An insurance company that handles claims for FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program is being accused of withholding hundreds of documents related to Hurricane Sandy cases involving allegations of underpayment and fraud. Attorneys for homeowners allege the documents show “wrongfully altered” engineering reports that were concealed for months, adding to allegations that have roiled the federal program.
According to court papers filed Monday, the Standard Fire Insurance Company, a subsidiary of Travelers Insurance Company Ltd., did not turn over the documents to homeowners’ attorneys until Friday -- more than a year after federal judges in New York first ordered insurance companies to produce all documents related to the homeowners’ claims.
Steve Mostyn, an attorney for homeowners, contends that even the new documents represent only a portion of the materials that Standard Fire should have produced.
In February, FEMA initiated a massive settlement effort with some 2,000 New York and New Jersey homeowners who sued insurance companies, claiming they were paid too little. But Mostyn said he cannot settle lawsuits in which insurance carriers have failed to turn over “critical” documents, as ordered by federal judges on at least three separate occasions last year.
“The defendants withheld these documents from us, knowing the information was critical to our case," Mostyn told International Business Times. “We have to find out why that is.”
The federal judges managing the Hurricane Sandy cases in New York have scheduled hearings on allegations against Standard Fire to begin May 20. The company is one of approximately 80 private insurers that are paid by the federal government to administer flood insurance claims.
A spokesman for Travelers said the company does not comment on litigation.
Mostyn said one of the documents given to his firm last week was particularly significant, “like lightning striking the same place.” It is an engineering report issued by U.S. Forensic, one of the companies that inspected homes for insurance companies after Sandy.
That report follows the same pattern, Mostyn said, as an engineering report that featured in the pivotal case of a Long Beach, New York, couple. Both reports were issued by U.S. Forensic, and both bear the name of an engineer named George Hernemar.
The Long Beach case cast a bright light on homeowners’ allegations of fraud, after a federal judge blasted major changes to the engineering report as “baseless.” Judge Gary Brown found that the report was improperly altered, and that Hernemar’s original conclusions about the extent of the damages were deliberately concealed from the homeowners. The couple was eventually forced to sell the property because they could not afford to repair it.
“We have now found, almost unbelievably, another Hernemar, altered report that was not turned over to us by the insurance industry,” Mostyn said.
This latest report relates to a home in the Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens, a borough of New York City. A version dated Dec. 19, 2012, said that repairing the home “is not economically viable” and that it should be “demolished and rebuilt in its entirety.”
Yet a subsequent report, dated Dec. 26, 2012, reached a very different conclusion and recommended repairs to a collapsed section of the foundation. The homeowner received a $151,000 insurance payout, but Mostyn said he should be entitled to the full policy limit of $250,000.
According to the motion Mostyn filed with the court on Monday, Standard Fire has been in possession of the Hernemar report since Feb. 2. Mostyn told IBTimes that the insurer obtained the report through a subpoena to Hernemar himself.
“The fact that they still had not turned this over gives us little confidence that we are in possession of the documents the court has ordered to be turned over to us in other cases,” Mostyn said.
His motion alleges that Standard Fire continues to violate court orders and has yet to produce key emails, draft reports and billing invoices for engineering reports.
Allegations of widespread fraud in the flood insurance program have sparked multiple government probes, including ongoing criminal investigations by the attorneys general of New York and New Jersey. Next week, FEMA is set to launch an unprecedented review of flood insurance payouts that will be open to all 144,000 Sandy claimants.