Selecting an Environmental Lawyer

Kevin Murphy

Environmental law matters frequently involve an overlap and interplay between legal, scientific, and business concerns. Translating science into policy and policy into law and the resulting enforcement or interpretation of the law by government agencies and the courts can leave people and businesses frustrated, confused and confounded by the law and its regulators. Adding to that frustration is both the complexity and harshness of the law and often, the absence of simple, quick, and easy solutions to environmental legal problems. 

    There is much an environmental lawyer can do to benefit the client’s interests. Counsel is best sought, of course, prior to any actual conflict arising. Environmental counsel can minimize potential client liability through compliance counseling, assistance with permitting, site and process auditing, the performance of pre-acquisition due diligence, and the presentation of public comments or testimony prior to the enactment or promulgation of statutes or regulations that may impact the client. Should issues of non-compliance or liability arise, counsel familiar with the specifics and peculiarities of environmental matters will likely be the best advocate for a client confronted with environmental concerns. 

    First and foremost, an environmental lawyer must be a good lawyer. Ask your friends, business associates and trade organizations, state or local bar and business groups, and your engineer, technical consultant or non-environmental lawyer for one or more recommendations of a lawyer or a law firm that practices environmental law. 

    Interview any lawyer that you might consider hiring. Determine their qualifications and experience. Consider first the candidate’s general qualifications, including years of experience; years of environmental law experience; their professional development through organizations, attendance at seminars, written articles, or teaching; and prior experience, including past governmental positions. Next, consider the candidate’s experience as it relates to your legal concerns. Among the many types of environmental matters which might require the assistance of environmental counsel are the sale or purchase of real property, securing a government permit, notice of a government enforcement action, a neighbor who alleges that you are polluting his property or your concerns that a neighbor has polluted your property. Determine if your candidate’s experience includes matters similar to yours. If they have never assisted a client secure a permit or has never defended a government enforcement action, he or she might not be the best-qualified environmental lawyer to resolve your legal matters. Determine if the lawyer has practiced before the government agency with which you have a conflict. While not mandatory or essential, familiarity with the specific regulator and its procedures and practices may also be helpful. 

    Ask the candidate to explain how the law works in your particular area and what type of solutions might be available. Remember, because environmental law involves the confluence of law, science and business, you should select a lawyer who not only understands the complex issues you are confronted with but who can communicate the issues and possible solutions in a clear, precise and understandable manner. If you cannot understand your lawyer, you will be frustrated and the other side, whoever it may be, is also likely to be frustrated. 

    Inquire as to what other professionals may be needed. Not only environmental engineers and consultants, but other legal professionals. Often times environmental issues arise in the context of other legal conflicts such as potential foreclosures, bankruptcy or trust and estate matters. Determine if your candidate has access to the necessary qualified professionals or if the candidate can successfully work with your existing counsel and experts. 

    Before engaging the services of an environmental lawyer, or any lawyer, discuss fees. Be aware, however, that lower hourly rates do not necessarily translate into lower total costs. Determine how your matter might be staffed, who will do the work and the likely or potential complications, which will add to the costs of a solution. Speaking to more than one candidate is the best way to determine a realistic picture of the potential range of costs and time involved and the options and approaches to solving your problem. 

    In making your final choice, do not disregard your instinct – select the lawyer you are most comfortable with and the lawyer you trust. Be wary of promises that are easy to make but difficult to keep. Make sure your lawyer listens and understands your goals and objectives but, at the same time, listen to what your lawyer says they can and cannot do for you. 

Lead-Based Paint: Notice requirements imposed by Federal law

Kevin Murphy

In 1978 the federal government banned consumer uses of lead-based paint, thus effectively stopping the use of lead-based paint in all housing across the country. Prior to that date, lead-based paint was widely used including in housing and homes constructed prior to that date.  If properly managed lead-based paint poses little, if any risk to human health. If allowed to deteriorate (peeling, chipping, chalking, cracking, damaged, or damp), lead-based paint is a potential hazard. It can cause serious health problems, especially to children and pregnant women. 

Homebuyers 

    Federal law requires that before being obligated under a contract to buy housing built prior to 1978, buyers must receive the following from the seller:  

  • An EPA-approved information pamphlet on identifying and controlling lead-based paint hazards titled Protect Your FamilyFromLead In Your Home.  
  • Any known information concerning the presence of lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards in the home or building.
  • For multi-unit buildings, this requirement includes records and reports concerning common areas and other units when such information was obtained as a result of a building-wide evaluation.
  • An attachment to the contract, or language inserted in the contract, that includes a “Lead Warning Statement” and confirms that the seller has complied with all notification requirements.
  • A 10-day period to conduct a paint inspection or risk assessment for lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards. Parties may mutually agree, in writing, to lengthen or shorten the time period for inspection. Homebuyers may waive this inspection opportunity. If you have a concern about possible lead-based paint, you may secure a lead inspection from a certified inspector before buying. 

Renters 

    Federal law requires that before signing a lease for housing built before 1978, renters must receive the following from your landlord:  

  • An EPA-approved information pamphlet on identifying and controlling lead-based paint hazards, Protect Your FamilyFromLead In Your Home. 
  • Any known information concerning the presence of lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards in • For multi-unit buildings, this requirement includes records and reports concerning common areas and other units when such information was obtained as a result of a building-wide evaluation. 
  • An attachment to the contract, or language inserted in the contract, that includes a “Lead Warning Statement” and confirms that the landlord has complied with all notification requirements.

Property Managers and Landlords 

    As owners, landlords, agents, and managers of rental property, you play an important role in protecting the health of your tenants and their children. Buildings built before 1978 are much more likely to have lead-based paint. Federal law requires you to provide certain important information about lead paint before a prospective renter is obligated under lease to rent from you. 

Landlords must give prospective tenants of buildings built before 1978: 

  • An EPA-approved information pamphlet on identifying and controlling lead-based paint hazards, Protect Your FamilyFromLead In Your Home.  
  • Any known information concerning lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards pertaining to the building. 
  • For multi-unit buildings this requirement includes records and reports concerning common areas and other units when such information was obtained as a result of a building-wide evaluation. 
  • A lead disclosure attachment to the lease, or language inserted in the lease, that includes a “Lead Warning Statement” and confirms that you have complied with all notification requirements. 

Real Estate Agents and Home Sellers 

    As real estate agents and home sellers, you play an important role in protecting the health of families purchasing and moving into your home. Buildings built before 1978 are much more likely to have lead-based paint. Federal law requires you to provide certain important information about lead paint before a prospective buyer is obligated under a contract to purchase your home. 

Real estate agents must:  

  • Inform the seller of his or her obligations under the Real Estate Notification and Disclosure Rule. In addition, the agent is responsible if the seller or lessor fails to comply; unless the failure involves specific lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazard information that the seller or lessor did not disclose to the agent. Read the regulations that includes these requirements. 
  • Provide, as part of the contract process, an EPA-approved information pamphlet on identifying and controlling lead-based paint hazards titled Protect Your FamilyFromLead In Your Home. Attach to contract, or insert language in the contract, a “Lead Warning Statement” and confirmation that you have complied with all notification requirements. 
  • Provide a 10-day period to conduct a paint inspection or risk assessment for lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards. Parties may mutually agree, in writing, to lengthen or shorten the time period for inspection. Homebuyers may waive this inspection opportunity. 
  • A copy of the pamphlet Protect Your FamilyFromLead In Your Home is available at: 

https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-06/documents/pyf_color_landscape_format_2017_508.pdf 

Kevin C. Murphy is a member of the Wladis Law Firm, P.C., located in Watertown and Syracuse. He concentrates his practice in the areas of environmental compliance and litigation; environmental and white-collar criminal defense, and complex litigation matters. Contact Mr. Murphy by emailing KMurphy@WladisLawFirm.com.

Proving Creative Talent Through Design

CHRIS LENNEY / NNY BUSINESS Rebecca N. Weld is the principal and founder of Renew Architechture & Design in Potsdam.

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Hiring outside firm to balance St. Lawrence County’s bank accounts expected to cost up to $30,000

By SUSAN MENDE
SMENDE@OGD.COM

A private accounting firm has been hired by St. Lawrence County to reconcile dozens of county bank accounts, some that have not been balanced since the end of 2012.

The firm Hoffman Eells & Gray CPAS, P.C., Canton, is being paid $65 an hour to reconcile the county’s checking accounts in several different county departments.

The contract started Oct. 3 and is expected to cost the county between $20,000 and $30,000, according to Deputy County Treasurer Renee M. Cole.

Legislator Donald J. Hooper, R-Ogdensburg, said he was ”distressed” to learn at the Oct. 3 full board meeting that more than 70 bank accounts in several different county departments have not been balanced for an extended period.

“I was shocked. This is Accounting 101. It kind of blew me away,” Mr. Hooper said.

Mr. Hooper is a semi-retired certified public accountant with the Pinto, Mucenski, Hooper & VanHouse law firm, Ogdensburg.

He said not having accurate bank balances forces legislators to make financial decisions based on faulty data, such as whether or not to borrow money to cover projected cash flow shortages. County legislators agreed in September to borrow $9.5 million.

“You can’t make a decision on bad information is what it really amounts to,” he said.

Mrs. Cole said the problem of unbalanced bank accounts predated her being appointed a deputy county treasurer in May 2015. Former county treasurer Kevin M. Felt was running the office until he resigned in January. Mrs. Cole has been in charge of the office for the past nine months.

“This is an issue I inherited,” Mrs. Cole said Tuesday. “I’m not here to point fingers at anyone. I’m just here to address a problem.”

The transition in February 2013 to a new financial software system is partly to blame for bank accounts getting backlogged, she told lawmakers.

“By the time we clearly identified it, it was beyond our ability to handle with the staff we had in-house,” Mrs. Cole said.

Also, she said the arrival of the new software coincided with the departure of a senior account clerk in the treasurer’s office served as the bank reconciliation clerk. The position was filled by someone from another department who needed extensive, time-consuming training.

The county switched to a new external auditing firm this year, Drescher & Mulecki, Cheektowaga. Mrs. Cole said she and her staff had to spent a great deal of time bringing that firm up to speed on county policies and providing other financial information.

“The issue of no reconciliation was cited in the 2013 audit. It probably should have been cited in the 2014 audit as well and I can’t speak to why it wasn’t,” Mrs. Cole said. “I think a serious attempt was made to try to reconcile these in 2014, but some reconciliations were dropped and it was never really wrapped up or finalized.”

Derek R. VanHouse, the Republican candidate for the county treasurer’s job, said he felt that county legislators should have been made aware sooner that multiple bank accounts needed to be reconciled.

“It was a surprise to the legislators.” Mr. VanHouse said. “When you’re talking about cash flow and borrowing money you want to make sure the information is up-to-date and as accurate as possible.”

He is vying for the seat against Mrs. Cole, running on the Democrat and Women’s Equality lines and Robert T. Santamoor running on the Independence line.

Mr. Santamoor, a former deputy county treasurer, said he agreed that new software and staff turnover are to blame for the delay in balancing county bank accounts.

“Renee’s characterization is accurate,” he said.

Mr. Santamoor said he disagreed with Mr. Felt’s decision to let the staff member handling those duties to transfer to another county department.

Mrs. Cole said county officials were not aware until September that the bank reconciliation backlog problem could not be resolved by the external auditor. Auditors said the accounts need to be balanced so they can complete their 2015 audit.

Mr. Hooper said he was “disappointed” that the county’s 2015 audit may not be finished until sometime in 2017.

She noted that the county treasurer’s position has been unfilled since January and she’s essentially been juggling two positions.

“I feel I’ve done the best job I could. I don’t know how this could have been brought forward any sooner,” Mrs. Cole said.

Although the county has more than 70 bank accounts, including checking, savings and trust accounts, Mrs. Cole said a large portion have minimal activity.

She said many are required by the state, such as separate bank accounts for some social services programs.

“We’re required to have different bank accounts for different reasons, but we are looking to identify and close some as part of this reconciliation,” she said.

June 2016: Real Estate Roundup

Realtors meet members of Congress

Lance Evans

Lance Evans

From May 9 to 14, the National Association of Realtors held its Realtor Legislative Meetings and Trade Expo in Washington, D.C. Approximately 8,500 attendees from across the country and around the world attended the annual conference. The week included about 200 meetings and events that covered many real estate topics and allowed NAR members to take an active role in advancing the real estate industry, public policy, and the association. [Read more…]

People On the Move – Sept. 2014

New staff at Bowers & Company CPAs

Bowers & Company CPAs, Syracuse, has hired Nathaniel J. Carroll as a senior tax accountant in its Watertown office. Mr. Carroll earned a bachelor’s degree in 2009 and a masters of professional accountancy in 2010 from West Virginia University. He is a certified public accountant.

Shirley A. Ostrander has also joined the firm as a new staff accountant in the Watertown office. Ms. Ostrander graduated in 1989 from Aquinas University of Legazpi, Philippines, and holds a CPA license in the Philippines. Prior to working with Bowers & Company, she was a staff accountant at Stackel & Navarra CPAs. [Read more…]