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Lawyers Offer Free Legal Advice to Hurricane Victims

Attorney Tom Bolt (Photo from the BoltNagi PC website.)
Attorney Tom Bolt (Photo from the BoltNagi PC website.)

Imagine standing in line for a few hours to get a bag of ice and returning home to find the landlord has put your clothes outside your apartment and locked you out. The reason? His home was destroyed by a hurricane and he plans to move into the place he was renting to you.

The exact circumstances are fictional, but the general scenario is all too real.

Such disputes, triggered by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, are “happening daily,” according to Virgin Islands attorney Tom Bolt.

There are cases in which landlords are demanding full rent for badly damaged properties, or insisting that one tenant take on the expense of fueling and maintaining a generator designed to serve multiple units, he said. And it’s not all one-sided. Some tenants are stiffing property owners under the assumption that they don’t have to pay anything because they have been inconvenienced.

There are also employment questions, Bolt said. If a business is forced to close because of a hurricane, what obligation does it have to its former employees? Must a company pay accrued leave to a worker it has to lay off, for example?

Even property title issues can come into play, Bolt said. What happens if “mom and pop” have deeded their home to their children with the understanding that the seniors will spend the rest of their lives there, but then a hurricane damages it and the parents need a disaster loan to make repairs, but one of the children doesn’t want to sign the paperwork for the loan?

Bolt and the lawyers in his office comprise eight of the 12 V.I. attorneys who have volunteered to work with eligible residents who apply for free legal advice through a program managed by the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division. Local attorneys do not take so-called Disaster Legal Assistance calls directly. Residents seeking help must apply through the program’s hotline, 1-800-310-7029 to see if they are eligible.

Typically landlord-tenant disputes are the most common to surface in the first weeks following a disaster, according to Andrew VanSingel, the project manager for the ABA’s program. They will likely be followed by requests for help with applications for federal assistance or filing insurance claims, disputes with contractors, and a host of issues that arise unexpectedly in the wake of a disaster.

The ABA has sponsored a disaster legal assistance program for decades, and for about 10 years has partnered with FEMA to make it readily available in effected zones.

Just since 2007, the program has offered relief in 160 declared disasters in 43 states and territories – including 20 disasters in 2017, according to the ABA website.

In the two and a half years that VanSingel has been involved, he said he’s spearheaded efforts in about 40 different disasters. While the types of problems are much the same in various jurisdictions, there may be some circumstances that are different. Communications problems, for instance, tend to be more of an issue in the territories than in most states.

In fact, because of the problems with phone service in the Virgin Islands, the hotline is operating through the Louisiana Civil Justice Center.
Many questions can be handled immediately by legal experts at LCJC, which has considerable experience with the program. Those that require individual assistance are matched with a volunteer attorney in the territory who can give “limited scope representation.”

The program is open to individuals who are hurricane victims and who have insufficient means to hire an attorney, VanSingel said. It is open only to civil matters. Cases that could be fee-generating are not eligible, nor are criminal cases.

Trudy Fenster, president of the V.I. Bar Association, said the hotline “is being used a lot,” though she could not give a definite number of calls.

Bolt estimated his office has received about 50 referrals so far.

People van see if they qualify for the program by calling 1-800-310-7029.

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