Maryann Flanigan ’12 starts her career amid the legal disaster left by Hurricane Sandy
When it made land fall on Oct. 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy left more than a swath of destruction along the New Jersey coast. The damage to homes and property created a tangle of legal challenges that would only grow in the aftermath of the storm.
Basic legal needs were apparent immediately after the storm as victims attempted to file insurance claims, secure assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other agencies, and begin to repair, rebuild, or relocate. Many would run into roadblocks: Tenants returned to flooded rentals to find their landlord had disposed of their belongings; displaced homeowners saw expenses double as they covered mortgage and rent payments while their homes were being repaired; insurers failed to turn over policies and endorsements detailing full coverage and benefits to victims; or out-of- state adjusters low-balled replacement costs for lost property, to name just a few.
In the midst of this turmoil, Maryann Flanigan ’12 found herself in an unexpected role: legal first-responder. Fresh off a Duke Bridge to Practice fellowship working on domestic violence matters at Legal Services of New Jersey (LS NJ), Flanigan learned she had passed the state bar exam a few days after power was restored. Almost immediately she was invited to return to LS NJ, to join the new relief project that was being set up to handle the requests for legal assistance that were pouring in via the agency’s hotline.
“We are still getting a steady stream of calls,” says Flanigan, who became supervising attorney on the Hurricane Sandy Legal Assistance Project less than a year later.
Already, the initiative has handled more than 2,500 cases. Some storm victims were defrauded by contractors and public adjustors they hired to negotiate with their insurance companies, but who take a significant percentage of any claim. Others found themselves having to appeal denials or undervaluing of federal flood-insurance claims, and some were surprised by attempts by FEMA to recoup emergency aid payments. Now, more than two years after Sandy hit, many homeowners are facing foreclosures.
“Homeowners who have been paying rent while they rebuild or repair still have to pay property taxes and have fallen seriously behind in their mortgage payments,” says Flanigan.
Few people, whatever their means, can negotiate the bewildering post-disaster legal landscape without a lawyer’s help, she says: “People find themselves in situations they have never dealt with before, and they don’t know their rights.”
This is particularly true when flood-insurance claims are routinely undervalued, underpaid, or erroneously denied by insurers — a key concern for hundreds of clients who faced bills for repairing, rebuilding, or replacing damaged property. The process for proving, appealing, or supplementing claims is extremely complex and the timeline for filing legal challenges is tight, as she told the members of a U.S. Senate subcommittee last summer in testimony aimed at improving the process.
“After we explain the flood-insurance appeals process, clients often express gratitude for the information and state that they did not understand the appeals process before speaking with LS NJ,” Flanigan wrote in testimony submitted to the Committee on Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community Development on July 30. “That is to say, the client did not receive a clear explanation of the appeal process from the flood claim agent.”
LS NJ Vice President Dawn Miller says that advocacy by Flanigan and her colleagues has facilitated some positive developments in the uncertain post-disaster landscape that has seen multiple changes to FEMA and flood-insurance rules. “We try to talk to whoever will listen to us about things that can change and improve the situation for people going through the disaster,” Miller says. “We learned that from being in the trenches and on the ground immediately after the storm.”
I want the justice system to work better, so that even if you never call us, you still have a better chance of getting meaningful justice.— Maryann Flanigan '12
While some clients can go forward to navigate the appeals process on their own, most cannot do so effectively, and in any event, are unlikely to be aware of the nuances of consumer-fraud statutes and an emerging body of disaster-related case law that could help their claims, Flanigan says.
The complexities of the flood-claim appeal process and other legal issues raised by the hurricane have a particularly negative impact on people of low and moderate means. Many lost income as their jobs were impacted by Sandy, even as they incurred expenses relating to displacement damage, and even to proving their claims — such as retainers charged by structural engineers.
One client, who was evacuated from her shorefront, second-floor apartment, returned to find her possessions destroyed by rainwater that flooded the unit after Sandy’s cyclone-strength wind blew the shingles off the roof. The carrier of her renters’ insurance denied the claim, arguing that flood was not a covered peril. “That wasn’t true,” says Flanigan, who was ultimately able to recover $15,000 for the client for personal property damage and the loss of use coverage in her policy. “This client was so grateful. $15,000 is a lot to anybody, but particularly for a low-income individual who doesn’t have an extra emergency fund.”
She has also represented senior citizens who fell prey to unscrupulous home-repair contractors in the storm’s aftermath. “Many clients have told similar stories: They gave $25,000 or $40,000 or more to a contractor who then disappeared — and that’s all the money they had, so they can’t rebuild,” she says. “They want to get their houses repaired quickly and move forward, so they put their trust in someone only to be victimized again.”
The work transcends pure poverty law; Flanigan’s project is not subject to the same asset and income limitations as are most services offered by LS NJ. Hurricane Sandy was an equalizer, she says: “People of moderate incomes — or even higher — may be dipping into their savings to repair while they wrangle with their flood insurer. And if their home was destroyed, they may be renting while still carrying mortgage payments. So now you can be paying pretty much the equivalent of two mortgages. And that can bring some people down pretty close to low-income.”
Flanigan hit the ground running when she returned to LS NJ after Sandy’s retreat, aided in large part, by the training she received during her Bridge to Practice fellowship, Miller says. “She’s fantastic. She’s energetic, she’s willing to take things on, she learns quickly, and she has a great attitude.” Miller adds that Flanigan was instrumental in organizing and helping to supervise the law students who came to handle post-Sandy cases during spring breaks and summers. The need was and is critical; even before the storm, LS NJ had the resources to help only one in six low-income New Jersey residents who needed legal assistance.
At Duke, when Flanigan thought about a career in public interest law, she never imagined practicing consumer law. “It’s amazing how much I love this job,” she says. “This work is meaningful, and exactly what I wanted to do.” She particularly enjoys the mix of direct client representation, public education, and policy that her days entail: In addition to recommending modifications to the federal flood insurance system in her testimony before the Senate subcommittee, she has testified before New Jersey lawmakers on improving the state-level response.
And she now represents LS NJ on a statewide commission seeking to improve the system of alternative dispute resolution.
“I always wanted to work one-on-one, but I also wanted to effect broad-impact change. And that’s exactly what I get to do here,” she says. “I want the justice system to work better, so that even if you never call us, you still have a better chance of getting meaningful justice.”