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What Rights Do Tenants Have After a Hurricane?

by karin on November 14, 2017

While much attention has been paid to the losses of homeowners and business owners after Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the U.S. Virgin Islands (and rightfully so), there are thousands of renters who have suffered considerable losses, as well. There are many ways for property owners to seek various forms of financial assistance, but what rights do tenants have after a natural disaster?

Analyze the lease

To start, renters should be familiar with the terms outlined in their leases, as this is the primary governing document for the relationship between any tenant and landlord. There is no legal obligation for a landlord to help tenants recover from natural disasters, but there can be incentives for them to do so. The lease could include language that specifies what would happen in a post-disaster situation.

Insurance companies often require landlords to ensure that their properties have a certain level of storm protection. The steps landlords take to protect their properties, in turn, can protect their tenants. But if the property becomes uninhabitable due to storm damage, the lease agreement does not end. For the lease to be formally terminated, one of the parties must act to bring it to an end.

Therefore, if your building is uninhabitable after a disaster, the landlord must still provide official notice before terminating the lease agreement.

Steps you can take

You have the right to seek a reduction in rent that is proportional to the amount of damage in your unit. If your property is completely unlivable, you can move out. But in either situation, you must send an official certified letter to your landlord informing them of your actions. This is the only way you can protect yourself from any retaliation for non-payment of rent.

If you had renter’s insurance, get in touch with your insurance company as soon as possible. If your loss is covered under your insurance policy, you may request advance payments to cover your losses, at least in part. If you do not have renter’s insurance, find out if your landlord had insurance that might cover your unit and belongings.

If no insurance policy exists that would cover your losses, you might be able to get relief from The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under the Individual and Household Program (IHP). This enables you to replace necessary personal items such as clothing, furnishings, appliances and other household items.

If your property is considered irreparable, your landlord could have the right to terminate your lease. To do so, the landlord must file an eviction action in court and have a judge enter a final eviction judgment. Finally, you are entitled to getting back all or part of your security deposit in accordance with your lease agreement.

For more information on your rights as a tenant while recovering from a hurricane or another natural disaster, meet with a skilled real attorney in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

J. Nash Davis is an associate in the Real Estate and Financial Services and the Corporate, Tax & Estate Planning Practice Groups of BoltNagi PC, a full service business law firm on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands are doing what they can to band together and rebuild. The recovery of such staggering natural disasters is never easy—neither logistically nor legally.

Both property owners and the contractors they hire must carefully protect their legal rights and ensure they avoid potentially damaging relationships. Disaster recoveries are desperate times, and unless both property owners and contractors are careful, they could find that others take advantage of their kindness and vulnerability.

Below are some legal tips for contractors and property owners alike during the hurricane recovery efforts.

Advice for contractors, subcontractors and suppliers

The people who are actually performing the recovery work need to ensure they are protected. Much of this assurance needs to take place before a disaster actually occurs. All contractors, subcontractors and suppliers should know what the lien rights are in the territory if they want to ensure they can secure payment for their work.

Matters can get difficult when out-of-territory contractors come in to provide their services. A contractor from Florida, for example, might have different rules in its home state than one based in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In addition, when dealing with recovery work, contractors and suppliers are likely to be receiving at least some, if not all, of their payment from insurance providers. Delays in insurance checks can cause some major financial problems for contractors. All parties to an agreement should understand that it might become necessary for the contractor to preserve and secure its right to payment.

Tips for property owners

After major storms, disaster zones tend to be flooded by contractors and suppliers looking for work. In many cases, this is extremely beneficial for both parties, as contractors get the work and the people who need it have resources readily available. However, the downside is that there are potentially fraudulent parties looking to take advantage of desperate people. There have been plenty of instances in recent disaster recovery situations, such as after Hurricane Sandy, in which contractors abused homeowners and either took money for work not completed or engaged in poor workmanship.

It’s important to stay in constant communication with contractors you hire at any time—and especially in disaster scenarios. You should, for example, have contractors list every party working on the project, a description of each party’s duties on the job site and any other information that will help you ensure responsibility on the part of the contractor.

Homeowners should also add conditional lien waivers to their payments. In doing so, a property owner asks the main contractor and any subs and suppliers to waive the right to file a lien.

To learn more about how to legally protect yourself as a contractor or property owner when it comes to disaster recovery efforts, speak with an experienced U.S. Virgin Islands business and contracts attorney.

Tom Bolt is Managing Attorney of BoltNagi, a widely respected and well-established business and corporate law firm serving individuals and organizations throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands.

When you own or operate a small business, you may feel as if you need to understand and manage a never-ending list of issues and concerns just to ensure the safe, secure and effective operation of your business.

There may be one more you need to add to the list: cybersecurity. As technology continues to advance around us, so too does the sophistication by which cybercriminals attempt to access sensitive information from online networks. There are several main types of cyberattacks that all business owners should be aware of. Let’s start with the most common.

Viruses

Viruses are the form of malware with which most people have at least some level of familiarity. A virus is either a program or a piece of code that gets delivered to your device without your knowledge, typically packed into other downloads or deceptive email attachments. Depending on the virus, it could have any number of devastating effects on your computer or business network. For example, some viruses seek out and delete certain files, while others shut down computers and networks completely.

Make sure you have antivirus software on your company’s computers and network and keep them updated at all times so you can perform regular virus scans and maintain your digital security.

Spyware

Spyware is a form of malware that collects information, such as credit cards, Social Security numbers and passwords, off your computer. Even if spyware is not being used for theft, spammers and marketers may leverage it to learn more about your browsing habits in unethical ways. Anti-spyware programs are available online and often come packaged with antivirus tools.

Phishing 

Phishing involves fake emails or websites designed to take advantage of users who are not careful with their browsing habits. These email messages or sites typically try to trick you into entering your personal information or passwords. Spam filters should block most phishing attempts that come via email, but it’s best to make sure everyone in your workplace knows not to open suspicious-looking emails—just in case a few get through.

Browser security has also been updated to the point to which most of today’s web browsers are able to catch suspicious sites and block users from accessing them.

Trojans 

Trojans, bots, key-loggers and a variety of other applications are designed to appear harmless or even useful, prompting users into downloading and opening them. However, they carry various forms of malware that could be damaging to your computer and your overall data security. Make sure you have policies in place regarding the files your employees may download.

Cybersecurity has become one of the most pressing issues for modern businesses. Be sure to keep tabs on your company’s processes and ensure you’re not jeopardizing the data and information of you, your employees or your customers.

 

BoltNagi is a well-established and widely respected business and corporate law firm serving clients throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Natural disasters like hurricanes and floods do not just damage or destroy buildings and utilities. They could also result in the loss of some extremely important documents, such as mortgage information, estate planning documents, green cards and birth certificates.

As you recover from the losses you have suffered in the recent hurricanes in the U.S. Virgin Islands, you may realize some of your important documents have been lost or damaged. Below is some information that can help you replace them:

Bank checks, ATM/debit cards or safe deposit boxes

Connect with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which can cover your losses.

Phone: 877-275-3342

Website: www.fdic.gov

 

Credit cards

Here is the contact information for each of the major credit card institutions:

For bank issued credit cards, which include Master Card and Visa, please contact your local bank.

 

Credit reports

You will need to reach out to Equifax, Experian or TransUnion. There is a single phone number and website to make these efforts easier.

Phone: 877-322-8228
Website: www.annualcreditreport.com

 

Medicare cards

Phone: 800-772-1213
Website: www.socialsecurity.gov/medicarecard/

 

Passport

Phone: 202-955-0430 or 1-877-487-2778
Website: //travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/passports/lost-stolen.html 

Social Security Card

Phone: 800-772-1213
Website: www.ssa.gov

 

Medicare cards

Phone: 800-772-1213
Website: www.socialsecurity.gov/medicarecard/

 

Tax Returns

Contact the Virgin Islands Bureau of Internal Revenue
6115 Estate Smith Bay, Suite 225
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands 00802
Phone: 340-715-1040
Website: www.bir.vi.gov

4008 Estate Diamond, Plot 7B
St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands 00820
Phone: 340-773-1040

 

Real estate and property records

Contact the Office of Recorder of Deeds
No. 5049 Kongens Gade
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands 00802
Phone: 340-774-9906
Website: www.ltg.gov.vi/recorder-of-deeds.html

1105 King Street
Christiansted, U.S. Virgin Islands 00820
Phone: 340-773-6449

 

Birth, death

Contact the VI Department of Health (Vital Statistics)
Knud Hansen Complex, Hospital Ground
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands 00802
Phone: 340-774-9000, ext. 4621
Website: http://vitalrec.com/vi.html

Charles Harwood Memorial Complex
Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands 00820
Phone: 340-773-1311

 

Marriage Certificates

Contact the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands
Alexander A. Farrelly Justice Center
5400 Veteran’s Drive
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands 00802
Phone: 340-774-6680
Website: www.visuperiorcourt.org

R.H. Amphlett Leader Justice Center
RR1 9000
Kingshill, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands 00850
Phone: 340-778-9750

 

Estate planning documents

Talk to your estate planning attorney, who should have copies of your estate planning documents on record. Wills can also be stored for “safe keeping” at the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands.

 

Medical bills and history

Your medical provider should have a thorough record of the treatment you have received and the bills you have paid, so check with them first.

For more information on the various locations to contact if you have lost or damaged documents that need to be replaced, contact the team at BoltNagi. We would be happy to assist.

Attorney Steven K. Hardy is Chair of the Corporate, Tax and Estate Planning Practice Group at BoltNagi, an established and widely respected corporate tax planning law firm serving clients throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Imagine standing in line for a few hours to get a bag of ice and returning home to find the  landlord has put your clothes outside your apartment and locked you out. The reason? His home was destroyed by a hurricane and he plans to move into the place he was renting to you.

Attorney Tom Bolt

The exact circumstances are fictional, but the general scenario is all too real.

Such disputes, triggered by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, are “happening daily,” according to Virgin Islands attorney Tom Bolt.

There are cases in which landlords are demanding full rent for badly damaged properties, or insisting that one tenant take on the expense of fueling and maintaining a generator designed to serve multiple units, he said. And it’s not all one-sided. Some tenants are stiffing property owners under the assumption that they don’t have to pay anything because they have been inconvenienced.

There are also employment questions, Bolt said. If a business is forced to close because of a hurricane, what obligation does it have to its former employees? Must a company pay accrued leave to a worker it has to lay off, for example?

Even property title issues can come into play, Bolt said. What happens if “mom and pop” have deeded their home to their children with the understanding that the seniors will spend the rest of their lives there, but then a hurricane damages it and the parents need a disaster loan to make repairs, but one of the children doesn’t want to sign the paperwork for the loan?

Bolt and the lawyers in his office comprise eight of the 12 V.I. attorneys who have volunteered to work with eligible residents who apply for free legal advice through a program managed by the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division. Local attorneys do not take so-called Disaster Legal Assistance calls directly. Residents seeking help must apply through the program’s hotline, 1-800-310-7029 to see if they are eligible.

Typically landlord-tenant disputes are the most common to surface in the first weeks following a disaster, according to Andrew VanSingel, the project manager for the ABA’s program. They will likely be followed by requests for help with applications for federal assistance or filing insurance claims, disputes with contractors, and a host of issues that arise unexpectedly in the wake of a disaster.

The ABA has sponsored a disaster legal assistance program for decades, and for about 10 years has partnered with FEMA to make it readily available in effected zones.

Just since 2007, the program has offered relief in 160 declared disasters in 43 states and territories – including 20 disasters in 2017, according to the ABA website.

In the two and a half years that VanSingel has been involved, he said he’s spearheaded efforts in about 40 different disasters. While the types of problems are much the same in various jurisdictions, there may be some circumstances that are different. Communications problems, for instance, tend to be more of an issue in the territories than in most states.

In fact, because of the problems with phone service in the Virgin Islands, the hotline is operating through the Louisiana Civil Justice Center. Many questions can be handled immediately by legal experts at LCJC, which has considerable experience with the program. Those that require individual assistance are matched with a volunteer attorney in the territory who can give “limited scope representation.”

The program is open to individuals who are hurricane victims and who have insufficient means to hire an attorney, VanSingel said. It is open only to civil matters. Cases that could be fee-generating are not eligible, nor are criminal cases.

Trudy Fenster, president of the V.I. Bar Association, said the hotline “is being used a lot,” though she could not give a definite number of calls.

Bolt estimated his office has received about 50 referrals so far.

People van see if they qualify for the program by calling 1-800-310-7029.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria have caused massive amounts of property damage throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands. Tens of thousands of people are now in the process of filing homeowners’ insurance claims to recoup all or some of their losses.

Unfortunately, while most homeowners’ and renters’ insurance claims do cover damage caused by wind and other disasters, they typically do not cover groundwater flooding, which requires an additional policy from a private insurance company or through the National Flood Insurance program. The assistance a person can get through FEMA is also often not enough to cover all the losses sustained.

Below are some tips to help you through the process of filing an insurance claim to help you get a positive outcome:

  • Contact your insurance company as soon as possible: If you have been impacted by the disaster, do not wait to make your claim. Insurers often visit the most severely damaged areas first, but you can ask your provider when you can expect to hear from an adjuster. There could be backups due to the sheer amount of damage the region has sustained, so you should not expect to hear back immediately. But if you keep in constant communication with your insurance provider, you can help expedite the process.

  • Thoroughly document all your losses: Take as many pictures and videos as possible of the damage to your home and property. You should also make a complete list of all damaged personal items. Try to include the date of purchase of those items, the approximate value of them and, if you have them, receipts for the purchases.

  • Keep records of your spending: As you wait for your insurance provider to respond to your claim application, you may wish to make some temporary repairs to make your home livable again. Keep receipts and records of everything you spend to make those repairs, along with receipts for hotels, meals and other expenses incurred due to your inability to return to your home in the short term. You may get reimbursed for these expenses through your claim.

  • Do not discard items without checking with your provider: Your insurance adjuster may wish to see these damaged items in person if a photograph does not provide enough visual context of the damage. Thus, make sure you have written permission from your adjuster before discarding any your damaged items.

  • Keep a thorough claim log: Have a set of notes that has contact information for everyone you speak to about your claim. Always make a note of the date and time of conversations about your claim and the issues you discussed.

Time is of the essence when it comes to filing an insurance claim after a natural disaster. Remember these tips as you work through the process in the wake of our recent hurricanes.

Tom Bolt is Managing Attorney of BoltNagi, a widely respected and well-established business and corporate law firm serving individuals and organizations throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands and is assisting in the Territory’s recovery as Chair of the Advisory Board for The Salvation Army and facilitating Disaster Legal Services.

SBA Loans Help Small Businesses

by karin on October 31, 2017

The people of the U.S. Virgin Islands continue to rebuild after the massive destruction caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria over the past month. Many are still in need of financial assistance to recoup the losses they have suffered and make necessary repairs to their properties.

The large amounts of flooding and damage can be especially disastrous for small businesses in the territory, which often operate on razor-thin margins as it is. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), approximately 40 percent of small businesses fail after a natural disaster simply because the costs of recovery are too great. The costs become even more prohibitive if a business does not have a separate flood insurance policy.

How do SBA loans work?

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has a variety of physical disaster loan options, along with some economic damage loans, available for small businesses. Both of these types of loans have caps of $2 million to repair or replace machinery, equipment, inventory, real estate and other business assets. The program already has been quite active due to the destruction of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and it’s now an option being used by many people throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands and other territories in the region.

These loans can also be used by both homeowners and small business owners. Individual homeowners and renters can borrow up to $40,000 to replace damages to personal property and up to $200,000 to repair or replace damages to their primary residence. Personal property, for these purposes, is anything not considered real estate or a physical part of the actual structure of a residence. Loans may not be used to replace irreplaceable and extraordinarily expensive items, such as collections, antiques, recreational vehicles, boats and fashion items.

To qualify for the program, home and business owners must have sustained physical damage to their properties and be in an area where a disaster has been officially declared by the federal government.

All recipients must pay back SBA loans, although they usually come with low interest rates. The agency will only approve loans to applicants who have demonstrated a reasonable ability to repay the loan over time. The terms of each loan are established based on the borrower’s ability to repay.

Federal law gives the SBA some powerful tools to make these loans as affordable as possible to home and business owners, including low/fixed interest rates, long-term loans (of up to 30 years) and refinancing of existing real estate liens, in some circumstances. There are no upfront fees or early payment penalties for SBA loans.

For more information about obtaining a disaster loan from the SBA, work with an experienced attorney serving the U.S. Virgin Islands. Together, we will continue to recover from the enormous storms that have hit our region.

Tom Bolt is Managing Attorney of BoltNagi, a widely respected and well-established business and corporate law firm serving individuals and organizations throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands and is assisting in the Territory’s recovery as Chair of the Advisory Board for The Salvation Army and facilitating Disaster Legal Services.

In the weeks after Hurricane Maria hit, people throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands are seeking whatever assistance they can to help rebuild their homes and their lives. One of the options available is to apply for relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Assistance is available for those who have suffered in a federally declared natural disaster, including Maria.

Below is an overview of what you need to know about applying for FEMA assistance:

The application process

There are several methods to apply for FEMA assistance, the easiest of which are to apply online or via telephone. To apply online, visit www.disasterassistance.gov. If you are having difficulty applying online for any reason, you may also call 800-621-3362 (TTY 800-462-7285) or you may apply locally at the Omar Brown Fire Station or the Bordeaux Farmer’s Market for relief during standard hours of operation, which run from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. EST, six days a week. After you have filed your application, you may check its status any time at disasterassistance.gov, regardless of the method you used to apply.

You have 60 days from the date of a declaration of disaster for Individual Assistance to apply for relief. Note that if you are eligible for an Individual Assistance grant, you do not have to pay back the money. There is also no income threshold for Individual Assistance grants, but some people may be referred to the Small Business Administration (SBA) for a low-interest loan to aid in their recovery. SBA loans must be repaid.

Documents you will need to apply

There are certain documents and materials you will need to complete your application, whether you do it online or over the phone. These include the following:

  • Social Security number

  • Current mailing address and telephone number

  • Address of the location at which the damage occurred

  • Your insurance information, including policy number and coverages

  • Your total household annual income

  • A routing and account number for your checking or savings account, which allows FEMA to directly deposit disaster assistance funds into your account

  • A comprehensive description of all the damage and losses the disaster caused

Additional resources

The FEMA website has an Individual Disaster Assistance page with many other useful resources that will guide you through your relief application This includes information on the following:

  • The types of assistance FEMA provides to individuals and families

  • What happens during a home inspection

  • What happens if you have insurance

  • What happens after a home inspection

  • How you can get a copy of your application or case file

  • How you can appeal a FEMA decision regarding your assistance

Keep these tips in mind as you seek the assistance you need after Hurricane Maria. These programs and others can give you much-needed help as you work to rebuild your life.

Tom Bolt is Managing Attorney of BoltNagi, a widely respected and well-established business and corporate law firm serving individuals and organizations throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands and is assisting in the Territory’s recovery as Chair of the Advisory Board for The Salvation Army and facilitating Disaster Legal Services.

Options for US Virgin Islands Property Owners Facing Foreclosure After Hurricane Destruction

October 26, 2017

After a natural disaster like Hurricanes Irma and Maria, many homeowners and business property owners may face significant financial hardships, manifested in an inability to make mortgage payments. Fortunately, there are certain foreclosure protections available for property owners in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The following is an overview of some of the options available for […]

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Legal Tips for Contractors

October 24, 2017

In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands are doing what they can to band together and rebuild. The recovery of such staggering natural disasters is never easy—neither logistically nor legally. Both property owners and the contractors they hire must carefully protect their legal rights and ensure they avoid […]

Read the full article →

How to Best Protect Your Customers’ Data and Other Sensitive Information

January 4, 2017

In an age when so much happens online, businesses must be willing to commit to digital security to best protect the sensitive data and information of themselves and their customers. In fact, some estimates indicate that the global market for cybersecurity will surpass $80 billion next year, indicating just how important this issue has become. […]

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