A Maryland woman made headlines in early 2010 when she successfully represented herself in a case in the U.S. Tax Court.
“I still can hardly believe it,” Lori Singleton-Clarke, a 47-year-old nurse from Bryantown, Md., told The Wall Street Journal of her pro se litigation feat.
Members of MSBA’s Taxation Section know it’s not easy to argue against the IRS. And they’ve taken steps to ensure no one braves that duel alone.
“I think it’s very intimidating for pro se litigants,” says Todd Bornstein, a Section member and volunteer in its Pro Se pro bono program. “People are fearful of the IRS – a little afraid and apprehensive. We offer a shoulder they can lean on and we can help resolve things with the IRS.”
And these attorneys also bring a swifter and fairer verdict in Tax Court cases, though volunteers are subject to the “Waiting Game” at first.
Essentially, before the U.S. Tax Court convenes in the Federal Courthouse in Baltimore, the Section brings an assemblage of attorneys, the Judge announces the free services to respondents, and the attorneys wait to be approached.
fearful of the IRS. We offer a shoulder they can lean on and we can help resolve things with the IRS."
Volunteer, MSBA's Taxation Section Pro Se Pro Bono Program
Caroline Ciraolo, former Section Chair who is credited with formulating the pro bono program, says the attorneys are there to advise, review, guide and/or facilitate. If the case were to go to trial, the attorneys can provide counsel but, Ciraolo says, it’s not their primary purpose and 90 percent of cases settle. “They settle because [volunteer attorneys] bring parties together,” she says.
“We are coordinating and helping the tax payer understand the process and getting [the two sides] on the same page,” Bornstein further explains. He offers the example of a tax payer traveling for business and not submitting the proper miles-document for the claimed deduction. Bornstein says that the Section’s volunteer attorneys need to point the tax payer to the proper document.
Volunteering for this program is difficult because of the varying cases heard at each U.S. Tax Court calendar call.
The U.S. Tax Court is not like traditional courthouses. It travels around the country to pre-designated posts throughout the year. Residents of Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware and southern Pennsylvania are summoned to Baltimore when the court arrives. It usually visits twice a year and stays for about a week. The docket can crowd quickly and, according to Judge Stanley J. Goldberg, about 100-130 cases are heard in a week. Of those numbers, a majority are pro se. In fact, before the U.S. Tax Court traveled to Baltimore in November 2009, Judge Goldberg said that the October 31, 2009 Report of Pending Tax Court Cases recorded over 19,000 of the 28,857 docketed cases were pro se. “They constitute the largest group,” says Judge Goldberg. “The volunteers help speed up trials or settlements.”
Law students from the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore also, respectively, offer free legal assistance at the U.S. Tax Court to impoverished respondents. The Taxation Section’s program, operating since late-2008, was not designed to compete with the law schools; rather, it was aimed at helping the unrepresented middle class.
“Five thousand dollars can make or break one of these families,” says Ciraolo.
The volunteer tax attorneys have helped more pro se tax payers each calendar call, and the number is growing. Ciraolo was given the 2010 Janet Spragens Pro Bono Award by the American Bar Association’s Section of Taxation for her efforts in the Tax Court program. The ABA also asked MSBA Taxation Section member Rob Longmann to expand the program to smaller, rural cities in the country, like Mobile, Al., Boise, Id., and Shreveport, La.
“We are trying to broaden the range to reach more tax payers and more cities,” says Longmann.