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UH Law Center workshop addresses legal steps and responses following Winter Storm Uri

Screenshot from event

Ta’Mara Foster of Lone Star Legal Aid (top left), Meghan Smolensky, center, an Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Disaster Resilience Program and a Staff Attorney in the Disaster Relief Unit at Lone Star Legal Aid, and Professor of Practice and Consumer Law Clinic Director Ryan Marquez, right, described numerous actions consumers can take in response to Winter Storm Uri or other natural disasters during a recent virtual University of Houston Law Center event.

May 14, 2021 – With an emphasis on issues such as landlord-tenant law, homeowners insurance, disaster remediation contracts, liens and FEMA, the University of Houston Law Center’s virtual continuing legal education seminar, “Winter Storm Uri: Legal Issues After the Thaw” gave insight and ideas on how to best prepare or recover from a severe winter weather event.

The first panel, “After the Thaw: Landlord Tenant Issues Following a Disaster,” was led by Lone Star Legal Aid Director of Litigation Richard Tomlinson and Houston Volunteer Lawyers staff attorney Leesa Everitt, who discussed the nuances and conflicts of common law regulations that govern the rental of commercial and residential property.

“Landlords don’t have an enforceable obligation to make repairs until a trackable letter is sent or two written notices,” Everitt said. “Trackable is certified mail, registered mail, FedEx etc.”

Complaints about living conditions can be made to municipal or local authorities such as the health department, fire department or fire marshal about housing. If there are serious issues such as broken windows or no running water, the housing inspector would write a citation for a Class C misdemeanor, and the case would be brought to municipal court.

“However, if they make the repairs by the time they are supposed to show up in municipal court, they reduce what they will owe,” Tomlinson stated. “This is an incentive for the landlord to do the additional work.”

Jon-Ross Trevino of Lone Star Legal Aid led the second panel, “Consumer Credit & Debt After Winter Storm Uri,” which provided resources for clients and consumers in disasters, such as weekly credit reports, FEMA assistance and Public Utility Commission emergency orders.

“A little prevention goes a long way in avoiding debt,” Trevino said. “The important thing to keep in mind is that during a disaster, everything is moving really fast. People are signing contracts without really looking, and you should be wary of any contracts after a natural disaster.”

Trevino advised property owners to thoroughly research any contractor before signing a contract, looking to the Better Business Bureau among other resources for any questionable or unethical business practices.

A written graduate contract that specifies the date work is to be finished, money owed and guarantees payment only after specified work is satisfactory was recommended, and Trevino said upfront payment should be avoided to minimize disputes and spur quick task completion and acceptable work.

The third panel was led by Meghan Smolensky, Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Disaster Resilience Program and a staff attorney in the Disaster Relief Unit at Lone Star Legal Aid, who spoke about “Homeowners Insurance and FEMA, Contractors and the RCLA.”

“In 2020, there were over 380 disasters,” Smolensky said. “For each disaster, we see millions of dollars in damage, and homeowners suffer tremendous loss due to the damage of their homes.”

Smolensky pointed out differences in rural and urban areas in disaster recovery due to topographical perspective, and noted personal property coverage such as homeowners, renters and health insurance misconceptions, insurance claim filing and denial and FEMA complications.

“When you apply to FEMA, unfortunately, if you note on that paperwork that you have homeowners insurance, it is kind of an automatic denial,” Smolensky said. “FEMA is saying not that you are ineligible but that they need more paperwork from you. They need to see what insurance is giving you and if you have been denied that insurance.”

Ta’Mara Foster, general law practitioner in the Disaster Relief Unit and staff attorney at Lone Star Legal Aid, presented the final panel and discussed the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA), giving a brief background of its intent to protect consumers against misleading and deceptive business practices, as well as the differentiation of mechanic’s liens.

“The DTPA ‘laundry list’ has over 30 provisions,” Foster said. “General misrepresentation of goods or services involving a statement of fact, a misrepresentation of legal rights and a failure to disclose are the most common seen in the DTPA cause of action.”

Foster mentioned three tie-in statutes that are currently relevant and actionable under the DTPA in times of disaster: the Disaster Remediation Contract, Home Improvement Contract and the Residential Services Company Act and free resources available for further information.

The workshop closed with a conversation between Foster, Smolensky and Law Center Professor of Practice and Consumer Law Clinic Director Ryan Marquez, who discussed challenging mechanic’s liens, DTPA action and breach of warranty and the importance of ensuring a contractor’s validity before hiring.

“We as attorneys have a very special skill that others lack, and even some of this is difficult for us,” Marquez said. “For people who are going through these types of disasters, whether it be the winter storm or Hurricane Harvey, they really do need some representation.”

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