Free Society: Legal Aid of Nebraska: To the Muddy Rescue and Beyond

By 
Andry Roberts
The Daily Record

Legal Aid of Nebraska: To the Muddy Rescue and Beyond

The water came from everywhere and it seems few, if any, were ready for what happened in the middle of March. Historic flooding ravaged much of Nebraska. Federal disaster relief came, but so much more was needed.

That need was, and is, one that could not wait. Legal Aid of Nebraska – the organization that provides free civil legal help to eligible low-income clients – was ready.

Nebraskans would need help with insurance issues, government ben­efits, housing issues for both renters and owners, contractor fraud issues and document recovery.

All of that was only the start. The flooding has been the first real test for Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Disaster Relief Project, directed by Shirley Peng.

“This is the first one,” Peng said of the flooding response.

The project launched in January 2015 after grant funding was received and the organiza­tion went to work building an infra­structure of pro bono attorneys. 

“The last four years have been just doing outreach,” she said.

About 400 attorneys and law clerks have become part of the le­gal inventory. The effort to build the team continues.

“After the flooding, we started recruiting law students as well,” Peng said. “We know we will have a huge influx of intakes (clients). We have worked with the University of Nebraska Law School to recruit law students.”

The help, she said, is offered in­definitely. Peng pointed out cases from Hurricane Katrina – a 2005 event – are only now getting wrapped up.

“Some of these cases will take years to resolve,” Peng said. “This project is not going anywhere.

“This is historic flooding.”

Peng, who in normal times is director of the low-income taxpayer’s clinic, said people can apply for flood relief on­line at www.disaster.legalaidofnebraska.org or call 1-844-268-5627.

Legal Aid will be onsite at disas­ter resource centers throughout the state and will host disaster prepared­ness workshops and presentations for the general public plus ongoing training and webinars for volunteer attorneys.

“The biggest issue would be housing,” Peng said. “Does a person pay their rent or does someone con­tinue to pay on their mortgage?”

Questions will arise concern­ing security deposits and breaking leases, too.

“That’s where attorneys come in,” she said.

Nine counties have been declared a federal disaster with individual as­sistance provided by FEMA while government agencies and nonprofits are among those covered in a larger declaration. Appeals may come into play for people who are denied ben­efits or receive less than they feel they should.

For a person who has just experi­enced a disaster, and for many indi­viduals in normal times, legal help is costly and often out of reach. There is no constitutional guarantee of rep­resentation in civil court as there is for those involved in criminal pro­ceedings.

Megan Lunsford, who rents in the Paradise Lakes mobile home park in Sarpy County, was grateful to re­ceive some help. The single mother of four was hard hit by the flooding.

“Everything was a loss,” she said.

Lunsford said she is starting the process of filing a lawsuit against the owners.

“They kind of, basically, went MIA,” she said. “Paradise Lakes up and ran.”

She is getting help from Legal Aid in filing that lawsuit because she can’t afford a lawyer.

“I would have no chance whatso­ever,” she said. “They’re giving us some hope.”

While the circumstances may be different, the mission is the same, according to Milo Mumgaard, ex­ecutive director of Legal Aid of Nebraska.

“Legal Aid exists to basically try to balance the scales of justice a tad,” Mumgaard said. “Our mission, ulti­mately, is to help people get up and out of poverty through the power of the law. It’s hard to put that into an eleva­tor talk.”

Put simply, Legal Aid embodies the central tenet for lawyers of pro­viding equal justice for all and equal access for all.

“The actual realization, mani­festation of that value,” Mumgaard said. “We are the real world’s ver­sion of the value all lawyers are sworn to uphold.”

Legal Aid has narrowed the scope of what cases it takes, with the ma­jor areas of practice being housing, debt, income and benefits, plus chil­dren and families.

“You still could drive a truck through that, but it does nar­row it down considerably,” Mumgaard said. 

The focus is needed due to the demand for legal services.

Getting out their message also is vitally important. Legal Aid of Nebraska wants people to know there is more to the organization than family law, which is a major portion of the organization’s work.

According to Legal Aid’s recent impact report, 57 percent of its cas­es involved children and families, 16 percent were about income and benefits, 15 percent were related to debt and 12 percent were linked to housing. 

The agency is nowhere close to meeting the need, Mumgaard ac­knowledged, with studies showing nine out of 10 legal problems faced by low-income Nebraskans are not being supported by legal services.

“How do we try to reach as many eligible clients as possible across the state?” he asked. “It’s a lot of cost effectiveness calculating.”

Legal Aid needs to be effective despite the size of the organization, which has grown to a paid staff of almost 50 attorneys across the state. It also works with pro bono counsel and reduced fee counsel in multiple jurisdictions.

“Legal Aid is one of the larg­est law firms in the entire state,” Mumgaard said. 

And it’s growing. According to Mumgaard, revenue has increased about 30 percent in the past three years and the staff has grown 20 percent in that time. A statewide ac­cess line can be found at leagalaidofnebaska.org with more information on how to access services. Advice and counsel is provided to those in­dividuals who are not taken as a case and Access to Justice clinics provide people with simple advice for less complicated matters.

“Everybody who comes in here and asks for help, gets some help,” Mumgaard said.

A new intensive housing justice project has been created with staff dedicated to housing issues, not just those that are a result of the flood­ing. It helps avoid situations like the one that took place last year with an Omaha apartment complex in which hundreds of people had to be moved.

“The goal of the housing justice project is to literally intensify our le­gal services,” Mumgaard said.

If successful, it could make a big difference for clients and others who may be in a similar situation. That is part of the consideration for Legal Aid when it assumes new projects.

“Does it improve the community? Does it stop bad actors?” Mumgaard asked.

The needs are only expected to grow and the fight to help those who need legal assistance but cannot af­ford it will continue. That’s just part of maintaining a truly free society.

The agency was ready for a disas­ter and, while it was on a large scale, they were able to respond and do so quickly.

“We actually had a project up and running to address that,” Mumgaard said.

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