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Gulf oil spill: Volunteer lawyers reach out to Vietnamese community

June 27, 2010 |  9:43 pm

Thoa-Thi Ta, 56, drove 2 ½ hours from Opelousas, La., to Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church in the Village de L’est area of New Orleans on Sunday to get free advice from a Vietnamese-speaking lawyer about her family’s BP claims.

Last spring, her husband bought a $30,000 shrimping boat. They loaned it to her brother, fishing captain Doan Xuan Ta, 55, until the oil spill, because he had lost his car, house and everything he owned in Hurricane Katrina.

After the spill, Ta and her brother met a Vietnamese lawyer from Houston at a local restaurant who promised to help them file claims for damages with BP. The former refugees, who come from a fishing family in Phuoc Tinh, Vietnam, signed the paperwork in early May, desperate for help.

On Sunday, a volunteer lawyer from Oakland explained to them in Vietnamese what they had signed: a retainer granting their new lawyer 40% of any money they receive from BP.

“Of course I did not understand. But because she’s Vietnamese, we trust each other,” Thoa-Thi Ta said in Vietnamese as a lawyer translated and her brother looked on. “She said she would give us money.”

Volunteer lawyers at the afternoon clinic said such legal problems have become commonplace among Vietnamese immigrants in the gulf. Private lawyers have descended on the area, one of the first neighborhoods to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina and home to a cadre of Vietnamese fishermen and seafood workers. Many in the Vietnamese community signed up with those lawyers, and are only now beginning to question the agreements.

“People here are different from the Vietnamese immigrants in California,” said Thuy Nguyen, who grew up in the neighborhood and now works in Oakland. "They’re so innocent. They will sign up with anyone.”

Nguyen’s group billed itself as the first bilingual legal clinic to come to the gulf since the spill.

The19 lawyers and 10 law students from California and five other states  had expected to advise hundreds. Instead, they saw about 50 people during stops in New Orleans; Biloxi, Miss.; and Bayou La Batre, Ala.

“I didn’t realize when I came down that they are fearful of attorneys,” said Mai Phan, a graduate of Tulane University and Loyola Law School now based in San Jose.

Many of the immigrants she saw felt they had been burned by lawyers -- many of whom were from California, Texas and New York --  who signed them up as clients and then disappeared.

Nguyen said it is not yet clear whether the problems result from predatory lawyers or from the fishermen’s inexperience with legal matters. Either way, she said, the community’s fear of lawyers has become a barrier to assisting them as they seek compensation from BP.

When Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (R-La.) stopped by to see the clinic last week, he said the legal volunteers may have come too late, since so many like the Tas had already retained private lawyers.

But Nguyen refused to give up. Before Mass on Sunday, she posted signs outside the church saying, “We do not want to represent you or take your money,” and, “No signing up with lawyers. No private info requested.”

At the end of the 11:15 a.m. Mass, she joined the Rev. Vien The Nguyen at the front of the church and attempted to assuage the congregation’s fears. She told them that she used to live in the area, that she attended Vietnamese Bible school and that her father’s name is on a plaque at the church.

“I had to really reassure them,” Thuy Nguyen said.

A few fishermen and their wives trickled in. One woman asked how much she would have to pay. Some brought paperwork, which the lawyers helped them decipher, referring them to Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, a local legal aid group, for further assistance.

By late afternoon, many of the lawyers were frustrated.

Ann Nguyen, vice president of the Vietnamese American Bar Assn. of Northern California, grew up near here, shucking oysters and peeling shrimp during the summer for spare cash. The oil spill may be ending that way of life, she said, and many of the immigrant seafood workers she sees do not yet realize it. That could hurt them as they attempt to file claims for damages with BP, since they are likely to underestimate the toll the spill will take on their families.

Some fishermen left Mass asking the priest when they would be able to get back to work.

“I just talked to an oyster shucker; she’s been doing it since 1982, since I was born,” Ann Nguyen said. “I don’t think she understands what’s happening.”

Nguyen also reviewed the Tas’ paperwork. She and another lawyer offered as much advice as they could before they had to close and fly home Sunday.

"I told them I know you're stressed, but don't just sign anything," said May Nguyen, Thuy Nguyen's sister and a UCLA law student.

Thuy Nguyen said that in coming weeks, the lawyers plan to report what they saw during the clinic and recommend possible regulations or oversight to the White House initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

-- Molly Hennessey-Fiske, in New Orleans