One of the most painful decisions I have to make as a lawyer in private practice is to reject potential clients because the cost of litigation dwarfs the value of their claim. I'm sure the public adjusters I know are experiencing the same pain. But it's inevitable in the private sector, at least in states that lack consumer-friendly automated attorney fees laws, like California, where I practice. But no matter where you are, the number of battered policyholders significantly exceeds the falling load capacity of skilled incredible lawyers and public adjusters. At the very least, I try to offer useful tips to those I cannot formally represent, but I know that is often not enough. Policyholders in this situation have other options to explore before giving up the white flag of Goliath. I have five to share in this post, and please, if you know of other resources, share them in the comments.
United Policyholders ("UP") is a fantastic non – profit organization founded many years ago by Amy Bach, formerly a policyholder councilor in San Francisco, California. In the coming weeks, our blog will contain a more in-depth post about UP's history. But if you are in need of help, Amy Bachs UP can probably help. The first place to look is their online library at uphelp.org. UP has collected several guides, frequently asked questions, tips, information from leading experts, hosts regular webinars where you can ask questions, collaborate with local organizations in the event of disasters, hosts informative sessions and more. UP is a great resource because it covers all three major problem areas in the insurance world: they help communities prepare for disasters, they help communities after the disaster, and they fight in court and legislators to ensure that laws are fair. In addition, UP maintains a professional directory where you can find lawyers or public adjusters that you have not yet called.
2. Bar Associations, Public Adjustment Associations, Public Legal Organizations
Another good place to turn if you have trouble securing a lawyer or a public adjuster is the local bar associations (lawyers) or public adjustment associations. These unions often have some pro bono help for staff, volunteers who may be willing to help, or can just help you find representation.
In the same way, there are public service organizations in many places and have lawyers who help those who otherwise cannot afford advice. These organizations are funded by donations, grants and similar methods. Some such organizations, such as the Legal Aid of Sonoma County, are actually quite advanced with insurance disputes due to their local history of disasters.
3. State Insurance Departments
Each state has a division dedicated to monitoring and regulating insurance companies, and most are called the State Insurance Division ("DOI"). A DOI is usually the right place to start. Their websites usually spell out your rights for you, armed with which you can move forward as you resolve your claim. Better yet, find the consumer's hotline number and call.
DOI also offers complaint processes. Filing a consumer complaint in most states will at least lead to your insurance company having to write a letter to the DOI and to you justifying their actions. Or better yet, if the insurance company adjuster ignores you and you do not even know why they do not pay, this is a good process to break through the stable.
In most cases, the DOI cannot intervene directly. But there are exceptions. In California, for example, the DOI may require an insurance company to engage in "good faith" mediation for certain disputes that arise in a state of emergency.
4. State and local politicians
Many local politicians have staff dedicated to helping their voters. It has long been an excellent way for politicians to support and help represent their communities – especially communities affected by major disasters. I have personally witnessed the positive effect of an elected official putting pressure on an insurance company, especially for someone who is vulnerable and unable to find help elsewhere.
In addition, government entities such as a district attorney's office or a state prosecutor's office may also provide pro bono services to community members, including those relating to insurance claims. These departments are usually called "consumer protection units" or something similar. They are often staffed by trainees in the law school and supervised by lawyers. It is worth checking in at all such offices you can before giving up.
5. Small Claims Court
If you are willing to talk to a judge for a short period of time about your situation and present documentation for your claim, the Small Claims Court may be good for you. Your dispute must be small enough to fall below the maximum limit, but if you have already applied and simply can not find advice or a public adjuster to help with your claim, your claim is likely to do so. Depending on where you are, the court may have a pro bono help desk that will help you fill out paperwork to open the case. Make sure you have documents that support your case – remember, if it's a fact, it needs proof. Your testimony is proof, but so is the insurance company's.
I'm sure there are other options I do not know. Maybe there is a group or person you know in your area that you would highly recommend to someone who needs help but has trouble finding it. Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments!