Posted on 19 Apr 2011
Part of the general ebb of work along the Gulf Coast after last summer's BP oil spill had caused Tim Nguyen's hours to be cut back, and he found that his work in a Mississippi shipyard was no longer paying the bills. So Mr. Nguyen went to an office of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which was set up to administer BP’s $20 billion fund for coastal businesses and residents. He was told he could not file a claim. A law firm he had never heard of had already filed one in his name.
“I never signed up with anybody,” he said.
In the six months since, Mr. Nguyen, 43, has been in limbo, suspended between the law firm and the claims facility. He has yet to receive a dime.
The 30,000 or so Vietnamese-Americans living along the Gulf Coast, many of whom have few resources outside of their boats and bare hands, know about life at the mercy of nature. But a year ago this week, they began learning a far more frustrating kind of vulnerability: put out of work by an energy giant, they turned for help to a claims system that many found to be opaque and unresponsive.
For people in Mr. Nguyen’s situation, and it is impossible to know how many others there are, the disorientation has been particularly deep, as they found themselves caught up in a legal process they did not even seek.
Like Mr. Nguyen, some maintain that they never signed up with lawyers, but found that claims had been filed on their behalf (about 50 people have made formal complaints to the claims facility along these lines).
Others along the coast said they had handed over financial records to people who promised them quick and free financial assistance, only to discover later that they had actually hired a lawyer.
And then there are those, like Tam Tran, a 59-year-old oyster shucker. He said he had been misled into signing up for a lawyer by a woman who told him he was applying for medical assistance. In the process of trying to extricate himself from this lawyer, Mr. Tran said, he found he was also a client of another.
Discovering the problem, as Mr. Tran learned, can be merely the beginning, leading to months of back and forth between the firm and the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, during which the claimant, often badly in need of money, is frozen out of the system entirely.
Kenneth R. Feinberg, who administers the claims facility, said such cases, “where the lawyer claims to represent the claimant and the claimant denies it,” had created “an obstacle to the efficiency and speed in getting the checks out.”
“The G.C.C.F. is constantly having to deal with this problem,” Mr. Feinberg said.
Tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents, frustrated by the process, have actively sought legal help for their claims for loss of income or property damage. In return for their efforts in obtaining a satisfactory claim settlement, lawyers take part of the recovery, though many involved in the BP litigation say they are not charging for the no-documentation quick-pay settlements. Clients who forgo the claims process for a fight in the courts face a longer wait and the risk of coming away with nothing, but they also have a chance of a much larger payout.
One challenge of mass litigation is matching the thousands who are seeking redress with the firms that have the experience and resources to battle big corporations. Clients are often referred to these firms by local lawyers, who may in turn hire contractors, who themselves may hire runners to work as translators and to advertise the firm.
In cases where there seems to have been a breakdown — like the one involving Mr. Nguyen, who found himself listed as a client of a lawyer named Mikal C. Watts, and to his further surprise, as a Louisiana shrimper rather than a Mississippi shipyard worker — it is hard to know where the breakdown occurred.
Last summer and fall, numerous Vietnamese households — including some who say they were not even affected by the spill — received letters signed by Mr. Watts, of San Antonio. The letters, in Vietnamese, addressed some recipients by name and others as: “Dear Client.” The letters directed people to send their financial records and added, “Do not sign anything from BP or anyone else except Watts Guerra Craft,” the name of the firm.
“As far as I know almost every other house got it,” said Felix Cao, a law student at Loyola University in New Orleans. “I don’t know how they even found my address.”
Mr. Cao said he did not know whether he had become a client or simply a marketing target. He said he was not affected by the spill.
Nor was Nga Nguyen, who lives in New Orleans and also received one of the letters. “I think they just went through the phone book,” she said.
Mr. Watts is on the plaintiffs’ steering committee, an exclusive group of lawyers selected by Judge Carl J. Barbier of Federal District Court in New Orleans in October to manage their side of the litigation. Lawyers on such committees typically reap a financial bonanza for their efforts. A large list of clients can help secure a seat on the committee. Mr. Watts declared on his application that he had 41,000 clients, a tally he now puts at 43,000.
All of them, he said in an interview, came through referrals from other lawyers. He also said they were all substantiated: “I have a signed contingency-fee contract with every client.”
Mr. Watts met with resistance from the BP compensation fund when he tried to file emergency claims for all of his clients last August. When the fund questioned the number of clients, Mr. Watts tried to file fewer, some 26,000. He said the smaller group was composed of clients whose basic identifying information had been confirmed at that point. (Almost all of the others have since been confirmed, he said.) People familiar with the claims process said nearly every submission was listed as a deckhand with identical earnings. The fund demanded further documentation.
“We sent him the raw information he asked for,” but Mr. Feinberg kept changing the rules, Mr. Watts said. Now Mr. Watts said he is chiefly pursuing litigation.
“I reached the conclusion that Feinberg was delaying presentment,” he said, a view that has been echoed by others. “I think he’s a good man,” Mr. Watts said of Mr. Feinberg, but “I think he’s been overwhelmed by the process.”
In recent weeks, as the fund began to send out final settlements, Mr. Watts’s list again raised eyebrows. In the case of 35 Watts clients, the fund sent out checks to Mr. Watts and notices to the clients. But 11 of those clients protested that they were not represented by him.
“I have no doubt that people who are in dire need of money are going to go to the G.C.C.F. and make their own claims,” Mr. Watts said, “and when they are told they are represented and can’t get their money, they are going to ask if they can release their lawyers.” He added that he had released about 100 clients altogether. “These people need their money, and I am not going to stand in the way of their getting it,” he said.
The problem in many cases seems to have started at the ground level. Here in Bayou La Batre, Vietnamese people tell of contractors who allowed relatives to sign them up in absentia, or who encouraged potential clients to sign official-looking forms — in English — without explaining that the forms were legal retainers. The stories vary but the same few names come up.
Having heard similar reports last September, Lan Diep, an Equal Justice Works and AmeriCorps fellow working on the Gulf Coast, visited the office of one such contractor, in a ranch house just outside of town.
Not letting on that that he spoke English, Mr. Diep was told by a man at the house that he could get money simply by filling out a form and handing over some financial documents. He was given a retainer for Brent Coon and Associates, a Texas law firm, he said, but was not told that he was signing up for a lawyer nor was he allowed to keep a copy for himself.
The house belonged to Tina Lam, who works for her brother, a contractor, who in turn works for a Mobile lawyer, who has been referring cases to Mr. Coon since the summer.
A dozen or so unhappy clients attended a meeting sponsored by the Coon firm here last month, with some saying they had been charged fees despite having never hired the firm.
At the meeting, Ms. Lam insisted that she had fully explained to people what they were signing up for, adding that it was her policy not to allow anyone to take the forms with them.
Mr. Coon, in an interview, did not address Bayou La Batre, but said he had already released hundreds of clients, many of them Vietnamese, on an array of complaints.
Some of the problems, he said, seemed to arise from miscommunication; others involved people who simply decided they no longer wanted representation, possibly to circumvent paying fees; and in some cases, he acknowledged, “people are probably overstepping” in signing up clients.
Mr. Coon attributed such widespread turmoil in part to Mr. Feinberg’s repeated statements that people did not need legal representation to file their claims, a sore point for other lawyers as well as legal rights advocates, who say many problems could have been avoided by starting a well-financed legal aid program in the spill’s early days. Part of it, though, could be the sheer scale of the system, Mr. Coon said, adding that he had never encountered so many anomalies.
Since the spill, several dozen people have taken complaints like this to the branch office of Boat People SOS, a national nonprofit group that serves Vietnamese-Americans.
“It’s really disheartening to see this vulnerable population being taken advantage of time and time again,” said Grace Scire, the group’s Gulf Coast regional director.
Tuan Do, who began working in the office after being laid off from his job as a store clerk during the oil spill, listened to these stories while making his own way through the claims system.
Late last year, he filed for a modest settlement, and like so many others, he has been waiting ever since. Two weeks ago, Mr. Do checked with the claims facility on his status. They said they could no longer discuss it with him.
To his surprise, he found out that he now had a lawyer in Mr. Watts.