August 09, 2019 Pro Bono Matters

Interview with Omeed Firouzi

ABA Tax Times (ATT) recently had a chance to talk with Omeed Firouzi (OF) about the development of his interest in tax practice with low-income clients and his term as a Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellow at Philadelphia Legal Assistance.

ATT: Omeed, can you tell us something about your background and prior work experience, both in and out of tax?

OF: Before I went to law school, my background and work experience mostly revolved around politics. I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania where I got involved in presidential campaigns and worked for my state representative Phyllis Mundy for several years. I went to GW, in the heart of Washington, D.C., for my undergraduate education because I was and am a political junkie. At college, I ran the College Democrats and I also worked for my hometown Congressman, Matt Cartwright. Along the way, my interests in politics and policy specifically led me to take classes on social welfare and anti-poverty programs. I learned about how specific social safety nets work and about the politics and policies surrounding these programs. As I increasingly became interested in tax law, my capstone college paper focused on the Earned Income Tax Credit.

My college experiences solidified my desire to go to law school. I wanted to practice law back in Pennsylvania, so a confluence of personal and professional factors led me to Villanova Law. At Villanova, I became immersed in public interest law and specifically in civil legal aid. My preexisting interest in tax law translated into a stint as the director of Villanova’s VITA volunteer program in 2017. Crucially, while I was a law student, I interned in Philadelphia’s largest civil legal aid organizations: Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA) and Community Legal Services (CLS). At PLA, I interned in the low-income taxpayer clinic, a natural fit given my interest in how tax law affects poverty. That internship of course helped bring me to where I am today—an attorney in the LITC at PLA.

ATT: What inspired you to apply for the Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellowship?

OF: When I interned in the LITC in the summer of 2016 (the summer of my 1L year) under the supervision of clinic director Lazlo Beh, one of my colleagues was attorney Lany Villalobos. Lany, a fellow Villanova Law alum, was at that time a Brunswick Public Service Fellow. Her mentorship and Lazlo’s subsequent encouragement for me to apply helped familiarize me with the fellowship and inspire me to pursue it. The following summer, I interned at CLS for Cat Martin—who at the time also was a Brunswick Fellow. Cat’s guidance helped solidify my decision to apply. PLA ultimately sponsored me for the application, and I worked with Lazlo to develop a project focused on worker misclassification.

More broadly, I became convinced that tax law, particularly as it relates to the challenges low-income individuals face, was the area in which I needed to practice. I saw how tax law was tied to so many other facets of life—employment, marriage, immigration, and child care, to name a few. Tax law had also become salient in our national public policy discourse as the 2017 tax legislation was enacted the same month that I became a fellowship finalist in December 2017. In light of the increasingly prevalent worker misclassification in the gig economy, I knew this was an issue I wanted to tackle.

ATT: Could you tell us about Philadelphia Legal Assistance and how you came to choose that organization?

OF: Put simply, I love working at PLA. Ever since the beginning of my internship there in June 2016, it has really been a wonderful work family. I wake up every day eager to go to work and to learn from my colleagues. It is a welcoming work environment. I came to choose PLA because I enjoyed the experience of my internship so much.

I had and have a great boss in Lazlo who truly understands how to be an encouraging boss. As a young lawyer, I especially appreciate his open-door policy. He causes me to think about cases in unique ways that I had not considered, and he also allows me to be bold and ambitious when I want to be in certain cases and arguments.

His supervision, the tenacity of this LITC and the successful results it has produced, and the need for strong public interest advocacy in Philadelphia all compelled me to practice here. In August 2017, PLA sponsored me for the Brunswick Fellowship, and they were so helpful to me throughout the application process. We did a mock interview at PLA, Lazlo worked with me on developing a robust project proposal, and they supported me every step of the way.

ATT: Please tell me about the work you do. What sort of projects are you working on?

OF: My fellowship project focuses on worker misclassification. I primarily assist low-income taxpayers in Philadelphia in challenging their misclassification before the IRS. I represent workers in filing Forms SS-8 to challenge their misclassification as independent contractors and in subsequently filing tax returns listing their 1099 income as “wages” so that they pay only their employee’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes. Pursuant to this project, we’ve also filed petitions in U.S. Tax Court for misclassified employees, conducted education and outreach aimed at workers’ rights’ organizations and VITA sites, and consulted with other LITC attorneys on best practices.

We also hope ultimately to file claims under section 7434 to argue that misclassification itself could constitute “fraudulent filing of an information return.” Though the work I do is mainly focused on misclassification, I have a full caseload that includes other cases that touch on a wide range of issues our LITC sees, including EITC audits and helping clients get into collection alternatives. 

ATT: What has been your biggest challenge so far?

OF: The most significant challenge so far has been dealing with the frequently occurring reality that a taxpayer who has successfully challenged an employment misclassification will still owe the employee’s share of uncollected FICA taxes. Many of our clients cannot afford to pay these taxes. If their employers had provided them with W-2s, those taxes would have been withheld from their paychecks, which would have been far easier for the workers.

At that point, we help clients get into collection alternatives. That sometimes seems unsatisfactory because if they were treated from the very beginning as employees for tax purposes, they wouldn’t need to worry about those tax debts for that year. Obviously, filing an SS-8 and listing the income as wages helps these taxpayers significantly reduce their liability. But part of this project now involves considering how we can address this issue more broadly and in more creative ways so that we can assist our clients even further.

ATT: What has been the most rewarding part of your Fellowship?

OF: The most rewarding part of my Fellowship has been the successful results we’ve obtained for taxpayers. I truly admire our clients as they seek out our resources, they advocate for themselves, and they make a good faith effort to address a complicated subject that scares so many Americans: taxes. 

When our clients get 1099s and realize they’re going to owe taxes, they know to come to us because they want to tackle it, they don’t want to run away from it, they want to try to figure out what happened and how they can resolve it. And when we are able to honor their commitment to fixing an issue like that, it brings joy to my heart. Our clients struggle to make ends meet, their expenses usually exceed their income, and they work hard to provide for their families. It means a lot that we play even a small role in helping them alleviate a burden. 

ATT: Do you have any immediate plans for your work after the Fellowship ends? How has the Fellowship impacted your career goals? Do you expect to stay with your sponsor organization after the Fellowship has ended?

OF: I hope to stay within public interest law in Philadelphia after my Fellowship ends. The Fellowship has only strengthened my desire to continue with this work. I’ve always wanted to do exactly what I’m doing right now, so I truly hope I can continue doing it. I really feel like I am in my dream job, in my dream city, and living my dream life. I am so fortunate to be a part of the well-knit Philadelphia public interest community. ■

Donations to the Tax Assistance Public Service (TAPS) endowment fund support the Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellowship program, which provides two-year fellowships for recent law school graduates working with nonprofit organizations providing tax-related legal assistance to underserved communities. Learn more at www.abatapsendowment.org.


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