Compelling Cross-Sectoral Governance: Pro Bono Disaster Legal Services for Colorado Flood Victims

Vol. 39 No. 2

By

Andrew J. Hoag is an Assistant Editor of The Affiliate and an associate in the Los Angeles office of Fisher & Phillips LLP.

When a catastrophe strikes, communities and nations often come together to search, rescue, rebuild, and recover. Many people respond to disasters by contributing financially to recovery efforts; others contribute spiritually with prayer and words of encouragement; and some contribute physically with manual labor in search and rescue and rebuilding efforts. Adding to the amalgamation of recovery efforts, the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Disaster Legal Services Program (ABA YLD DLS) contributes professionally, providing pro bono legal services to victims of major disasters or emergencies.

The Memorandum of Understanding

The DLS Program dates back to 1978, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the ABA created the Disaster Legal Services Program through a Memorandum of Understanding. The purpose of the most recent Memorandum of Understanding—entered into by FEMA (under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) and the ABA on behalf of its Young Lawyers Division (YLD)—is to “set forth the terms by which the YLD, when requested by FEMA, will provide legal services to low-income disaster victims in the aftermath of a ‘major disaster’ as defined by the Stafford Act.”

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Act, codified in 42 U.S.C. §§ 5121–5206, provides for various types of federal government assistance during a natural disaster emergency declared by the President.

For federal assistance to be available, the Act requires that the governor of the affected state request a disaster declaration by the President. The request must demonstrate that the disaster is of such severity and magnitude that the state and local governments cannot respond effectively absent federal assistance.

When the President elects to issue a major disaster declaration, various federal programs are activated. There are three main categories of disaster relief: individual assistance, public assistance, and hazard mitigation assistance. Individual assistance includes housing assistance (e.g., temporary housing, repair, replacement, permanent housing construction, and other needs assistance), Small Business Administration disaster loans, disaster unemployment assistance, special tax considerations, crisis counseling, and legal services.

As an individual assistance program, the DLS Program is effectuated when the Presidential Major Disaster Declaration includes individual assistance. Through the Memorandum of Understanding, FEMA contacts the ABA YLD to initiate the DLS Program. When this happens, the ABA YLD District Representative representing the affected area is contacted to implement the state’s disaster legal services plan.

Implementing Disaster Legal Services

Into this complex web of cross-sectoral governance stepped Lance Phillip Timbreza, a real property, bankruptcy, and commercial and business law shareholder at Traylor, Tompkins & Black, P.C., in Grand Junction, Colorado. On August 10, 2013, Lance was appointed the ABA YLD District Representative for Colorado and Wyoming. On September 20, 2013, just over a month after his installation as District Representative—and only nine days after severe storms in Colorado caused flooding, landslides, and mudslides—Timbreza fielded a call he “never could have imagined receiving when [he] first became a District Representative.” Timbreza was contacted by a regional FEMA field officer, and told to “implement Colorado’s disaster-legal-services plan within 48 hours.”

Timbreza took action, initializing Colorado’s disaster legal services plan, including creating a toll-free legal hotline and establishing a website—the second of its kind (Oklahoma established the first such website to carry out disaster legal services after severe storms, tornadoes, straight-line winds, and flooding in May 2013)—to coordinate the mobilization of participating attorneys to provide pro bono legal services to low-income victims of the Colorado flooding. The hotline gives low-income individuals affected by the flooding access to free legal advice.

Currently, an estimated 150 attorneys offer pro bono legal services—legal counseling and advice, referral to appropriate sources of legal services or disaster assistance, and legal representation in non-fee-generating cases—to low-income victims of the Colorado flooding. A representative from the Colorado Bar Association monitors website inquires and telephone calls from flood victims requesting legal services. Legal inquires are either handled on receipt. In more difficult cases, after an intake process, a pro bono attorney is contacted to provide legal services.

Volunteer Attorneys

Volunteer attorneys represent a broad spectrum of the profession: young and senior attorneys, solo practitioners, law firm associates, government attorneys, private practitioners. All are ready to assist with a plethora of disaster-related legal issues: bankruptcy, criminal law, employment law, federal assistance rights, FEMA-related issues, insurance, landlord-tenant law, and real estate. Because the disaster in Colorado is fairly recent, many victims are dealing with the immediate trauma and initial legal issues, such as those related to receipt of FEMA assistance and landlord-tenant issues (e.g., conditions under which a tenant is required to pay rent). As the process transitions from responding to the disaster to recovering from the disaster, victims will likely confront secondary and tertiary legal issues, such as employment law and insurance law issues. The DLS Program is equipped to continue providing legal services onsite at FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers, if necessary.

According to DLS Director David Nguyen, since 2007, the ABA Young Lawyers Division has responded to 112 disasters in 37 states. In the past four years alone, the Disaster Legal Services Program has provided free legal services to more than 100,000 individuals. Thousands of attorneys have provided pro bono legal services to victims affected by natural and manmade disasters from Alaska and American Samoa to Alabama and Arkansas, from California to Connecticut, and now Colorado. The latest example is a testament to the profession and the ability of cross-sectoral governance to solve the many challenges of the 21st century.

For general information about Disaster Legal Services, visit www.americanbar.org/groups/young_lawyers/disaster_legal_services.html, or contact Disaster Legal Services Director David Nguyen at dhknguyen@gmail.com. For more information about ABA YLD Disaster Legal Services in Colorado, contact Colorado District Representative Lance Timbreza at lpt@grandjunctionlaw.com, or visit http://colofloodlegalrelief.org.

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