Thursday, January 4, 2024

New Mexico. Lawsuit Alleges FEMA Failed to Process Wildfire Claims On Time January 03, 2024

Lawsuit Alleges FEMA Failed to Process Wildfire Claims On Time

Victims of the 2022 Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire are suing FEMA and its New Mexico claims office director as defendants, accusing them of failing to process claims within a required 180-day time frame.

January 03, 2024 • 

Phaedra Haywood, The Santa Fe New Mexican

(TNS) —The federal agency responsible for doling out funds to people who suffered losses in the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire faces another lawsuit, this one filed by more than a dozen claimants who allege officials misrepresented claim deadlines and delayed relief.

The lawsuit, filed recently in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, names the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its New Mexico claims office director, Angela Gladwell, as defendants, accusing them of failing to process claims within a required 180-day time frame.

The 15 plaintiffs say FEMA has "unilaterally decided" the 180-day period to notify claimants of a compensation offer starts not when a claim is submitted but after FEMA has "acknowledged" the claim, which can be as long as five months after it was filed.

This has resulted in ethical violations, including FEMA providing preferential treatment to certain wildfire victims and delaying payments to others who "desperately" need to repair or rebuild homes, forcing them to spend money on alternative housing and litigation, the lawsuit alleges.

The agency "is not even complying with its own arbitrarily applied deadline," the lawsuit adds. It says FEMA has not responded to any claims filed by the plaintiffs, even though more than 180 days have passed since FEMA acknowledged them.

The plaintiffs filed their claims at various times between Feb. 10 and June 23, 2023, the lawsuit says, and all of them were acknowledged June 28, meaning the claimants were due responses no later than Dec. 22; the date came and went without offers from FEMA.

FEMA's New Mexico information center declined to comment on the lawsuit but offered some explanation for irregularities related to claims processing.

"We have identified a flaw in our reporting system which impacted the timeline management of some cases," the agency wrote in an unsigned email Tuesday. "While this has impacted some claims, we are addressing the issue, and are calling the parties involved to notify them and discuss available steps to process their claims as quickly as possible. As has been true from the beginning, the Claims Office team is committed to ensuring that claims are processed as quickly as possible and every impacted New Mexican receives the maximum eligible compensation."

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the Singleton Schreiber law firm, including former State Auditor Brian Colón.

They are asking the court to order FEMA to comply with the deadline, to declare the 180-day period starts when a claim is submitted, and to order the agency to immediately pay claims submitted more than 180 days ago.

The plaintiffs' collective claims total nearly $17 million in losses, Colón said in an interview Tuesday.

"Included in that are people who had total losses of their homes and were displaced and have to be able to begin rebuilding because they haven't been able to get even a partial payment," he said.

Among the group are three generations of one family in which one person from each generation lost a home — including a grandmother in her 90s who "doesn't have time to wait for FEMA to do its job anymore," Colón added.

Colón said the firm has dozens more clients in the same position and plans to file a similar claim on their behalf later this week.

"The clock is ticking and FEMA continues to fail the people of Northern New Mexico," he said.

The Hermit's Peak/Calf Canyon Fire began as two prescribed burns set by the U.S. Forest Service in January and April 2022. The blazes combined to become the state's largest ever wildfire, scorching about 341,000 acres in the mountains east of Santa Fe, destroying hundreds of homes and displacing thousands of residents in rural villages throughout the area.

The federal government set aside nearly $4 billion last year to pay claims related to the fire.

As of Dec. 21, FEMA had paid $276 million to 880 claimants who suffered losses, according to the agency's website.

FEMA has faced multiple lawsuits in the past year from people who accuse the agency of making it difficult to access relief funds.

One accused the agency of failing to provide public records requested by claimants and another alleged federal officials pressured people who suffered losses to accept settlements without talking to their lawyers.

©2024 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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