Lawyers Journal

One Year Later

Springfield lawyers have their practices in order, but legal issues have just begun

A year after she had to dive under her desk while her office blew apart, Springfield attorney Andrea R. Reid and her law partner Lynn Gaudet have gotten most of their logistical issues addressed. Reid is now practicing out of an office-share location on State Street. Gaudet's Fitchburg office was unaffected.

The building housing Attorney Dale Bass' practice was the first in Springfield to be torn down, he says. He lost all his files, but with the help of the District Attorney's office the City Clerk's office and Hampden Superior Court, he was back up and running in two weeks after help from the court to reconstruct all his pleadings. He has since relocated to Stockbridge Street, four blocks from his former office.

Attorney Karen Duffy, who practices family law, was able to retrieve undamaged files from her office. Her first concern was about the possible disciplinary consequences of losing client files. That turned out to be a non-issue. According to Constance V. Veccione, chief Bar Counsel to the Board of Bar Overseers, the BBO received only one call from one attorney and none from clients regarding missing files. While the BBO would have extended help to anyone who asked, she says the absence of concern about the problem means one of two things: either attorneys sought help elsewhere, or they were able to retrieve and reconstruct their files.

Thomas A. Kenefick III, Hampden County Bar Association president, says it is highly unlikely that a BBO complaint would issue regarding compromise of client confidentiality following loss of files in a natural disaster. Further, the respondent would seem to have strong defense, assuming that he or she were otherwise in compliance, he adds.

NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE

Reid and Gaudet have a policy of copying clients on all correspondences and not keeping any original biographic documents or passports in the file. Out of their more than one hundred clients, only one has inquired about the security of her file. Two weeks after the storm, Reid attended an informational meeting for business owner/operators and residents where she learned that the city had contracted with an outside company to arrange for the shredding and destruction of paper documents recovered in the cleanup process. This information was passed on to Reid's client, who also requested periodic review of her credit report. Reid could relate - her own personal tax documents were in her office when the storm hit.

Reid and Gaudet now have a T1 external drive for backing up files, and it gets monthly backups offsite. The practice has always provided duplicate copies of documents to its clients, and continues to do so. The firm also bought insurance to cover financial losses in case of another disaster.

Dale Bass has converted his practice to all-electronic documentation, and carries a thumb drive to keep it all in order.

Duffy bought a scanner and is converting all her files to CD-ROM. The process is time-consuming, but she prefers this route to cloud computing, which she regards as expensive and unsecure for storing client files. In her divorce and family law practice, clients tend to return frequently, so closed files often have to be retrieved. Retrieval from the cloud would be cost-prohibitive. CDs, stored at both her office and her home, allow her to instantly retrieve a file, and she has a backup if something happens in either location.

GIMME SHELTER -- PLEASE

While the legal community has made strides in getting its house in order, real estate problems caused by the storm continue, primarily concerning the condemnation of damaged structures by the city without prior notification to owners or tenants. The demolitions were conducted for safety reasons, as the structures were deemed unsound. Lawyers for the South Commons Condominium Association filed a complaint against the city on June 1 of this year, the anniversary of the storm, contesting that the city deprived condo owners of their constitutional rights to due process because they did not receive condemnation notices until several days after the storm and demolition.

Reid and Gaudet's landlord invited them to join a suit, but they declined. Their building had been razed two days after the storm.

Duffy had a problem with her then- landlord, who was based out of state. That landlord delayed returning her security deposit and last month's rent. It took almost nine months for her to receive a check for the last month's rent. "I thought of suing, but I didn't want to be that person," she says. She contacted the MBA and asked if anyone could review her commercial lease to evaluate it for possibilities of termination, and found a new office.

She expresses surprise at one thing: "People were in a position to take advantage, but they surprised me. " Fearing she had lost negotiating power because of the need to move, prospects brightened when she found a local landlord who allowed extra time to pay the first month's rent. "I really had expected not to get a good deal," she says.

The Springfield office of the Massachusetts Bar Association helped displaced attorneys by offering office space, conference rooms and general facilities. The MBA asked lawyers to volunteer help with residential problems. Three weeks after the storm, a Disaster Relief Dial-A-Lawyer hotline session attracted 38 volunteer attorneys to man the phone banks. The program, which fielded 230 calls on landlord/tenant issues and FEMA information. It was jointly offered by the Hampden County Bar Association, the MBA and the Western New England School of Law. Forty-eight attorneys agreed to receive referrals from the MBA's Springfield office.

Edward Pikula is Springfield's city solicitor. In the storm's aftermath, he did a lot of work to assist the public. Disaster law was new territory for the law department, which had to get up to speed quickly. The city brought in a specialist from New Orleans (see sidebar below) to advise on maximizing disaster recovery from all sources. In February of this year, Pikula authored an article on the details of natural disaster recovery. To read the article, click here.

His motivation for writing the piece stemmed from the crash course the law department got in disaster recovery. Pikula says that in the beginning, FEMA was helpful but as the process progressed, the law department found itself at odds with some of the agency's decisions. There appears to have been a Catch-22 situation. FEMA does not want to be the reimburser of first resort if other avenues of funding are available. Pikula says that receiving a denial from FEMA served as a prerequisite to pursue other funds.

Springfield is on the mend, but Duffy probably speaks for many people when she says, "If there's a dark cloud in the sky, my eyes are glued to it."

The second reconstruction: How Louisiana courts coped after Katrina

A natural disaster of unexpected power has a tendency to jam up the court system. After the June 1, 2011 tornados, the Massachusetts court system turned to experts from Louisiana to determine what to do and when.

The Aug. 29, 2005, landfall of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans damaged or destroyed the legal files of attorneys and courts alike. Both courts and attorneys were displaced from their offices and homes. The Louisiana Supreme Court declared a legal holiday from Aug. 29 to Nov. 25. Gov. Louise Blanco issued two executive orders suspending all deadlines in legal proceedings across the state.

The Louisiana Supreme Court gave special resolution to displaced attorneys. But in the interest of timely access to justice, the LSC also passed a resolution, effective Oct. 3, allowing for the shortening or lifting of the deadline suspensions in cases where no attorney or party to the proceeding had been adversely impacted by hurricanes Katrina or Rita.

The courts had to dry out reams of files to save them. Unsalvageable files were reconstructed from microfilm archives, and cobbled from patchworks from courts and clients. "It did all come back together because people worked very hard to make it so," says James Daly, screening counsel for the Louisiana Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

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