The widespread property damage caused by Hurricane Sandy left many residents with important legal questions. NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider spoke with Kevin McCann, President of the New Jersey State Bar Association (NJSBA), about legal services for those affected by the storm.
The NJSBA set up a hotline (888-541-1900) less than two weeks after the storm hit to answer Sandy-related legal questions. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming number of questions involved real estate matters including landlord-tenancy, insurance and FEMA, according to McCann.
This isn’t the first time the NJSBA stepped in to provide legal aid to the public. The organization provided a similar service back in 1994 after the natural gas pipeline explosion in Edison, and then later after 9/11 and a couple of other hurricanes, said McCann.
Still, he described the “magnitude of the callers and the need and the angst” from superstorm Sandy as “unbelievable.”
According to McCann, some of the common landlord-tenant issues involve tenants unable to move back into their buildings or mold issues for those that are allowed to move back in. The hotline, he says, is operated by a volunteer staff of more than 250 people who field and refer callers to lawyers in their geographic area who have some expertise in dealing with the problems they have.
“Sometimes a phone call from an attorney saying, ‘Hey this is what we need you to do, we need you to take care of your tenant, we need you to take care of this, that and the other thing’ resolves the problem. Other times it does not and we have to refer them out to as I said based on whether they are income eligible for Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ), we send them there or to their local bar association.”
The court system throughout the state suffered varying degrees of storm impact. Some were hardly affected and were open for business right away while others were closed for days. But the inconsistency affected the legal process no matter where it was practiced in the state, said McCann.
“I’m in Cumberland, the court’s open and ready to work but the lawyers from Essex have no power, no water nor gasoline to drive to Cumberland County, so it is affected greatly,” said McCann. “Also, there is the trickle down effect financially to lawyers who can’t get their cases handled, can’t get into court, can’t get them resolved. It’s just like not having a judge available.”
And the situation is far from back to normal. McCann said cases are getting postponed primarily because of files lost during the hurricane. But the NJSBA set up a protocol several years ago for how attorneys should handle such situations, according to McCann.
“We try to help one another where if your office got flooded and your files [are] gone … it’s my obligation to try and help you get parts of their file back that I can ethically give back to you even though I’m your adversary.”