Many homeowners with legitimate flood insurance claims from Sandy could miss out on their deadline to sue for more money unless they take prompt action, lawyers and consumer advocates warned Friday.
The situation is different for each homeowner because according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency the 12-month deadline to sue depends on when a homeowner was first denied the claim, or a portion of it, by the flood insurer. Thousands of flood insurances claimants are expected to face their deadline before April.
Exactly when varies by homeowner and could be subject to legal challenge after unclear guidance from FEMA, which runs the National Flood Insurance Program, say lawyers for Sandy victims on Long Island and in the metropolitan region.
Homeowners making a flood insurance claim must first submit "proof of loss" to their insurer with documentation like a contractor's estimate and photos showing Sandy flood damage.
The NFIP in October extended the deadline for proof of loss to April 2014, 18 months since Sandy. Proof documentation is a prerequisite for a lawsuit, according to the flood insurance policy.
But last month, FEMA said the 12-month statute of limitations must stand regardless of the extended proof of loss deadline and so it is possible homeowners with legitimate claims could miss out unless they act swiftly to file both.
"FEMA's stance forces traumatized homeowners who are still owed money into the unfortunate position of having to file a federal lawsuit to preserve their right to get what they're owed," said Ben Rajotte, director of the Disaster Relief Clinic at Touro Law School.
Rajotte said thousands of Long Islanders could be at risk. "We know that almost 60,000 New Yorkers reported flood claims as of February last year and many of them remain in dispute," he added. The clinic expects to file more than a dozen suits for Long Island homeowners by mid-January.
FEMA maintains it has no authority to extend the time limit to file a lawsuit despite ongoing pressure from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) and others.
Attorney Chris Gerold said his New Jersey-based firm has filed 33 lawsuits and expected that would grow to more than 100 by mid-January. Sandy victims began receiving denials or partial denials starting in late November 2012, but that sped up through January, with the bulk coming February through April last year, he said. "So people really need to act now."
Rena Bonne of Long Beach, who lost her home and all her possessions in Sandy, is suing after receiving a flood insurance payout from Fidelity representing less than 25 percent of what her contractor says she must spend to rebuild. She paid for flood insurance for nine years after buying her Hudson Street home.
"No one I know got the right amount of money from their flood insurance policy. The insurers have a byzantine set of requirements and loopholes which function to ensure the homeowner does not receive the monies they need to rebuild," she said.
With Joe Ryan