Baltimore to Remove Owner-occupied Homes from Annual Tax Sale

On May 3, 2021, Mayor Scott announced that many owner occupants on this year’s tax sale list will be removed from tax sale. This news was a huge relief to MVLS clients, who faced losing their homes during the pandemic. We applaud this announcement from the Scott administration and remain dedicated to continue to working with them on long term systemic reform to tax sale.Baltimore Row Homes

MVLS has been part of a coalition of organizations advocating for reforms to Baltimore’s tax sale system and the terrible impact tax sale has on homeowners of limited means for many years. MVLS and other advocates shared a Tax Sale White Paper with the Mayor’s Office, Finance Department and other City officials. The White Paper recommends a new tax sale system with enhanced protections for vulnerable homeowners.

Through our advocacy, the Stop Oppressive Seizures Fund was created. A program created by Nneka N’namdi of Fight Blight Bmore and John Kern, MVLS’ Advanced Planning Project Coordinator, that distributes money to homeowners at risk of losing their properties through tax sale.

The Baltimore City Bureau of Revenue Collections will provide help to homeowners who have liens on their homes. For assistance, call (410) 396-3556.

Save The Date – Celebrate Pro Bono 2021

Celebrate Pro Bono 2021 Logo
 
Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) invites you to save the date for our 2021 Celebrate Pro Bono Awards Ceremony at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture on Wednesday, October 13, 2021 from 6-8:30 pm.
 
Join us for an evening of networking and celebration as we honor exceptional volunteers, community partners, and people like you whose commitment to pro bono during the past year has inspired us and changed the lives of Marylanders in need.
 
Attendance at this year’s event will be limited to allow for safe socializing. Registration will be required. 
 
Click here to subscribe to event updates and receive your personal invitation to register as we get closer to the event date.

Annual Pro Bono and IOLTA reports are due September 10, 2021

Greetings Attorneys,
 
You may have seen that the Attorney Information System (AIS) is now open for you to file your annual pro bono and IOLTA reports online between now and September 10. We invite you to be in touch with Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service directly if you would like our help tallying your pro bono hours with us between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021.
 
 
After filing your reports, you will have the opportunity to make a donation to one of the great legal service providers in our state. Please consider making your gift this year to MVLS. Your donation of an amount equal to at least one hour of your billable time will help us continue to stand out in the field by providing full legal representation to Marylanders who are fighting for their housing, their family, or their livelihood.  
 
Thank you to the more than 240 of you who have already chosen to support MVLS clients during the past year. If you have already completed your report and did not donate, it’s not too late. 
 
 
Thank you for all the ways that you support Marylanders seeking justice. 
 
Sincerely, 
 
Katie Sutton  
Director of Development  
 

Pro Bono Call to Action Issued to Maryland’s Legal Community

The Maryland Attorney General, Maryland Judiciary, Maryland State Bar Association – MSBA, and Maryland Access to Justice Commission Issue Pro Bono Call to Action to Maryland’s legal community.
 
“As COVID becomes less of a health risk, the risk of financial devastation looms large for many families who have suffered job loss, other revenue loss, and increased expenses due to the pandemic. Without pro bono assistance, far too many of these families are at risk of housing and economic destabilization. The Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, and other legal services programs, stand ready to help our neighbors get back on their feet. We hope Maryland attorneys will join us” said Susan Francis, executive director, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.
 
 
 
Watch the Press Conference: 

Updates from MVLS’ Executive Director

Happy Summer?   
 
Like many, we at MVLS are trying to adjust yet again to the complexities of figuring out how to move safely into this next phase of the pandemic. We are filled with a bit of optimism and much hesitancy.  While MVLS staff have been hard at work all along, we began returning more consistently to our physical office earlier this month and plan to be fully back in September. Being in space with our committed colleagues inspires all of us to continue the work of reducing justice barriers for our clients. 
 
At the same time, many of us have some anxiety about what lies ahead; a bit for ourselves as we re-acclimate to being in shared space again, but mostly for our clients who we know are truly struggling with the long-term consequences of COVID. The moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures are set to end on July 31. After a devastating year of job loss, medical hardships, and tremendous instability, we know that many Marylanders are in very precarious financial condition. We also recognize the role that structural racism plays, in that Black families are likely to have smaller amounts of emergency funds than White families, are more likely to be struggling with the cost of basic necessities like food, and are most likely to be behind on rent and mortgage payments.
 
We expect to see a significant increase in requests for help as collections, evictions and foreclosure cases begin to be filed and processed through the courts. We’ve already seen more demand for family law assistance, and anticipate experiencing higher request across all legal areas.  In response, MVLS resumed our in-person outreach events in June. While we are so thankful to be out in our communities again, we recognize that the more individuals in need of help find out about MVLS, the more demand will increase. If you are an attorney, CPA or enrolled agent, now is the time, we need your help. While many of us are in the process of reacclimating ourselves to a safer COVID environment, our clients have not been able to choose their interactions based on their comfort level. They are mostly working in the public facing jobs that have kept us all moving forward in the past year and half. And they don’t get the choice about whether to enter a courthouse when they are being sued by a creditor. As we all come back to more normal work life again, please consider helping one of our clients who haven’t had that benefit during COVID, and desperately need help.
 
Attorneys – there’s an additional way to help. You should be receiving your notice from AIS to complete your annual reporting requirements for the client protection fund, pro bono activity and IOLTA accounts in the next few days. At the end of the pro bono activity form, there is an opportunity to donate to a legal services program. Please consider making a gift to MVLS. Our work is important and life-changing for our clients. And the demand for help over the next year will be unprecedented. 
 
Your support of MVLS makes a difference. One recent example of the tremendous impact we’re having improving housing stabilization was the Baltimore City Mayor removing owner occupied homes from tax sale in May, only after a significant advocacy effort led by numerous MVLS staff members.  As we were able to highlight, tax sale has a significant disproportionate impact on Black legacy homeowners. Here’s a recent published column by my colleague, Margaret Henn, in the Baltimore Sun.
 
Finally, I’m thrilled to announce that we are planning an in-person (though COVID modified) Celebrate Pro Bono event in early October. I couldn’t be happier to have our first major event be this one. There’s nothing more important to MVLS than our volunteers, and we’re thrilled to be able to honor all of you in person this year. Please keep an eye out for your save the date!  
 
The road ahead is daunting and still quite unclear. But with 40 years under our belt, and with your tremendous support, I know that we will continue to have significant impact in ensuring justice for all. 
 
Sincerely,
 
 

Access to Justice – A Legal Tip Column for Marylanders: I haven’t filed my taxes in several years, what should I do now?

Check out the June entry of our tip column with The Baltimore Times, Access to Justice – A Legal Tip Column for Marylanders:

 

Believe it or not, this is a common problem. If it has happened to you, you should not panic, but rather, reach out for help. Here is a general guideline as to what you should do.

If you have not filed your taxes in several years, you should consider (1) whether you are required to file, and (2) if you are required, why you did not file. The first step is determining whether you are required to file. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) classifies individuals into two groups: (1) those who must file and (2) those who should file. Those who are required to file meet a specific income and age requirement based on their filing status. For example, you are required to file a 2020 return if you are “single,” earned at least $12,400, and are under the age of 65. It is a crime not to file a required tax return and you can be fined or prosecuted for failing to file.

You may not be required by law to file if you fall under this income threshold. However, even if you are not required to file, there may be some benefits. For example, you may fall in this category if you do not meet the income requirement but have had taxes withdrawn from your paycheck. Filing a return will allow you to receive those withheld taxes as a refund. Additional examples include if you qualify for healthcare, education, and child tax credits, or if you’ve received a 1099-B tax form.

By filing, you may also become eligible for certain tax credits, such as the Economic Income Payment (“EIP”), commonly referred to as the federal stimulus payment. If you have not filed your tax return in several years and did not receive your EIP, you should file a 2020 tax return to request a “Recovery Rebate Credit” on your tax form. Seek aid from a reputable tax preparer in order to complete your return accurately. If you are required to file, the next step is determining why you did not file. You may have avoided filing taxes altogether because the process is intimidating and cumbersome.

Perhaps you fear that you will be unable to afford tax payments to the IRS, so you further delay filing in hopes the IRS does not become aware that you owe. If you believe that you owe taxes to the IRS from previous years that you had not filed, and are worried you are unable to pay, you should still file and seek assistance after filing.

While waiting to file until you can afford to pay seems logical, it is not the best approach to take. Waiting to pay a tax balance leads to penalties and interest on this balance, leading to an even higher amount due. Even if you can’t afford the amount due when you file, you can seek assistance from a Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC) to help you determine a solution.

Sometimes you can negotiate a lower payment, or an installment plan to deal with the balance due. The most important thing is to not ignore it. It is always best to file even if you cannot afford to pay.

 

Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) has a Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic that can address tax issues.

MVLS can be reached at 410-547-6537 Monday to Thursday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and at www.mvlslaw.org.

Janice Shih is the director of the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic at Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) and Kelsey Creed is a legal intern at MVLS.

July 2021 Volunteer of the Month – Kathleen Adcock

 
 
Kathleen Adcock has taken 56 cases in her time with us since 2012. Her practice focuses on estate planning, tax, elder law, probate/trust, and nonprofit legal assistance.
 

Read on to learn why Kathleen volunteers:

 

  • Why do you choose to volunteer with MVLS?

It’s pretty simple – because I can. There are people who need help, I can spare the time, and MVLS makes it super simple with screening. The staff is great to work with and the portal makes it easy to get things done.

 

  • Do you have any standout stories?

Sorry no.  Just the usual thing – a will, a power of attorney and an advance care directive. I have a few tax cases I take as well.

 

  • What is your favorite part about volunteering with MVLS?

The clients – they do appreciate what I have to contribute to their situation. It is such a relief for many not to worry about what will happen after they pass away. For many people, unintended tax reporting errors can lead to nightmares they don’t know how to solve and can mean the difference between food and shelter and no food and no shelter.

 

  • Why should other attorneys do pro bono?

Attorneys are generally problem solvers or advocates. Pro bono work often gives attorneys the freedom to work on something without worrying about the bottom line for the case. Sometimes it’s a matter of expanding into a new area of law to try something different. Other times it’s just to get pro bono reporting hours in during the year. It may be for the personal satisfaction. Just give it a try, you’re really making a difference for someone.

 

  • Where do you see the impact civil legal services in the next ten years?

If the wealth gap continues to widen, and law becomes more and more complex (did anyone figure out the TCJA kiddie tax computation?), simple legal services are going to continue moving out of reach of much of the population. Simple things like passing a house along to children, managing finances for elderly parents, and correcting an earned income tax credit will no longer be possible for a wide swath of the population.

June 2021 Volunteer of the Month – Jennifer Jaimes

 
 
Jennifer Jaimes has been a reliable volunteer during the pandemic and has helped with many of our Special Immigrant Juvenile Status(SIJS)-related child custody cases. She also helps many of our Spanish-speaking clients.  Jennifer was an integral part of developing the partnership with KIND for unaccompanied youth cases.
 

Read on to learn why Jennifer volunteers:

 

  • Why do you choose to volunteer with MVLS?

I choose to volunteer with MVLS because the cases I get from MVLS are very rewarding.  Thanks to the many different cases I have taken, I have learned a lot. 

 

  • Do you have any standout stories?

Yes, I represented a mother obtain custody of a girl who was top in her class. 

 

  • What is your favorite part about volunteering with MVLS?

Serving individuals who are very grateful for your service. 

 

  • Why should other attorneys do pro bono?

It is a great way to learn a different area of law in a supported way.  There are a lot of resources available through MVLS.

 

  • Where do you see the impact civil legal services in the next ten years?

I hope that children get representation in all matters, including immigration law matters.

May 2021 Volunteer of the Month – Stephanie Guevara

 
 
Stephanie Guevara began volunteering with MVLS in 2019 and handles Landlord Tenant, Labor and Employment, Consumer Protection, Family Law and Immigration issues. She has taken several cases that were reassignments from previous volunteers, where she turned things around and got a successful outcome for a client with a tough case!
 

Read on to learn why Stephanie volunteers:

 

  • Why do you choose to volunteer with MVLS?

Because I absolutely love to put my skill to work for clients who otherwise will have to go unrepresented due to lack of funds to pay market price for an attorney.

 

  • Do you have any standout stories?

My first client from MVLS, who was blind, had been trying to divorce her estranged husband for 20 years.  She tried to get a divorce through another attorney but they backed out when the estranged husband was avoiding service.  After using a private process server who reduces rates for MVLS clients, we were able to get the affidavit of evasion necessary to support a grant of a motion for alternative service.  She was extremely happy for how easy it was for us after that!  She wanted to invite me to a “divorce party” she was going to throw but the divorce was granted during the COVID quarantine.

 

  • What is your favorite part about volunteering with MVLS?

The clients are genuinely grateful and happy to achieve their legal goals.  I love sharing the moments of success and joy with them.

 

  • Why should other attorneys do pro bono?

It builds stronger people and therefore a stronger society.  I feel all of us sometimes take for granted how blessed we are to be able to have the capacity to finish college, finish law school, pass the bar, pass the character fitness exam, and go into practice.  We forget about the people who are completely unable to manage their own legal affairs due to lack of knowledge and skill. 

So why should attorneys not do pro bono and watch as clients who lose inheritance, lose shady debt collection cases, can’t divorce their spouse and die, leaving their things to people they do not love, have no will, lose their home in foreclosure, can’t get their security deposit back, or get evicted from their home?  Especially if we could have done something but didn’t?  We can’t be that cold as human beings with special  skills.

 

  • Where do you see the impact civil legal services in the next ten years?

Mortgage interest rates are incredibly low, which is driving today’s housing prices higher.  When the market corrects itself, many people will find themselves underwater.  Foreclosures could go up as a result.  Also, the evictions will be starting up someday soon and this will cause a mass of people to lose their rental homes due to high arrearages built up over the pandemic.  As children return to school, the schools will have to honor IEPs completely, so education cases will likely be on the rise. 

Updates from MVLS’ Executive Director, Susan Francis

Greetings,
 
On March 24, 1981, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service was officially created to give voice to the voiceless in the judicial system.  And here we are, 40 years later, focused on achieving our founders’ vision of providing access to justice for all, not just for those that can afford it.  In our first 40 years, MVLS and our volunteers have ensured that over 100,000 Marylanders didn’t have to face a complicated legal system on their own. It is humbling to participate in this audacious vision.
 
As part of our 40th anniversary, we created a timeline to highlight major moments in MVLS history. You can see it here. It gives you a sense of the growth and evolution of MVLS over the years.
 
In addition to our core pro bono program, currently MVLS has 16 dedicated programs that address pressing needs of vulnerable Marylanders including keeping older adults in their homes, helping survivors of human trafficking, closing the wealth gap in Black neighborhoods, and reducing employment barriers for workforce trainees. 
 
Here are a few highlights: 
 
In 1994, we created our first dedicated project, the Adult Protective Guardianship Review Board (APGRB) Project, to ensure that the rights of individuals with disabilities in guardianship proceedings were protected. It continues to this day.   
 
In 2000, we added our Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC). In an area that’s easily overlooked, we provide essential help to individuals facing tax controversy issues with the IRS or Maryland Comptroller and most recently have led the effort to ensure that those who most needed the Economic Impact Payments and the Maryland Relief Act credits could navigate various barriers in order to receive their funds. 
 
Following the housing crisis in 2008, MVLS launched our Foreclosure Prevention Project. I joined MVLS in 2013 to serve as the first staff attorney on this project. The Foreclosure Prevention Project showed us that with a targeted staff attorney, we can provide support for our volunteers, particularly in evolving areas of the law, focus on collaborating and partnering with other programs and community partners, and highlight and work towards changing problematic barriers in the law. This model has instructed every new project we have launched since then because it enables us to have tremendous impact both with individual representation of clients as well as with securing systemic changes to the issues we work on.
 
Within the last decade, MVLS grew exponentially. When I joined MVLS we had 12 staff members, now, we are a staff of 28. I believe our focus on addressing issues of income and racial inequities within our legal system, as well as being laser focused on what type of legal challenges we can address as a pro bono program, is what has driven much of this growth. When the expungement law changed in 2015, it provided the opportunity to remove many more non-guilty convictions from an individual’s record.
 
At that point, we didn’t have dedicated staff to expand this work, but we had a deep conviction that we needed to remove employment and housing barriers, particularly for Black neighborhoods that have been historically over-policed and over-incarcerated. In that year, we went from helping seven expungement clients to over 700. This work led to the creation of our Workforce Development Project and a fundamental shift in how we engage with community partners. We now invest significant time and resources working with our community partners throughout the state and making sure our staff are regularly engaged in the communities we serve. 
 
 
In 2018, we launched our My Home, My Deed, My Legacy campaign, targeting Black legacy homeowners in Baltimore City, who are all too frequently at risk of losing their homes to tax sale, foreclosure or disrepair.  Housing stabilization has become a core tenet of our work at MVLS. First with foreclosure prevention, and then addressing tax sale, and then providing estate planning outreach through our Advance Planning project. We came to realize that MVLS had a critical role to play in reducing wealth extraction in communities of color. The My Home, My Deed, My Legacy campaign builds upon all of these existing programs to ensure that homeowners can preserve their homes for themselves and future generations. 
 
Throughout our first 40 years, what has made the depth of our services possible are our volunteers. Despite our doubling in size, our 13 staff attorneys couldn’t possibly be subject matter experts in all the civil legal areas that MVLS provides assistance in, and they couldn’t have helped 4,459 clients last year without our volunteers. The impact of MVLS directly relates to the commitment of our volunteers.  With COVID-19, our clients face unparalleled challenges. The needs of Marylanders as moratoriums lift and courts reopen will be staggering. We will look to our volunteers to help us meet the tremendous need. 
 
I don’t think any of our founders could have guessed all that MVLS has become. We commit to them and to ourselves to continue each day to pursue justice for all, not just for those who can afford it. 
 
 
 
Sincerely,
 
Susan Francis
Executive Director