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February 26, 2020 People in Tax

Interview with Evan Phoenix

By Tameka E. Lester, Georgia State University College of Law, Atlanta, GA

Editor’s Note: ABA Tax Times interviewer Tameka Lester (ATT) recently spoke with Evan Phoenix (EP), a 2019-2021 ABA Tax Section Christine Brunswick Fellow, about his work at Bet Tzedek Legal Services and his experiences as a Brunswick Fellow. Bet Tzedek is a non-profit based in California that is internationally recognized for its work on human and poverty rights issues.

ATT: Evan, can you tell us something about your background?

EP: I was born in Los Angeles, and I earned my Bachelor of Arts degree in Social and Behavioral Sciences from California State University, Monterrey Bay. While pursuing my undergraduate studies, I studied abroad for two years in Germany. I took a year off after undergrad before attending law school at St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami. I also am trilingual—speaking English, Spanish, and German fluently.

ATT: What piqued your interest about tax practice? What inspired you to apply for the Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellowship?

EP: Growing up in low-income areas in Los Angeles, I always knew I wanted to come back and help my community. Going into law school, I thought I wanted to be a civil/human rights attorney; however, my focus changed to corporate responsibility when I encountered a professor that specialized in that area. I became her research assistant, and she helped me see how I could do that type of work and still do good things for the community. While helping her prepare for various projects and speaking engagements, I noticed the impact her work had on working class individuals and families. As a third-year law student, I enrolled in an introductory tax course to improve my ability to recognize tax-related issues and know when I needed to solicit the assistance of a tax attorney. One introductory course quickly became a passionate interest as I learned what a powerful tool an in-depth technical understanding of tax law could be. I also saw how it could be a powerful tool for change and social justice work to help people from low-income communities.

After law school, I earned my Master of Laws (LLM) in Taxation at the University of Florida and learned more about the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC). Upon graduation, I clerked for Bet Tzedek Legal Services’ Tax Clinic. I enjoyed how the LITC work incorporates not only tax controversy but also education and outreach. The opportunity to serve as a Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellow seemed an ideal way to continue the work I was doing as a clerk, particularly when I learned how the fellowship aligned with my personal values.

ATT: Could you tell us about Bet Tzedek Legal Services, and how you came to choose that organization?

EP: Bet Tzedek—the name is Hebrew for “House of Justice”—provides legal assistance that impacts more than 41,000 people of every racial and religious background each year. Bet Tzedek’s 85-member staff, supported by more than 1,500 active volunteers nationally who effectively leverage our staff resources, assist those most in need with some of the most pressing legal issues faced by our community, including elder abuse, employment rights violations, landlord/tenant and housing matters, real estate fraud and foreclosure prevention, basic estate planning, Holocaust reparations, probate guardianship, low-income tax advocacy, small business development, transgender advocacy, and public benefits. In addition to direct legal representation in each of these areas, Bet Tzedek staff conducts expansive outreach and education programs, and undertakes impact litigation and policy advocacy on issues of significance to our clients. Essential to Bet Tzedek’s work is adherence to certain Jewish tenants—in particular, treating “strangers” with dignity, which comes from Exodus 22:20 “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Because of this, Bet Tzedek foregoes U.S. Legal Services Corporation funding, allowing the agency to serve the documented and undocumented community equally, regardless of race, religion or status. This commitment really resonated with me, and I wanted to be a part of their team. I started working at Bet Tzedek as a law clerk in April 2018. At the end of my clerkship, I wanted to continue my work with the organization, so I proposed the fellowship. Bet Tzedek enthusiastically agreed to hire me!

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

EP: I handle various tax controversy cases, including those involving collection alternatives and innocent spouse relief. For example, I have had two military personnel clients. One client, who was referred to me by a VA Stand Out event, said something that really struck a chord: he had reached out to other places for help, but they were unable to assist him because they did not work with military tax law issues. Based on Nina Olson’s previous Annual Reports to Congress, military personnel have been identified as a high needs population because of the unique tax law treatment and barriers they face. I’m sure his story of searching for help and not finding it is one that others share. I am working to address this by expanding Bet Tzedek’s Tax Clinic services to include military personnel and veterans, as well as those taxpayers who speak English as a second language. Bet Tzedek has demonstrated success in empowering vulnerable communities. Expanding its services to include these communities will also prove successful in addressing the inequities and disadvantages they face through outreach, advocacy, and representation. I have reached out to various organizations specializing in assisting military and ESL communities, including California State University Northridge’s VITA site. It was the first VITA site in the country, and now it has a separate grant to focus specifically on military personnel. My plan is to collaborate with four additional organizations that support military personnel and veterans, as well as five organizations that support the local ESL community.

The low-income communities in Los Angeles are in desperate need of socioeconomic empowerment via effective legal tax assistance to ensure taxpayers’ rights to be informed and to have counsel. The fiscal impact of my proposed expansion of Bet Tzedek’s Tax Clinic to offer free legal tax services, including educational outreach, is significant. According to a recent study, twenty percent of eligible Los Angeles County residents are not claiming federal and state Earned Income Tax Credits for which they are eligible. This translates into $566 million dollars not going back to our communities. The IRS has acknowledged that the financial education and asset building necessary for socioeconomic advancement starts by ensuring that low-income taxpayers receive all the benefits to which they are entitled. Taxes can serve as the starting point for a dream leading to stronger financial security.

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

EP: I enjoy helping taxpayers better understand the Internal Revenue Code, their rights and responsibilities, and how the Earned Income Tax Credit refunds can help them jump-start their lives. Education is a powerful tool, and I always knew it was going to be part of my path. I love how the LITC mission incorporates not only working on tax-related issues but also expanding education and outreach. In addition to my work in the clinic, I participate in the U.S. Tax Court Calendar Call Program, and I have participated in an IRS Settlement Day with five other clinics. Both of these programs provide qualifying taxpayers with free, independent, and confidential legal tax assistance to ensure a fair and equitable tax system. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the work IRS attorneys do, and Settlement Day offered a great opportunity to foster a cooperative approach to settling cases between IRS Counsel and taxpayers with the assistance of LITC practitioners.

I also enjoy working at Bet Tzedek. They have a collegial atmosphere and provide me with a great support system. I love my cross-collaborative work. As tax-related issues arise, I am able to provide technical consultations for other practice areas. For example, the Employment Rights Project team required a technical consultation on the tax implications of human trafficking benefits they secured for their clients. This gives me an opportunity to work on issues that would not normally arise in the LITC.

ATT: What advice would you give to others who are considering applying to the Fellowship program?

EP: Pick a project you are passionate about and be thorough in presenting it to the committee. It is important to research the community and the demographic you plan to serve to determine the need, anticipate any challenges, and devise plans for addressing them. I would also suggest you build a support system to make sure you are able to get through the fellowship successfully.

ATT: Do you have any immediate plans for your work after the Fellowship ends? How has the Fellowship impacted your career goals?

EP: I would like to continue working for Bet Tzedek. I believe in the organization’s mission, enjoy the work, and like being a part of this team. If not, I would like to continue serving low-income taxpayers at another LITC. ■