expungement
Richard Deed made a career out of his service in the United States Army. For the seven years preceding his discharge, he was stationed in Fort Hood, Texas where he met his now ex-wife Molly. He and Molly had a child two years after he moved there. He never imagined planting roots in Texas as he envisioned himself back in Nevada where he grew up. “I guess a year is not long enough, I didn’t know her as well I thought,” he says when referring to how, and when, his relationship with Molly dissolved.

After their divorce was final, Molly claimed that Mr. Deed had attacked her and quickly sought a protective order against him. He was arrested and ordered to complete a pretrial intervention program through the Bell County Veterans Treatment Court. Life seemed to be quickly rolling downhill as the charges resulted in Mr. Deed being booted out of the military.

A veterans’ treatment court serves a large segment of the justice-involved veteran population as opposed to business as usual: having all veterans appear before random judges who may or may not have an understanding of their unique experiences and issues. A veterans’ treatment court judge better understands the issues that a veteran may possibly be struggling with, such as substance addiction, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, or military sexual trauma. A veterans’ treatment court judge is also more familiar with the Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration, State Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans service organizations, and volunteer veteran mentors and how they can all assist veteran defendants.

Upon completion of the pretrial intervention program, Mr. Deed’s criminal case was dismissed, but his arrest record was still preventing him from getting the government job he desired as well as visitation with his child. Without work, he was living on limited means and facing the possibility of homelessness. To keep busy, he volunteered with local police and firefighters.

The Bell County Veterans Treatment court referred Mr. Deed to LSLA’s Belton branch office, where he sought the legal assistance he required to remove the arrest from his record so that he could find a job as well as start seeing his child. His case was accepted and a Petition for Expungement was filed on his behalf. His attorney argued that the assault charge should be dropped because there was no evidence to support it. The matter was set for hearing and Mr. Deed’s petition was granted, allowing his criminal arrest records to be expunged. Mr. Deed says he is “carefree of charges and now I can get my life back together. If it was not for legal aid, I would probably be in jail or in the system somewhere. I would probably be up a creek.”

*Names were changed to protect the identity of the individual(s).

Put The Record Straight

Although 17-year-olds in Texas are not allowed to vote, buy cigarettes, serve on a jury, join the military, or enter into a binding contract, they can be charged as adults in criminal matters and even sent to prison. Irene Andrews, now 22 years old, found herself being charged as an adult when she was 17. Still in high school and forced to defend herself against the typical cause of most teenage angst, school bullies, she fell into a confrontational situation with some of her peers that led to her arrest for assault. While Irene is far from proud of the fight she was involved in, she is ready to move on with her life without this record preventing her from reaching her full potential. She is currently in school working to earn a Bachelor’s degree.

Criminal Background Check

The Texas Government Code Section 411.081 allows an individual who has successfully completed probation (or deferred adjudication community supervision) to petition the court that placed him/her on probation for an order of nondisclosure. An order of nondisclosure prohibits criminal justice agencies from disclosing to the public the criminal history record information related to the offense that is the subject of the petition. Criminal history record information subject to an order of nondisclosure is exempt from the required disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act.

Successfully completing probation (or deferred adjudication community supervision) is required in order to get an order of nondisclosure approved by a judge. But, Irene’s case wasn’t black and white. Irene was arrested a few months after she completed her probationary period, which would normally disqualify her from such a benefit. The reason for her arrest: protesting on behalf of raising the minimum wage for all low-wage workers, especially those of color. Irene applied for legal assistance with Lone Star Legal Aid and was assigned to attorney Fallon Hamilton in the Civil Matters in Criminal Justice Project. Attorney Hamilton reviewed Irene’s criminal record and believed that if given a chance to explain Irene’s subsequent arrest, a judge might grant an order of nondisclosure for her.

At the hearing, the prosecutor contested the petition for nondisclosure claiming that Irene was not eligible as she was arrested within the two years following the completion of her deferred adjudication. Attorney Hamilton knew that this client deserved a chance to be heard despite the objection of the prosecution and asked to approach the bench and provide testimony as to Irene’s criminal past and how despite her violation of probation, she should be granted a nondisclosure. The judge agreed, granted the petition for nondisclosure, and Irene was ecstatic! She no longer dreads the “have you ever been convicted of a crime” question listed on apartment applications as well as applications for jobs and school. As of the date of the signed order, Irene’s records will be sealed from all criminal record databases.

*Names were changed to protect the client’s identity.

Winning a contested case

Water had never entered the home Pamela McCarty has lived in for over 20 years.  Spending most of her life in Texas, she spent time in New York and Ohio before moving back in 1994 to care for her aging father after her mother’s passing. As the youngest of 13 children and her father’s caregiver at the time of his death, the home was left to her.

Slowly, but surely, McCarty was fixing up the home. Fresh paint here, new furnishings there. She loved her home. Her world was completely turned upside when along came Harvey. She had seen the streets fill up, but water had never entered her family home. Her sister’s home, a few streets away, flooded before hers, so she came over to stay with her and borrowed some dry clothes. They both got comfortable for the night and fell asleep. “I jumped out of bed in the morning thinking I was going to go make us some coffee and I stepped into the water.” The water was rising fast, so she and her sister decided it was time to get out of the house. They walked outside, through the water, to find a man driving a city dump truck rescuing residents. “He took us to the corner store where other people were waiting for help, waiting for someone to tell us all where we could go.” No one could go home at the time.

McCarty - House

McCarty stayed with a nephew for about a week before staying with another one of her sisters. She was never required to have flood insurance in her area, so she didn’t have it. She lost everything in the home; the water rose higher than the top of her bed. Even with her low/fixed social security income, FEMA denied her assistance for repairs to her home because it was still legally titled in the name of her deceased father. She called everyone she could think of to see who could help her. Lone Star Legal Aid had helped her with other legal matters years ago, so she dialed straight in.

FEMA’s rules require a registrant or disaster survivor to prove ownership by having their name on documents such as a Deed or Official Record for the home, Mortgage Payment Book or other mortgage documents, Real Property Insurance Policy, Property Tax Receipts or Tax Bill and/or a Property Title or Mobile Home Certificate of Title. Many families in Texas live in an inherited property that has not gone through a formal probate procedure, meaning their names are not referenced in the approved/required documents and they are being denied assistance.

Disaster staff attorney Lasonya Mahoney took Ms. McCarty’s case. She drafted and executed an affidavit of heirship and filed it with Jefferson County property records. Once that was done, attorney Mahoney was able to send a letter on Ms. McCarty’s behalf enclosing supporting documents. After waiting about a month, constantly checking her status online and conferring with her attorney, Ms. McCarty said “I was checking my bank account to see what little money I had and I was flabbergasted. I was so happy; it was just a blessing to see. I called Ms. Mahoney right away and she was so excited for me. Now I have the money to get some contractors to come and fix my house.”

There’s no place like home

Sexual Assault Story GraphicShe never thought she would be locked up by someone who was supposed to love her. He had a messed up way of loving, she thought. Hope Jones* wished she would have never gotten mixed up with a man like Carl*, but it was too late.

He was a meth dealer and they met on a binge. With his abusive tendencies disguised as intense love, Hope fell quickly in love and soon after, they exchanged vows. Then she began to notice his outbursts. Often it was when he needed a fix. He couldn’t be sober. To support his habit, Carl would often break into houses. He took whatever he could sell for a quick score. He was sent to prison for a few years once. Hope’s rage towards him heightened when her 17-year-old daughter told her that he had raped her when she was 12. Hope filed for divorce and finally felt as though she had taken a step toward safety.  He was in prison after all.

As Carl’s release date approached, Hope convinced herself that everything would be okay. She thought that since he would have an entire year to get over the divorce, that her drama with him was finally over. As she was walking home from work one day, a van pulled up beside her and Carl jumped out brandishing a machete. Hope knew better than to fight him. She got in the van and he drove her hours away to his new home. Hope’s family figured she must have gotten back together with him, as had happened so many times before.

Carl acted as if he and Hope were still together. He began a jealous psychotic path. When he accused her of cheating for the first time, he tied her up and held her mouth shut with his hands and threatened to hit her if she screamed.  That time, he choked her, pulled her hair, called her names, and raped her. She tried to tell someone, but anytime she tried to get away – he would always force her back and throw away her phone. She began to feel low and worthless and all of the other things Carl constantly told her she was. He must be right, she thought. All she wanted to do was run away, back to her children.

She’ll remember the day she got to run away forever. As much as it was a miracle to her, the day was also a nightmare. She woke up, her hair still with bits of blood and sweat from the night before, and decided to take a hot shower. As the door burst open, chills swept through her. Here it comes, she thought. Carl was shouting at her, asking her why she was cheating on him with the men pumping gas at the station across the street. She was terrified – why was he holding a drill? Carl began securing the room with screws. He dragged her out of the shower and started hitting her over and over. He covered her mouth with his hands and began raping her. She was paralyzed with fear and stayed awake all night.   When Carl woke, he told her not to go crazy and he unscrewed the doors.  Knowing this was her chance, she ran out of the house.

With nowhere else to go, Hope went to a local shelter for battered women. She began to piece her life back together. Knowing that she couldn’t stay there forever, she contacted LSLA and was put in contact with an attorney who specializes in legal assistance to survivors of sexual assault. LSLA attorney Victoria Smith filed a petition for a protective order. The judge granted a lifetime protective order to Hope Jones and her children, with whom she is now reunited. They are now safe from their abuser and he is facing charges for his crimes against Hope and her family.

*Names were changed to protect the client’s identity.

She Had Enough

This article was written by Lorelei Laird and published in the February 2018 issue of the ABA Journal with the title “Storm Troopers: When Harvey and Irma hit the US mainland, the legal community rose to the occasion.”

 

0218FHURRICANE-OPENER750px
Shutterstock

 

There’s no good time for your office to explode. But when it happened to Lone Star Legal Aid, the timing could not have been better.

Thanks to Houston’s widespread flooding from Hurricane Harvey that day—Monday, Aug. 28—no one had come to the office. Law student Elizabeth Amaya, an intern at Lone Star, happened to live two blocks away and spotted flames shooting out of what had been glass walls. She took a photo, which quickly reached Lone Star’s attorneys, who were spread out across the city, helping Houstonians with their hurricane-related legal problems.

The fire took out Lone Star’s phone and email systems and other resources just as the agency was gearing up for a major disaster response effort. Right after the fire, Lone Star attorneys operating in hurricane shelters were working at a makeshift table made of a board atop two cardboard boxes with the words “Legal Aid” written on them with a felt-tip pen. Those who weren’t in shelters worked from home (if they hadn’t flooded), using cell phones and free web-based email accounts.

Lone Star attorneys soon discovered that they had a lot of friends in Texas. When they couldn’t answer calls to a statewide legal advice hotline, their colleagues at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid took over. Law firms and nonprofits throughout Houston donated office space to some of Lone Star’s units. Private attorneys got their legal aid colleagues loaner computers, kept them supplied with flyers to give out and—perhaps most importantly—put out the call for pro bono volunteers. Then they reported to those shifts in large numbers.

Woman on phone
Saundra Brown. Photo by Todd Spoth.

LAWYERS REACHING OUT

Attorneys affected by hurricanes Harvey and Irma have risen to the occasion in ways personal, professional and altruistic, even when dealing with storm damage of their own. And then another hurricane hit, and the need for legal assistance became even greater after Maria swept over the Virgin Islands and tore directly through Puerto Rico, where the destruction has far exceeded that of the U.S. mainland. In the weeks after Maria, Puerto Rico has been addressing its most vital needs first, including delivery of food and water and restoration of electricity. The mountain of legal needs that comes with the devastation isn’t far behind. (See “Across the Water,” on how the ABA is helping coordinate legal assistance on the islands.)

On the mainland, legal aid attorneys reported for duty seven days a week, mindful of the storms’ effects on the neediest. Attorneys in Florida and Texas volunteered in large numbers to help disaster survivors and opened their offices to fellow lawyers who found themselves with no place to go. In the name of due process, judges, prosecutors, and public defenders rode out the storms at work.

And in the aftermath, all the players in the legal system have committed to making justice work—even under conditions that are less than ideal as the communities hardest hit continue their recovery.

“There’s no way any one person can do this,” says Saundra Brown, who manages Lone Star’s disaster response unit. “Remember the Timex watch [advertisement]—it takes a licking and keeps on ticking? Or the Energizer bunny? We just keep going.”

Here are some of those stories.

KEEPING THE WHEELS OF JUSTICE MOVING

On Sunday, Aug. 27, Hans Nielsen was sleeping on a couch in Houston’s main criminal courthouse when a colleague woke him. It was time to evacuate. Nielsen, a deputy district attorney with Harris County, was in the Harris County Criminal Justice Center because he’d volunteered to work during Hurricane Harvey. He and his colleagues got overtime pay for helping with overnight police needs, and the center seemed like a safe place to ride out the storm. After it was flooded by Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, the county had installed 4-foot watertight doors.

When Nielsen woke up, the water was 2 feet over those doors. The flooding had also pushed sewage into the building and burst pipes in the upper stories. “It was kind of game over at that point,” says Nielsen, chief of his office’s juvenile division.

To evacuate, the 30-plus people in the courthouse had to cross two streets filled with knee-deep, opaque brown water that had spilled over from Buffalo Bayou a block away. To keep evacuees from stumbling on unseen obstacles, authorities rigged a rope line for them to follow. Carrying their essentials in garbage bags, they followed the line to the nearby Juvenile Justice Center, where they stayed for three more sweaty days—the air conditioning went out—until the flood receded enough for replacements to arrive.

Public lawyers like Nielsen, and the judges they work with, have been doing their jobs in less-than-ideal conditions since Harvey and Irma. Even after the hurricanes, damage to some courtrooms and offices has meant making unusual accommodations to keep the wheels of justice turning.

Harris County fared better than some coastal parts of Texas where buildings were destroyed. As of January, courts from Aransas County were still operating out of borrowed buildings. Florida did a little better after Irma, although cities north of the storm’s landfall suffered unexpected flooding, which forced a court in the Daytona Beach area to relocate.

Nonetheless, the damage is still extensive in Harris County. Harvey rendered the Criminal Justice Center unusable for at least nine months, which has meant finding new homes for the main offices of the district attorney and public defender, as well as 36 criminal courts. Nielsen says his colleagues, who were almost entirely housed in the center, are now sharing other county offices throughout the city.

An even bigger problem—and not just for prosecutors—was the fact that jury trials ground to a halt until mid-October. Because the underground Jury Assembly Room was ruined, jurors couldn’t be called. When trials resumed, judges were expecting them to proceed much more slowly than usual, thanks to the limited courtroom space. In a system with a Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial—playing out in a county of 4.5 million people—that has created a lot of pressure.

To ease that pressure, Harris County Criminal District Judge Marc Carter tried to avoid setting cases for trial. His colleague, District Judge Jim Wallace, believes prosecutors were trying to help by offering defendants favorable deals. Though Wallace doesn’t exactly approve—he’s a former prosecutor and police officer—he says he’s not granting the kinds of delays that were once routine.

“Our trial docket is getting larger by the moment,” he says. “The reality of it is: If we can’t find a better way to try more cases, they’ll be sitting in jail for quite some time.”

Man talking
Judge Marc Carter. Photo by Todd Spoth.

Judges say defense attorneys have been understanding about the situation. Tucker Graves, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said in the months after the storm he’s heard complaints from some lawyers about the slow speed of trials. But Graves credits judges for recognizing the problem by setting the oldest jail cases for trial first.

Carter and Wallace have a lot of time to compare notes because they’re sharing a courtroom. When the Criminal Justice Center was destroyed, judicial authorities moved all 36 criminal judges into courtrooms designed for their civil colleagues, sitting two to a courtroom. To make room, the civil judges also doubled up. Wallace and Carter ended up sharing a courtroom at the Civil Justice Center.

Sharing a bench isn’t that much of a hassle, but being in a civil courthouse has been a major problem for criminal cases. The civil courthouse has no direct physical connection to the county jail and no cells for holding in-custody defendants. Thus, it initially was used only for hearings involving defendants out on bond.

For jailed defendants, hearings were being conducted in a makeshift courtroom at the jail—actually a series of long folding tables in a large open room. It’s loud, and privileged attorney-client conversations are conducted within everyone’s earshot. And because the public is not admitted inside, families must watch via closed-circuit television at the civil courthouse. Judges presiding over these hearings take turns visiting the jails.

People are doing their best, the judges say—but all the same, they’re concerned about how this will play out in the long run. They’d like to move back into the Criminal Justice Center as soon as they can, even if that means walking around construction.

“Yeah, we’re going to be inconvenienced,” Carter says with a laugh, “but … we would prefer to be inconvenienced in our old building because it would just serve the criminal justice system and the citizens of Harris County better.”

Building aftermath
Photo by Todd Spoth.

THE AFTERMATH: Proof of Hurricane Harvey is everywhere. 

For public defender Robert Lockwood of Florida’s 16th Judicial District, the problem was not a lack of courthouses—it was getting there. His district encompasses the Florida Keys, a series of islands south of Miami, strung like beads along 110 miles of U.S. Route 1. It’s the only way to drive through the Keys, and after Hurricane Irma, it was lined with downed trees, washing machines and other detritus thrown around by winds as high as 130 mph. There was also a shortage of fuel—and Lockwood had sheltered in a hotel ballroom in Key West, 50 miles from where a makeshift court had been set up in Marathon. He had to call on favors to get the necessary gasoline.

Though new arrests were minimal after the storm, he says, a bigger problem was the inmates already in jail, who had all been evacuated to Palm Beach County. That’s a five-hour drive away, and the evacuation dragged on for two weeks. Although the Florida Supreme Court had suspended legal deadlines for the hurricane, Lockwood didn’t like holding people for so long without charges—or in some cases, past their release dates.

So Lockwood convinced the high court to authorize his district to hear cases in Palm Beach County, and he enlisted the local public defender’s office to help his staff connect the Keys inmates with their families on the outside. It wasn’t necessary; jail authorities moved the inmates back shortly after everything was ready. But the cross-circuit cooperation broke new ground in which lawyers committed to helping one another for the clients and their families. “That’s why we all tried to get together,” Lockwood says.

Man smiling
James McDonald. Photo by Todd Spoth.

LEGAL AID IN ACTION

Texas resident James McDonald has been eligible for disability benefits since 1995—for PTSD and depression stemming from Navy service in the Middle East and Somalia—but he never made the claim. He didn’t want to think of himself as disabled. But his emotional equilibrium suffered after Hurricane Harvey when his landlords started demanding that his family vacate their house in the Houston suburb of Baytown.

There was little money to make the move; McDonald’s hours at his catering job had dropped to nearly zero following the storm, and his girlfriend hadn’t worked at all for a few weeks. Nevertheless, the landlords threatened to throw their things into the street if they didn’t leave within five days. Then they started a campaign of harassment, banging on the doors and sending a barrage of text messages. McDonald’s daughter, a senior in high school, was too anxious to sleep. And McDonald, who was driving for Uber at night to make ends meet, was finding the situation difficult himself.

McDonald got connected to the veterans unit at Lone Star Legal Aid. Attorney Justin Wilson got McDonald a temporary restraining order preventing the eviction and then brought him downstairs to Combined Arms, a Houston veterans’ organization that had donated office space to Lone Star. Combined Arms connected McDonald to federal disability benefits and treatment, then put him in touch with Main Street Ministries. The Christian nonprofit not only found him a new place to live but also funded the move.

He was grateful and humbled. “I’ve never accepted help in anything,” McDonald says. “And suddenly I put it out there, and not only do I find help, but it’s like they’re just falling over themselves to try to help me even more.”

The judge who granted the restraining order suggested that the landlords wanted to make a FEMA claim, based on the misrepresentation that they lived in the house themselves. According to Brown of Lone Star’s disaster response unit, this kind of fraud is not uncommon after a disaster. In other cases, she says, landlords might use the damage as an excuse to evict low-paying tenants to make room for market-rate renters or to sell the building.

For legal aid agencies, which confront needs that far outstrip their resources, there’s no such thing as a slow day. But after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, their clients’ needs were too immediate to ignore. At first, disaster victims need help with the basics of life—securing benefits so they can eat and dealing with destroyed homes or landlord-tenant problems. Poverty exacerbates it all.

“When you’re poor, everything’s harder,” says Brown. “They’re going to recover slower and worse.”

Legal aid agencies haven’t been handling these problems alone. In Houston, another major source of legal services to low-income communities in the Houston Volunteer Lawyer program, a project of the Houston Bar Association that connects private attorneys to pro bono opportunities. After the hurricane, the program kicked into high gear to help out, starting with staffing legal services tables in hurricane shelters, along with Lone Star.

“We had over 500 attorneys sign up in the first two or three weeks,” says Michael Hofrichter, director of operations and compliance at Houston Volunteer Lawyers. “To put that in perspective, we typically have somewhere between 1,000 to 1,300 attorneys doing work for us over the course of a year.”

Storefront after hurricane
Photo by Todd Spoth.

Volunteers across Texas—and Florida—also showed up online and via telephone. The Disaster Legal Services program, a project of the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division, teamed up with the state bars of Florida and Texas to recruit lawyers to staff a hotline offering legal advice to hurricane victims. In all, the DLS says 932 volunteers had participated by January (and more are welcome). Both state bars also recruited their attorneys to offer online legal advice through Free Legal Answers, a project of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service that’s partially sponsored by the sections on Litigation and Business Law.

Tracy Figueroa, team manager for disaster assistance at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, says a major source of questions is landlord-tenant problems, which tend to persist months after the storm. In the fall, her agency—which serves 68 counties along the Gulf Coast, Rio Grande Valley, and Central Texas—was handling lots of those, as well as foreclosures, clearing real estate titles, problems with contractors hired to fix the damage and appealing wrongful FEMA denials.

Brown says Lone Star client Herman Smallwood had a typical FEMA appeal. He and his two sisters inherited a house from their mother years ago; he lives there and pays the property taxes, but his name wasn’t on the title when the hurricane hit. On that basis, his application for FEMA benefits was denied. As a result, Smallwood—who’s lived on disability payments since 2012—was living in a house that actually broke in places when flooding knocked it off the blocks that had elevated it. The drywall was collapsing. “The house just looked like a broken-down old horse—a brokeback horse,” he says.

Hurricane damage
Photo by Todd Spoth.

Brown says the denial was a clear violation of FEMA’s own regulations, which say an “owner” can be a person who lives in a property rent-free and is responsible for its upkeep. She’s filed scores of appeals on behalf of people in that situation, and she says they’re always successful. She’s expecting Smallwood’s appeal to be approved, but she worries about how many others there might be like him who didn’t get help.

For people in Figueroa’s service area, which includes some hard-hit communities between Corpus Christi and Houston, these problems were compounded by a housing shortage that predated the storm. Harvey worsened that by making a huge percentage of the area’s homes uninhabitable. As a result, even people who had FEMA vouchers were still living in shelters weeks after the storm, or they’d left the state to live with relatives. The situation was so bad that the state of Texas began installing mobile homes in October.

“I’m concerned about what’s going to happen to our community in general over the years,” Figueroa says. “I don’t know if they’re going to repopulate it the way that it was before because there’s not a place for them to go.”

Eventually, Figueroa says, the legal problems created by the hurricane will move into long-term problems: bankruptcies, foreclosures, and lawsuits over FEMA policies. One problem for her low-income clients is when FEMA grants them money, then later comes back claiming the money was improperly paid and tries to claw it back. Recipients have 30 days to pay before penalties and interest start piling up—which is not much time for people of limited means. The litigation spawned by that or other bad FEMA policies can last years, she says; a lawsuit over 2008’s Hurricane Dolly, for example, was settled in 2017.

“Long-term, it goes on for years,” says Figueroa. “These are not easy problems to solve.”

TWO HANDS: PRIVATE PRACTICE

Business litigator Charles Jimerson was up until midnight on Sept. 10—working on client matters rather than worrying about the potential impact of Hurricane Irma where he lives. In Jacksonville, 400 miles north of Irma’s U.S. landfall, there didn’t seem much to worry about. As a seventh-generation Floridian, Jimerson lived through plenty of hurricanes that fizzled.

When he awoke that Monday, the water in his living room was up to his ankles and rising. Irma unexpectedly pushed water levels in the nearby St. Johns River up 4 to 6 feet, causing Jacksonville’s worst flood in a century.

There was no time for Jimerson to save anything but his children—ages 5 and 6—and his two dogs. After carrying them to higher ground at a neighbor’s, Jimerson spent the rest of the day canoeing the neighborhood, trying to rescue people. His house would ultimately have to be bulldozed.

Jimerson & Cobb, the law firm he founded and manages, has fared slightly better. Though the firm’s office on the 14th floor of Jacksonville’s notable Wells Fargo Center was itself fine, 4 million gallons of muddy river water had wiped out electricity and telecommunications. Staff members had to go in and pull out essential files and a server—vital for the remote work they were now doing—without elevators, lights or air conditioning and against the wishes of building management.

It was, Jimerson says, a bonding experience for his team. But even more touching for him was the response when he sent out a plea to most of his business and personal contacts, looking for a place to put his 26 employees, as well as a place to live. He got about 350 responses within 36 hours.

Hurricane damage
Photo by Todd Spoth.

“There’s a lot of really tough lawyers in this town, and high-character, high-integrity folks who had to deal with some adversity of their own,” he says. “But those people have two hands. And they’re going to help themselves and their family with the one hand, and they’re going to help everybody else in the community with the other hand.”

That’s a theme running through the private bar’s response to the hurricanes. When calls went out for help, hundreds of attorneys answered, offering a hand up to their colleagues as well as members of the public.

In Houston, one person who put out that call was tax partner Keri Brown of Baker Botts (no relation to Saundra Brown). The pro bono partner in her office, she was already helping Baker Botts’ management put together resources, both financial and legal, to help the firm’s own employees who were affected by Hurricane Harvey.

But a few days into the storm, Brown found herself wanting to do more. She was on the verge of volunteering to sort clothes in a shelter at 3 a.m. when she learned that Lone Star’s office had caught fire. She got loaner laptops from Baker Botts for the legal aid attorneys and organized law firms around the city to take turns photocopying the agency’s flyers. She also put out a call for volunteers via email and a Facebook group for Texas lawyers. (See “Social Media Unites Lawyers to Help Those in Need,” page 44.)

“Within an hour, I was turning people away,” says Brown, who’s chaired committees of the ABA’s Real Property, Trust & Estate Law Section. Brown scheduled shifts by hand for two days until she was able to turn that task over to the Houston Volunteer Lawyers.

Interest continued to be overwhelming when Brown and partner Bill Kroger decided to host a free legal advice hotline via the Houston Bar Association.

In addition to their own lawyers, they got clients’ in-house attorneys and even staff members who wanted to help. The next day, Baker Botts hosted a CLE program on how to help hurricane victims; more than 700 people showed up or watched via the web. Even a lawyer who was gutting his own house at night would work long days on hurricane matters, she says.
Work wasn’t much of a refuge for those whose offices flooded. For personal injury firm Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz, the Harvey flooding was the third flood in three years and the fifth since 2000. The problem is their location; the office is directly across Commerce Avenue from Buffalo Bayou.

In 2017, the flooding was exacerbated by wind damage to the roof that let rain into the second and third floors.

The firm might have moved on to a different building, but partner Randy Sorrels says the firm’s lawyers are proud of the historic, lavishly restored office, which is showcased at an annual holiday party. Instead of moving, they plan to turn the first floor into parking spaces. To make room on the two upper floors, the firm will enclose the balcony and get rid of rarely used features like a built-in bar.

After the storm, Sorrels says, his firm received dozens of offers from colleagues for office space, equipment and more. The firm accepted some of those offers, but by October, almost everyone was back, squeezed into hallways and one-person offices. The holiday party was canceled for 2017, Sorrels says—but 2018’s will be on schedule.

“I was president of the Houston bar when hurricanes Katrina and Rita came in, so I kind of led the charge on assisting others,” he says. “This time, we’re on the receiving end … and it’s really heartwarming.”

ABA Journal Article | Legal community meets relief challenges after hurricanes Harvey and Irma

Amanda and Ora MorrowMs. Ora Morrow met Lone Star Legal Aid attorney Amanda Bosley at the George R. Brown Disaster Recovery Center shortly after Hurricane Harvey made landfall off the Texas coast on August 25, 2017. The GRB was Harris County’s first DRC and also operated as a shelter for hundreds of people who lost their homes as a result of the storm’s flooding rain. Ms. Morrow is 77 years old and has lived in her home for almost 50 years.
Although Ms. Morrow’s house did not flood during the storm, the water did rise to the point where it flooded her vehicle that was parked in the driveway. When she met Attorney Bosley at the DRC, she had already applied to FEMA for transportation assistance but had not yet received a decision from them. Attorney Bosley followed up with her a few weeks later and Ms. Morrow said that she had received a nominal amount from FEMA for her lost vehicle, but it was not nearly enough to fix her car or even to put a down payment on for a new one. Attorney Bosley provided Ms. Morrow with advice on how to draft a FEMA appeal letter and what documents to send them. Ms. Morrow took the appeal letter and documents to the DRC to present to FEMA. Ms. Morrow said that the FEMA representatives she spoke to refused to review her documents and sent her on her way. When Ms. Morrow called and told Attorney Bosley, she agreed to make a visit to her home. Attorney Bosley took with her a FEMA appeal letter that she went over with Ms. Morrow along with the supporting documents needed so that she could send them off on her behalf.
Ms. Morrow says that she feels as though her independence has been taken from her. She has to call upon her daughter and nieces to take her to run simple errands; to the grocery store and the bank. Although they are happy to do it, they know that she is struggling with having to call them for help. Attorney Bosley hoped that FEMA would offer Ms. Morrow more in transportation assistance so that she can get herself back into a vehicle and regain her sense of independence.
On December 5, 2017, Attorney Bosley called to follow up on Ms. Morrow’s appeal. She was informed that Ms. Morrow was being awarded additional funds that will allow her to repair her vehicle. She was also informed that should Ms. Morrow face mechanical difficulties in the future with this same vehicle, she is to send a new estimate marked “Flooded – Water Damage Due to Disaster Harvey,” they will pay for that too.
There are many post-disaster stories like Ms. Morrow’s. When disasters strike, survivors think of finding shelter and food for their families. They think of replacing things they lost and repairing their homes or cars. Attorneys can assist when survivors are confused or when they are not being given the proper benefit they are entitled to by either federal assistance or through their insurance policies. Lone Star Legal Aid’s disaster recovery team has already picked up hundreds of cases related to Hurricane Harvey and will continue to do so.

Personal Independence Restored

9593875398_941ac65890_kSurvivors of sexual assault often fear to raise their concerns because of the possibility of retaliation from their abuser as well as feelings of shame, anxiety, and humiliation. It is essential that survivors never feel as if they have nowhere else to turn. Thanks to Texas Access to Justice’s LASSA grant, Lone Star Legal Aid is taking big steps in improving the quality of life for survivors. Here is the story of Nadia and her daughter Keira, a 4-year-old girl who was sexually abused by her father Raajeev.

Nadia married Raajeev in Bangladesh and shortly thereafter, he brought her with him to the United States. She was an immigrant, stay at home wife and mother and her husband operated multiple game rooms of questionable legality. Over their six years of marriage, Nadia found evidence of his involvement with other women. When she confronted him, he beat her. He beat her with his hands, with his shoes, with their daughter’s toys and any other object within his reach.

One day, in July of 2015, Keira showed her mom some photos that her father took of her on his iPad. The photos were of Keira naked. Overcome with feelings shock, fury and anguish, Nadia asked Keira more about the photos. Keira told her mother that her daddy took those pictures of her. Nadia felt hopeless and disgusted. She was in a state of disbelief, but she knew that it was true. How could she not? There were photographs. She feared Raajeev would beat her like he had done many times before, if she confronted him, attempted to leave him, or called authorities. Raajeev would often tell Nadia that she could never leave him because she had no family in the US and she did not even speak English. When Nadia finally felt as though she could no longer take it, she confided in a friend. Her friend supported her and urged her to contact the police and report Raajeev. The police quickly stepped in and secured a safe place/shelter for Nadia and Keira to stay. The shelter assisted Nadia in acquiring a safety plan from CPS. However, it was not legally binding. If Nadia wanted to make sure that Raajeev could not harm her daughter again, she needed a protective order.

Ethan Bishop-Watt, Staff Attorney in LSLA’s Individual Safety Unit, interviewed Nadia and reviewed all of the evidence and documents she brought him. Attorney Bishop-Watt advised her regarding her rights to a protective order for herself and for Keira. After review, research, and discussions with Nadia, Keira and the CPS staff that assisted her at the commencement of her safety journey, Attorney Bishop-Watt filed an Application for Protective Order for a Victim of Sexual Assault in state district court. In his application, Attorney Bishop-Watt requests that a protective order prohibits Raajeev from committing future physical or mental harm or sexual assault to Keira, threatening or harassing Keira, owning a firearm as well as require him to complete a battering intervention and prevention program. The protective order was granted as to family violence. Nadia is currently in divorce proceedings with Raajeev. Concurrently, Raajeev is facing a super aggravated sexual assault of a child under the age of 6 charge, which is a first-degree felony and one of the most severe charges in the criminal code. This charge has a mandatory sentence of 25 years and can go up to life in prison. Because of the protective order currently in place, Nadia does not have to worry about custody being an issue in her divorce and she can rely upon it for her daughter’s safety throughout Raajeev’s criminal proceedings.

(Name(s) have been changed to protect the privacy of the individual(s).)

Photo Credit: Flickr – Nayeem KALAM

A Journey to Safety

DSCN0414
(L-R) Attorney Karyna Lopez, Alamenia Luna, and her son

Lone Star Legal Aid’s Low Income Taxpayer Clinic helps families with tax problems. Sometimes the tax problems are extreme. Here’s the story of Alamenia and her amazing recovery from a million dollar tax debt.

Alamenia had never seen the box in her attic. She was surprised when “Marty,” her ex-husband, called to tell her to find the box. Her surprise turned to curiosity as she headed to the attic. Marty had gone to prison after their divorce; he had kidnapped an elderly woman and demanded $500,000 in ransom from her family. Even though they had divorced before her husband kidnapped his victim, Alamenia was devastated and didn’t understand why her ex would commit a heinous crime when they had two beautiful children. Why risk missing out on all the milestones and events in their young lives?

The box held the shocking answers. Inside the box, Alamenia found three years’ worth of letters from the IRS. It turns out that the IRS was trying to collect back taxes that Marty had failed to pay and had kept hidden from Alamenia. Marty owed the IRS an astounding $1,000,000 in back taxes. During the 9 years they were married Marty operated a construction business and assured Alamenia that he was handling all of the accounting and tax obligations. The business was doing well and Alamenia was able to focus on raising their children, including their autistic son, while Marty ran the business and provided for the family. Alamenia hoped that when the children were old enough to attend school she would have the time to pursue her own dreams. Alamenia and Marty spent many hours apart while he worked and she cared for their children. Over the years, Marty changed from a supportive husband into someone Alamenia didn’t recognize. The vague rumors of cheating were followed by Marty’s trips abroad. Marty purchased expensive cars and jewelry, not for Alamenia, but for himself. With her focus on raising their children, Alamenia missed the signs that Marty was not the man she had married. After the rumors intensified and became her reality, Alamenia divorced Marty.

Karyna Lopez, the manager of LSLA’s Low Income Taxpayer Clinic, immediately knew what to do to help Alamenia with her tax problem. Attorney Lopez interviewed Alamenia and advised her regarding her rights to an Offer in Compromise. Attorney Lopez wrote Alamenia’s story and presented it to the IRS, along with documentation of her financial hardship. Attorney Lopez argued for a reduction in liability based upon community income, asking that the debt be forgiven due to the uncertainty of its collectability. The IRS granted Alamenia’s Offer in Compromise, lowering her debt from over $1,000,000 to $1. Alamenia gratefully paid the $1.

Legal aid helps families move forward to realize their dreams. With help from LSLA to successfully resolve her tax debt, Alamenia is now able to focus on providing a better life for her family.

A Million Dollar Tax Story