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February 21, 2019 Pro Bono Matters

Recipient of the 2019 Janet Spragens Pro Bono Award: Nina E. Olson

By C. Wells Hall, III, Nelson Mullins, Charlotte, NC

At the Midyear Tax Meeting of the Section of Taxation of the American Bar Association, held in New Orleans on January 18-19, 2019, the Section recognized Nina E. Olson as the winner of the 2019 Janet Spragens Pro Bono Award.

This award was established in 2002 to recognize one or more individuals or law firms for outstanding and sustained achievements in pro bono activities in tax law. In 2007, the award was renamed in honor of Janet Spragens, who received the award in 2006, in recognition of her dedication to the development of low-income taxpayer clinics throughout the United States.

Nina (as she is known to all) currently leads the Taxpayer Advocate Service. She is a tireless advocate for taxpayers in general and low-income taxpayers in particular. Her efforts led to major tax reforms that continue to positively affect low-income taxpayers throughout the country.

2018 marked the 20th anniversary of the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 (the “RRA 98”). The RRA 98 established new rights for taxpayers and began an institutional shift in the manner in which the IRS interacts with taxpayers. No one has been more instrumental in realizing the potential of RRA 98 than Nina Olson.

Prior to her appointment as the National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina founded and served as Executive Director of The Community Tax Law Project, the first independent 501(c)(3) low-income taxpayer clinic (LITC) in the United States. While in that role, Nina, along with Janet Spragens, conceived of and ensured the passage of Section 7526 of the Internal Revenue Code, which establishes matching grants for low-income taxpayer clinics. Nina and Janet Spragens discussed their initial thinking about the role of tax clinics in the welfare-to-work era in a September 2000 Tax Notes article which motivated the first round of applicants from legal services programs to include federal income tax controversy in the legal services practice. There are currently 135 clinics providing direct representation of low-income taxpayers in tax disputes and engaging in systemic advocacy. Clinics are also the vehicle for scores of tax lawyers in private practice to provide pro bono representation for needy taxpayers. Tax clinics have fundamentally transformed the world of pro bono representation in tax cases, and Nina Olson is a key player in that, not only through the enactment of Section 7526 of the Code, but also through her oversight of the LITC program.

In addition, Nina has included LITCs in the top levels of advocacy within the IRS. She has scheduled meetings with Commissioners, trainings in the operating divisions, and encouraged LITC participation in the regulatory comment process. Nina was instrumental in the change within the IRS to provide relief to individuals impacted by the Lantz decision (dealing with the time limitation for equitable Innocent Spouse relief). In recent years, Nina has hosted a series of public forums in cities throughout the United States to solicit feedback from taxpayers and tax professionals on taxpayer interactions with the IRS and initiatives proposed by the IRS. She has also convened several international taxpayer rights conferences to explore taxpayer rights around the world. Her vision and tireless advocacy has led to the passage of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and numerous other provisions guaranteeing the right of taxpayers to due process and fundamental fairness. Under Nina’s leadership, the Taxpayer Advocate Service, its Local Taxpayer Advocates and case advocates have become a significant force in ensuring that these rights are protected. Nina is a member of the American College of Tax Counsel and delivered the group’s prestigious Griswold Lecture in January 2010. She is very active in the ABA Section of Taxation, particularly the in Pro Bono & Tax Clinics Committee. Nina has served as the chair of the Low Income Taxpayers Committee as well as the Pro Se/Pro Bono Task Force of the Section’s Court Procedure Committee. She is the 1999 recipient of both the Virginia Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico Award and the City of Richmond Bar Association’s Pro Bono Award. The non-profit Tax Foundation selected her to receive its Public Sector Distinguished Service Award in 2007. Money magazine named her one of 12 “Class Acts of 2004,” and Accounting Today magazine has named her one of its Top 100 Most Influential People in the accounting profession each year since 2004. In 2016, Tax Analysts honored Nina as one of ten outstanding women in tax. In addition, Nina regularly participates in committee meetings at the ABA Tax Section meetings, providing valuable insights and information to those representing taxpayers.

Nina’s acceptance remarks may be viewed here.