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12.1.6.1 Domino Effect of Legal Issues after a Disaster

Be aware of how and when post-disaster legal issues evolve over time, and the interconnectedness between all of them. All the issues contribute to and inform each other, regardless of whether a survivor seeks assistance immediately after a disaster or first seeks assistance three years after the disaster because of a significant legal crisis that was caused or contributed to by the disaster. This is especially common when individuals lost their homes or employment due to disaster.

For example, a survivor may first struggle with costs stemming from displacement and damaged belongings, and possibly also from a reduction in work hours due to the disaster. The mounting expenses lead to inability to afford bills—if the home had a mortgage, forbearance relief may have already expired. Then one or several creditors pursue collection actions against the survivor. Because of the untenable financial situation, the survivor cannot pay the judgment (and was too overwhelmed to seek timely assistance), and, as a result, wages are garnished or bank accounts are seized. Meanwhile, the survivor was also navigating home repair contractor shoddy work issues and problems with the municipal permit office. The damaged home may be moving toward a sheriff’s auction by this point.

The financial crisis for this individual only adds more stress to their very tough circumstances; there may be limited legal recovery available by the time they seek assistance. In situations like these, creative and holistic advocacy approaches are useful. The client should be connected to available resources, including case management services through the local Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) and free HUD-certified housing counseling. Legal proceedings should be reviewed closely for any procedural deficiencies (if the client was temporarily displaced from the home, was there proper service of the complaint in any of the legal actions?) as well as merit-based defenses and counterclaims.

Creditors may knowingly or unknowingly violate federal and local orders preventing collection activities against disaster-affected individuals; such violations may trigger damages and fee-shifting statutes. There may be a hardship or equitable arguments to be made, even in a non-litigated negotiated outcome with the creditor’s counsel. Threats of litigation in counties where judges and jurors were also affected by the disaster, and experienced similar hardships, may persuade the creditor to resolve the case.