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Wildfire Volunteer Lawyers Can Sue Gov’t, Even FEMA

Posted Oct 29, 2007 3:15 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Volunteer lawyers who help victims of the recent Southern California wildfires will no longer be restricted in the kinds of lawsuits they can bring on behalf of their clients. Now lawyers can sue local, state and federal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which sponsors the disaster legal aid program in conjunction with the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division.

The ABA’s contract with FEMA formerly restricted volunteer lawyers, but the contract has been renegotiated following a lawsuit by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, according to a newsletter (PDF) by the legal aid group. Its suit had contended the restrictions violated the First Amendment rights of lawyers and their clients. Now lawyers can even pursue claims against FEMA and file appeals if the agency denies benefits, Craig Cannon, who serves as the ABA’s Disaster Legal Services Coordinator, told ABAJournal.com.

Lawyers are gearing up now to help those who have lost their homes in the fires. The response to a call for volunteers in California has been “overwhelming,” according to Joel R. Villaseñor, appointed in August to be the ABA’s district representative for Southern California. Lawyers can still sign up to help on the Web sites of the ABA or the California State Bar, which is helping find volunteer legal organizations and local bars to help in the effort.

Starting tomorrow, volunteers will be handling victims’ phone calls during business hours from a conference room at the San Diego office of Foley & Lardner. The number of the hotline, set up by the ABA's YLD, is 866-636-9041.

Cases that need to be referred to a lawyer or legal group will first go to Villaseñor. “The job of the district ABA YLD coordinator, which is me in this instance, is to serve as a conduit for people whose issue can’t be resolved easily on the phone,” he explains. He then farms out cases to lawyer referral programs and volunteer lawyers so victims can get the legal help they need.

It’s the first time Villaseñor has helped coordinate the ABA’s Southern California response to a legal disaster. “I’m safe and I have a roof over my head, so I have nothing to complain about,” says the Ventura County litigator. “I’m glad that I’m doing it, and I’m glad that I’m getting to help people, which is one of the things we're supposed to be doing as lawyers.”

Legal issues may run the gamut from landlord-tenant issues to insurance coverage disputes to recovery of lost documents, says Cannon, the national coordinator.

He works 25 to 50 hours a month as the ABA volunteer who coordinates the hotline program. He has had the responsibility since August 2006. “In the past two years we’ve handled 75,000 calls through our hotlines,” he told ABAJournal.com . In the past year alone, Cannon, a lawyer with Womble Carlyle in Winston-Salem, N.C., has helped coordinate ABA response to disasters in 19 states, ranging from tornadoes to floods.

The Young Lawyers Division has worked with FEMA since around 1978 to provide pro bono help to low-income victims of federally declared disasters.

The ABA has posted information online about state disaster centers and other legal resources. Also available is information on insurance coverage issues (PDF) prepared by Dickstein Shapiro and an overview of legal issues faced by fire victims originally prepared in 2003 with the help of Morrison & Foerster. The law firm is working to update the publication.

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