Pepperdine University offers free legal services to locals affected by disasters

Sophia Hamilton, director of the Disaster Relief Clinic and adjunct professor of law at Pepperdine University. Photo courtesy Pepperdine University

Program assists residents facing challenges with FEMA, landlords, insurance, and other issues

The Disaster Relief Clinic at Pepperdine Caruso Law School is continuing its work this semester of providing pro bono legal services for people affected by the Woolsey Fire and the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as other natural disasters in the U.S.

Pepperdine’s free service handles a broad array of disaster-related legal issues, including: Landlord-tenant relationships, insurance matters, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) appeals; employment law, including pandemic unemployment assistance, sick leave, unemployment, and Family and Medical Leave Act; housing law, including moratorium, nonpayment of rent, default evictions, and harassment by landlords; and small business law, including employment, insurance, and small business loans.

“We don’t litigate, but we advocate for people having trouble with their insurance and FEMA claims,” Sophia Hamilton, director of the Disaster Relief Clinic and adjunct professor of law at Pepperdine University, said in a phone interview. “We saw a lot of people in Malibu that were underinsured after the Woolsey Fire, and helped them write a letter, and helped them understand what they should be entitled to under the law. It’s complicated, and people needed advocacy.”

Pepperdine has had about 150 cases needing help with FEMA claims in just the past few years — not only in Malibu but elsewhere.

“We help people figure out why they didn’t receive any payment from FEMA,” Hamilton continued. “It might just be a small thing; but we help make the arguments, and we see what’s missing from their application. They may just need help proving they have title to a property, or finding certain tax records.”

Because of the pandemic, some tenants in Malibu were concerned about the possibility of being evicted because of non-payment of rent, but less than Hamilton expected.

“We saw more people who were worried about it than actual evictions,” she said. “It wasn’t as big an issue as we thought it would be, and we helped people communicate with their landlords.”

The Pepperdine Caruso School of Law established its free disaster recovery legal services in 2017 after the nearby Thomas Fire and Hurricane Harvey in Texas. The school was then able to use that experience to help local people in Malibu, the Santa Monica Mountains, and the Conejo Valley areas after the Woolsey Fire in 2018.

Pepperdine’s free legal services are provided by supervised second- and third-year law students. The Disaster Relief Clinic is an elective course.

“It operates like an in-house law firm,” Hamilton explained. “Law students have to register, we teach them the law they need to know, and then they can accept clients. This semester, eight students have signed up to provide disaster recovery legal services.

“The students meet with clients on their own, but we prepare them for the meetings ahead of time,” Hamilton continued. “Afterwards, we guide the students through the process of putting together a plan of action, first steps, etc. Right now we have 12 clients, but it fluctuates a lot. Right after Woolsey, we had 30 local clients.”

Pepperdine has formed partnerships with various local disaster relief organizations as well as long-term recovery groups for the Woolsey Fire, and Hamilton attends their meetings and is an active member of these groups.

The Pepperdine free legal clinics are a win-win situation for students and residents, according to the the school website.

Residents get free legal help; and “students gain hands-on experience with the transitioning legal needs of clients recovering from disasters,” the website says. “[They learn to] navigate bureaucratic and administrative processes, insurance, government permits and benefits, and rebuilding. [In addition, they gain experience with] advice and counsel, evaluation and analysis, negotiation and advocacy, research and writing, and guidance on legal matters as they arise.”

The student’s perception of the experience sometimes depends on the client. While some clients can be “difficult,” Hamilton said, by and large, when the student is able to help someone, “It is so profound. The students grow to care about the clients, and it’s a very impactful and meaningful experience for them. In general, they really like the one-on-one with clients and seeing how they can get results.”

The experience is also positive for clients. Client and local resident Karen Zethraeus posted on social media, “We never would have received our FEMA loan on our rebuild without their help! So grateful.”

To request legal help, call (310) 506-4779.