As we all reflect on the events of Sept. 11, 2001, 20 years later, Albany Law School has an important connection to the aftermath of that historic and sobering day.
Professor Michael J. Hutter’s pro bono work led to a legal precedent for hundreds of volunteers to access benefits and care to treat ailments and illnesses related to exposure to toxic materials while performing rescue & recovery as well as clean-up work at Ground Zero following the attacks.
Jaime Hazan, a formerly trained EMT, rushed to the scene and helped triage victims at Chelsea Piers and self-deployed to the Pile on Sept. 12, 2001, stayed on to help clean-up the site.
In the years that followed, in addition to the post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and other mental illnesses, his physical health began to deteriorate.
He thought he might qualify for benefits or coverage of his health treatments just as the firefighters, police officers, and many others who answered the call two decades ago. After his first hearing with the NY State Worker’s Compensation Board, he was denied because it was allegedly time bared. This was overturned, but thereafter, he was denied again for a different reason.
Hazan filed another claim in March 2010 but was denied because he failed to meet the definition of a “volunteer” because he did not provide proof that he was acting under the control or direction of a volunteer agency.
"You can't fight an organization like that when you're essentially a civilian or you're not an officer of the court. It is too hard,” Hazan said. “The impact is enormous on me as an individual, but as I looked deeper, it wasn't just me. First Responders with the volunteer classification are truly the unrepresented group. It's not like I have a firehouse to go to. I just responded because being an American, we are all Americans at the end of the day.”
Hazan decided to file an appeal and needed legal help. Through the New York Bar Association’s pro bono appeals program, Hutter stepped up and took the case. “I had waited years and years before I even asked for help. I felt not deserving,” Hazan said. “I was thinking there are other people that deserve it more than me. I didn't even know where to turn.” “When I heard about how he was treated by a state agency, I wanted to help,” Hutter said.
“The workers' comp board said, ‘No, you're not a volunteer, even though you were there, you were there in good faith, [and] you put your life at risk,’” Hutter explained. “My argument was that the workers' comp board had no authority whatsoever to be so restrictive in light of what we now know about 9/11.”
On June 5, 2014, the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department issued a decision—and it made an impact.
“The third department agreed with me. Interestingly, the judge who wrote the majority decision, John Egan—an Albany law graduate--and his decision pointed out, the whole idea was that this is remedial legislation,” Hutter said. “The court agreed that you cannot treat heroes such as Mr. Hazan, so sloppily. So, they made him eligible for benefits and in turn, many others.”
The decision made a difference for many, but only with Hazan spreading the word.
“It was only through word of mouth that Jaime got the word out. So now armed with the precedent, others like him we were eligible,” Hutter said. “Jaime did not want to fault anyone. He just said the mistake occurred and has been corrected and left it at that. He was not seeking revenge or retribution at all. I think it speaks to the type of person he is.”
With many others coming forward after the decision the effort grew beyond just a pro bono project. Hutter began referring people to full-time worker’s compensation attorneys.
“I was very happy. I was pleased first that had I helped someone who was in real dire need. The spillover effect, being able to help others, was very gratifying. I think that's the essence of pro bono work,” Hutter said. “Through the years, I've done a lot of it. I think it's very important for lawyers to do this. And I know for busy lawyers, it's very difficult. But with the rising costs of lawyer fees, so many people are shut off from accessing a lawyer.”
Hazan often considers the cost if this hadn’t been a pro bono project. That alone would have deterred him, and therefore this access to so many, from even having a chance to come to light.
“Taking care of your health when you become ill from 9/11, it’s a full-time job, whether you can work or not,” Hazan said. “The cost of fighting the worker’s comp board wouldn't have been possible without somebody helping me, the amount of money I got as an award wouldn't have covered the legal bills that would have been racked up.”
Hundreds of volunteers have accessed benefits thanks to this change in the law. While the physical and mental effects of Sept. 11 remain a constant in Hazan’s life, he’s learning to move forward and leans on his, “tremendous group of friends, supportive girlfriend, and family.” Bernie, his service dog, has also been a huge helper.
“You know, I think there's a part of me that I lost. So much of my own life hasn’t happened because of what happened. But, I haven't become mad. I haven't gotten married and had children essentially because of constantly being sick and feeling sick. So, there are a lot of things that no one can change. We can't change the fact that the exposure took place, but we can do our best to try to do good by everybody,” Hazan said. “What Professor Hutter did for me, and so many others, speaks to his character and is something that will never be taken away.”