Hurricane Evacuees Take a Legal Blow
Emergency housing class-action suit against FEMA dismissed
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval dismissed on June 16 much of a class-action suit filed in New Orleans late last year on behalf of hurricane evacuees who claimed their emergency housing needs weren't being met by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Although his McWaters v. FEMA ruling affirms previous decisions the court made relevant to the case such as telling FEMA that it can't require evacuees to complete an SBA loan application before providing temporary housing assistance, and that it can't kick evacuees out of hotels and motels without giving them at least two weeks notice Duval "did not grant any further relief that plaintiffs were seeking, and dismissed most remaining causes of action," said Craig Castellanet, an attorney with the Oakland, Calif.-based Public Interest Law Project, in an e-mail. "However, the Court did leave open further challenge since it 'would not hesitate to revisit the issue' regarding the adequacy of standards for continuing rental assistance from FEMA that could leave impermissible gaps in assistance."
Lawyers from the Manhattan-based Schulte Roth & Zabel law firm and the D.C.-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law jointly filed the suit, which, according to Schulte Roth & Zabel's Web site, "seeks no damages but aims to ensure that FEMA provides adequate aid for those entitled to it." The court ultimately decided, however, that at the time of the suit's filing, plaintiffs hadn't demonstrated sufficiently that their emergency housing needs were going unmet, said Heather Godwin, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid's hurricane legal assistance program, adding that an appeal will likely be filed in the near future.
Housing and evacuee advocates were less than thrilled with the outcome. "This means that FEMA may continue to act unconscionably toward the hundreds of thousands of evacuee families who have been deprived of housing assistance because FEMA fails to provide clear and consistent eligibility standards. FEMA's arbitrary eligibility determinations make some families eligible while depriving more needy families of any rent assistance. The evacuees facing homelessness today are in an eerily similar situation to that which they faced the day after the hurricane," said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, in a press release.
FEMA spokesman Michael Widomski said in an e-mail that while FEMA "is not prepared to comment at this time[,] we can say that we remain committed to assisting disaster victims on the road to recovery and will do so in such a way that stays within the framework of the Stafford Act, providing for much needed assistance, yet guarding against waste, fraud and abuse in all the programs and assistance we deliver."
The Stafford Act obligates the federal government to provide housing aid for 18 months to victims of natural disasters. Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, less than a year ago. Meanwhile, housing and utilities aid FEMA has been paying to thousands of evacuees across the country through their local governments ended in most places at the end of May.
For more on evacuee-related litigation, see www.femaanswers.org.