A Day in the Life: Legal Aid

by Vault Law Editors | July 09, 2012

Jamie Rodriguez and Zachary Tusinger
Equal Justice Works/AmeriCorps Legal Fellows
Legal Aid of Western Missouri

Jamie Rodriguez and Zachary Tusinger, both originally from Joplin, Missouri, were recent graduates of Saint Louis University School of Law when, in May of 2011, one of the most destructive tornadoes in U.S. history hit their hometown. Shortly thereafter, both were awarded AmeriCorps Legal Fellowships to provide direct legal services to community members affected by the tornado. While Jamie focuses on family law issues and Zach specializes in contract law issues, both have also done work in the areas of landlord/tenant, foreclosure and consumer debt law.

8:30 a.m. We attended a monthly coffee meeting for caseworkers and agencies working on disaster recovery issues in Joplin. In addition to Legal Aid, representatives from Catholic Charities, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army attended. At the monthly meeting, caseworkers, attorneys and other representatives present and share information about their services and common issues or developments they have seen. This morning, staff members from FEMA presented on what families and individuals who are currently in FEMA housing need to do to qualify for continued housing assistance. It’s important for us to know about all the resources available to our clients, and for other organizations to know about us so that we get referrals as appropriate.

10:00 a.m. Off to court, where Jamie represented a client seeking an order of protection. There has been a marked increase in domestic violence since the tornado, largely because of heightened stress levels and difficult living situations (e.g., in FEMA temporary housing). Jamie’s client had been given an emergency order of protection, and today was supposed to have a hearing for her full order of protection. However, she had already reconciled with her husband, so we talked about safety planning and available resources for her.

Zach was also in court for a rent and possession eviction case. Zach’s clients had been in a month-to-month rental that was damaged by the tornado. They asked the landlord to fix the home, but technically the landlord was not obligated to do so in a month-to-month rental situation. The tenants stayed on in the home despite the damage, but stopped paying rent. In court, we were able to work out a deal where the back rent was forgiven, and our clients agreed to move out. We were happy that they didn’t have to pay any more money.

12:00 p.m. Over lunch, we read up on news stories related to the work we are doing. We keep up with news on FEMA, Joplin, and disaster work in general. We also often consult with Equal Justice Works fellows and other attorneys in New Orleans to see how they’ve dealt with different FEMA issues.

1:00 p.m. We went out in the field to conduct outreach. We do some kind of community outreach one to three times each week. So many people in Joplin were affected by the tornado, and it is important to make sure that they are aware of the resources and services available to them.

2:30 p.m. Back in the office, we met with clients. One challenge of providing legal services to tornado victims is that our clients aren’t just dealing with one problem at a time. Say their house got destroyed—their car probably did too, and they’ll need help dealing with insurance claims for both. If they lost their job because their business was destroyed, they’ll also need assistance with applying for unemployment, or they might now qualify for public benefits. Many clients also have FEMA claims, domestic violence issues and contractor fraud claims, to name just a few. We take on all these issues—our grant covers civil legal work for tornado victims who fall within LSC income guidelines (we can also represent the elderly and victims of domestic violence).

4:00 p.m. During a meeting, one of our clients mentioned that she lost her hearing aids in the tornado. FEMA didn’t cover this loss, so our paralegal, Jamie Blood, started making calls to charitable agencies and caseworkers in the area. Fortunately, she was able to help our client get replacement hearing aids. We try to at least point our clients in the right direction when they come to us with non-legal issues, and one of the benefits of attending the monthly caseworker meeting is that we are more familiar with all the resources available to Joplin’s tornado victims.

5:30 p.m. Headed home for the day!

--Rachel Marx, Law Editor

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