services community ready to solve some of the issues as they develop. We need to learn from our Sandy experiences so that, when this happens again, we can be prepared in regards to dealing with the issues that we’ve already seen.

At the same time, no two disasters are alike. The next disaster will be different; there will be different issues and we have to be prepared to change, evolve, and meet the demands that are going to exist. So we have to learn from what we have now, but at the same time be flexible enough to address the changing needs of the community.