Law clinics benefit students, Sandy victims

Joseph Gaeta, right, shows Ben Rajotte, left, and

Joseph Gaeta, right, shows Ben Rajotte, left, and David L. Singer, center, both of the Touro Disaster Relief Clinic, his home that was damaged in superstorm Sandy in Oakdale. (April 4, 2013) (Credit: Ed Betz)

Joseph Gaeta is a former bricklayer, but trying to rebuild his Sandy-ravaged home is a constant, heartbreaking struggle.

Gaeta, 86, has spent the past five months drowning in paperwork -- insurance claims, adjusters' reports and contractor estimates -- trying to recoup the money he needs so he and his wife, Anita, can get back into their modest Oakdale house. Anita, bedridden after three strokes, is in a hospice and he wants her to spend her final days in peace, looking out at the water.

"Everyone you call turns their back on you," he said, weeping. "I just want her to be comfortable. She doesn't deserve this life."


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Gaeta is among dozens of people who are turning to local law students and volunteer lawyers at Touro Law Center in Islip and the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University in Hempstead for free legal advice in the aftermath of the Oct. 29 storm.

The students, more than a dozen this semester between both schools, are gaining valuable experience in addition to course credit. They are filing appeals to flood and homeowner insurance companies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration. They are reviewing contracts, researching environmental laws and helping to settle landlord-tenant disputes.

Legal educators, students and some clients say these pro bono law clinics are filling a need for some of Long Island's most vulnerable storm victims, many of them elderly.

"Unless you listen to the stories, you have no idea how hard it is for some people right now," said Touro law student Stephannie Miranda, 25, of Hicksville.

Miranda, who will graduate later this month, said working for the Sandy-affected clients has made her rethink the area of law she wants to practice. She initially wanted to be a corporate lawyer, but now is leaning toward a specialty in public-interest law.

 

Assistance soughtAt the Touro clinic, more than 800 legal inquiries came into the disaster hotline the school established just days after Sandy. The clients were prioritized based upon whether imminent legal action might be necessary. Currently, there are 20 open cases, and more than half involve advocating for the elderly.

The Touro lawyers there are preparing to make their first request for homeowner-insurance mediation, said professor Benjamin Rajotte, director of Touro's Disaster Relief Clinic.

"Mr. Gaeta is a fighter, and we are committed to fighting with him, and with all of our clients, for what they are rightfully due," Rajotte said.

The school-based clinics at Touro and Hofstra work like small law firms with professors and volunteer lawyers acting as partners, mentoring students working on the mostly non-litigation cases.

They are funded with grants from various organizations, including the Robin Hood Foundation, the Rauch Foundation and the Long Island Community Foundation.

For some students, the work has been a welcome departure from a curriculum of ingesting pages and pages of scholarly text.

It also is a resume booster. Many firms have cut entry-level training programs, and there's greater emphasis on acquiring "practice-ready" skills while still in law school, legal educators said.

"They are the front-line staff. I review their work, and I make comments, point out things here and there, but they do the hands-on work," said professor Michael Haber, who runs the clinic at Hofstra's law school. "It's more like the real practice of lawyering."

 

Initial focus on businessHofstra's clinic had a focus on small businesses in the days after Sandy.

The first Sandy-related case involved the owners of a salon and spa unable to reopen for business because the landlord did not make the necessary structural repairs to the building.

Hofstra law students drafted a retainer agreement, conducted client interviews, reviewed the commercial lease and other contracts, and sent a notice of termination to the landlord.

A new gift of $100,000 from the nonprofit Robin Hood Foundation, an anti-poverty group, will allow the Hofstra clinic to expand to include individual homeowners, university officials said.

Neither Rajotte nor Haber could say how long they anticipate the clinics will see Sandy-related cases. Similar clinics opened after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005 and were in operation for years after the storm.

Rajotte said the need is growing and he won't turn away clients like the Gaetas.

"This is such a stressful situation for us," said the couple's daughter, Lori Gaeta, 49, a freelance art director in Manhattan.

She comes to help care for her mother in the Sayville apartment her parents rent with assistance funds from FEMA. She praised the Touro lawyers, who are in the process of appealing insurance company decisions. The couple received $90,000, a fraction of the estimated cost to rebuild the home, they said.

"I don't know how to fight the system, and my father -- he's a simple man -- he definitely doesn't know how to fight the system," she said. "This is Mount Everest for us right now, and we don't have the skill set to climb this mountain."

 

Contacts

 

To reach the law clinic at Touro Law Center in Islip, call 631-761-7198 or email tlcheart@tourolaw.edu.

For the clinic at Hofstra University's Maurice A. Deane School of Law in Hempstead, contact Kathleen Conti at 516-463-5934 or at Kathleen.A.Conti@hofstra.edu.

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