By John Burton
HAZLET – Cathy Keenan and her colleagues see lots of people seeking legal assistance for Super Storm Sandy matters. They know the storm was only the beginning of what has been an overwhelming period as clients look to address a variety issues.
“I think this storm has been so devastating to people on so many levels. They have been fighting through so many battles and barriers along the way,” said Keenan about her work with Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, an organization that has been conducting legal clinics in Hudson and Monmouth counties and will be shortly holding them in Ocean as well.
Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, a Newark-based not-for-profit law firm, has been holding clinics at Brookdale Community College’s Northern Monmouth Higher Education Center, 1 Crown Plaza, Hazlet, every other Friday morning for the last few months.
During those sessions, conducted by lawyers who donate their time and expertise, she and her colleagues have seen people who have had their homes destroyed or severely damaged from the October storm that ravaged the shore. They are seeing people coming for a variety of legal concerns.
“The overwhelming issue is insurance-related problems,” said Keenan, who is the director of pro bono services.
What she and other lawyers are hearing is that homeowners are saying insurance companies aren’t paying anywhere near what it will take to rebuild or repair and what is actually covered through homeowners and flood insurance, she said.
There are people who are coming to the legal clinics who have had Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) deny their claims. Others have landlord-tenant issues, such as difficulty getting back security deposits on apartments tenants were forced to vacate because of the storm and retrieving personal items left in apartments, she said.
There are also some people who are complaining about what appears to be unscrupulous workmen or who simply have difficulty understanding contract language.
On top of that, the clinic’s lawyers are seeing homeowners who find themselves continually at odds with mortgage companies, a situation that existed before the storm and is now at panic point. “Even before the storm they were to the point where foreclosure may have been close to being their future,” Keenan said, “and now that’s a reality.”
As many clients as there are that come to the clinic, held 9 a.m. to noon (the next to be held on May 3), there are different stories and different problems to be addressed. Some of their concerns can be remedied with a lawyer review of insurance policies or FEMA application; others need more detailed legal work, which Volunteer Lawyers for Justice may be able to provide following a review of the potential client’s situation and finances.
But the one constant she has found working with people who have had their lives turned upside down is: “Pretty much every single person who comes in has a compelling story,” Keenan said.
Louis Ricciardi, a lawyer who works full time for Citigroup and lives in Monmouth County, has begun – with the support of his employer – offering his time to the clinic. “It’s been heart-wrenching to hear their stories,” he said.
He spoke of one Ortley Beach man who told of seeing his home destroyed in the storm. The man seemed to be holding up pretty well while detailing the events, but then became emotional as the story unfolded. Ricciardi pulled his chair and sat next to the client offering a willing ear along with the legal advice.
“I think it was helpful, not just from a legal standpoint but from a mental anguish standpoint to have someone to talk to,” Ricciardi said.
“This is something I wanted to do,” to offer his help for those who live in the same area he lives. “This hit close to home,” said Ricciardi, a Morganville resident.
“The vast number of people who are coming in are people who’ve lost everything – and in many cases could barely afford (their home) before the storm – and now have to negotiate their way through a very complicated insurance system,” said Keenan, a Freehold resident.
“We have lawyers who are willing to help,” she said.
Volunteer Lawyers for Justice has been operating for 13 years, primarily in Essex County, and more recently in the state’s northern counties. Since February it has branched out working with the New Jersey Bar Association to offer assistance to Sandy victims, through a toll-free hotline (855-301-2525) and through the clinics.
Anyone needing additional legal assistance beyond what is offered at the clinic can apply with the organization, which will evaluate the clients’ finances and resources to determine eligibility.
For Sandy victims, the organization’s board of trustees has broadened the eligibility to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. That means a family of four earning $71,000 a year, would qualify for assistance, Keenan said.
“I would encourage people to err on the side of contacting us,” if they don’t think they will be eligible, Keenan said.
“Anyone, regardless of their financial status can walk into the legal clinic and at least get a consultation, some advice and brief legal assistance.”