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After the storm passes, legal questions swirl

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Shortly after an EF-4 tornado plowed across southern Indiana in March 2012 and left most of Henryville a pile of rubble, volunteers arrived with their chainsaws and trucks offering to help clear the destruction.

Residents of the tiny town had to rely on neighbors and strangers, but their needs that came from rebuilding quickly grew beyond removing debris and repairing homes. They had questions about insurance, aid applications and construction contracts.

sandy-stoll-15col.jpg The ABA’s Young Lawyer Division Disaster Legal Services is led by I.U. McKinney School of Law graduates David Nguyen and Ryan Hamilton. Pictured above, Hamilton and ABA staff member Gina Sadler, right, help a Hurricane Sandy survivor.(Photo submitted)

Help with these and other legal matters came from local attorneys who volunteered to guide and advocate for the residents as they maneuvered through the overwhelming, sometimes frustrating, paperwork of claims, family disputes and missing documents.

Whether experiencing tornadoes in places like Henryville and Joplin, Mo., or hurricanes the magnitude of those that swept through the Gulf Coast and Eastern seaboard, survivors will eventually need a lawyer. Through a collaboration of neighboring attorneys like in southern Indiana or organized by the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyer Division Disaster Legal Services, lawyers offer their knowledge and problem-solving skills to people trying to return to normal.

Hoosier attorneys wanted to use their knowledge of the administrative process, the judicial process and legal issues to do what they could to help Henryville and the tiny surrounding communities, explained J. Mark Robinson, attorney with Indiana Legal Services Inc. in New Albany.

“We really do have a noble profession that seeks common good and wants to be available to our citizens,” he said.

Come rain or shine

Since the 1970s, the ABA has been coordinating disaster legal assistance by working with local affiliates, bar associations and legal aid organizations in devastated areas. Since September 2007, the DLS has responded to 103 disasters in 37 states.

Currently the director of the ABA’s Disaster Legal Services Program is Indianapolis attorney David Nguyen. He volunteers his time because he wants to serve and do something meaningful.

Legal problems that disaster survivors face basically cover the curriculum from the first year of law school. Property law, family law and help navigating the bureaucracy are all part of the mix. Landlord–tenant issues, denied insurance claims, and recovering missing documents like Social Security cards, driver’s licenses and deeds to homes are common problems as well.

Also, Nguyen noted, “funny things you wouldn’t think about” crop up after a storm. These include family disagreements arising from custody arrangements and even bankruptcy declarations.

Legal problems resulting from historic storms like hurricanes Katrina, Isaac and Sandy are so widespread and so huge, Nguyen said, they will take years to solve.

In the calm that comes after the storm, the ABA organizes a hotline that connects survivors to attorneys and legal assistance. Volunteering lawyers are also given space in disaster recovery centers established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“The ABA provides a needed service,” Nguyen said. “Absolutely, I think it provides a real needed service.”

Echoing Robinson, Nguyen pointed out volunteering for disaster legal services enables lawyers to bolster their image. It is an opportunity, he said, to show lawyers are not solely concerned with the billable hour but rather want to help people in need.

Stormy weather

On March 2, the town of Henryville and surrounding communities will mark the first anniversary of the tornadoes. The high school has been rebuilt, St. Frances Xavier Catholic Church has been repaired, and the residents have been putting their lives back together.

 The tornado hit the town on a Friday afternoon. On Monday, Clark Circuit Judge Daniel Moore convened a handful of attorneys at an O’Charley’s restaurant to discuss the help the legal community could offer.

Within a day, the Indiana State Bar Association held a conference call about the installation of a hotline that survivors could call for assistance. John Woodard, partner at Wyatt Tarrant & Combs LLP in New Albany, offered that he and his firm would handle the referrals from the hotline.

A short time later, Rodney Scott, attorney at Waters Tyler Hofmann & Scott LLC in New Albany, contacted Moore. Scott spent the first weekend after the storm in Henryville, cleaning accommodations and preparing meals for volunteers from the Salvation Army. What he saw of the destruction disturbed his sleep and spurred him to confer with Moore.

Scott then helped organize a legal clinic for residents to go for answers and advice. On a Saturday about two weeks after the tornado, the viewing room of Adams Funeral Home in Henryville was divided into a consultation area and a waiting room. Numerous attorneys volunteered in two sessions to meet and help the survivors with their legal problems.

“It was a good day,” Scott said. “I was very impressed by the willingness of the attorneys to jump in and do whatever was needed.”

Indiana Legal Services Inc. and the Indiana Bar Foundation also contributed to the rehabilitation effort. Robinson of ILS joined the Saturday clinic where he offered guidance in two family law cases.

The attorneys were not soliciting business or searching for clients. They provided help sorting through insurance coverage disputes and handling estate matters, misappropriated donations and contractor agreements as well as gave advice on how to protect an individual identity when birth certificates and other personal documents had been blown to unknown destinations. Sometimes they just did a little handholding and talked to the people.

Woodard advocated for one survivor who was handed an exorbitant bill for air ambulance service. The individual, who had suffered broken bones in the tornado and was airlifted to medical care, was charged $20,000 by the service provider. That was well in excess of Medicaid rates so Woodard negotiated, even threatened litigation, and was able to get the bill significantly reduced.

The Indiana Bar Foundation recognized what Robinson called the “Herculean effort” by Woodard and Wyatt Tarrant & Combs with a President’s Award.

Blue skies

Materials and packets of information that were put together and handed out after the southern Indiana tornado have been filed away so if ever such a disaster happens again, the legal community will be prepared.

The ABA is also getting ready for the next disaster by forecasting through different scenarios. Nguyen traveled to Southern California in December to brainstorm with other attorneys and organizations about what type of legal relief will be needed after the next major earthquake.

Going forward, Nguyen wants to establish a single unified hotline. Currently, the 800 number changes with each location, but he is working to create one number that will be available after disasters so survivors will know immediately who to call for legal help.

Also, he wants to create a database of attorneys with foreign language skills. In a disaster, these lawyers could be called upon to help with translating for survivors.

What and when the next disaster will be are unknowns. But it is certain that following the storm, legal problems will unfold and lawyers will be there to help.•

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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