Robert Burke was 26 and one of the youngest chief engineers in the U.S. Merchant Marines. Everything was going his way – first person in his family to go to college, great new job in Houston, happily married and a new son.
But in a matter of months, it was gone. His son was diagnosed with autism. He divorced. He drank and did drugs. Depression took over. The Internal Revenue Service took his savings and his home and claimed he owed the government another $100,000 – money he didn’t have. For years, he lived in his pickup truck and snuck into the YMCA to shower.
“I was devastated,” Burke told The Texas Lawbook in an interview Monday. “I completely shut down and ignored the IRS. It was like the craps table. The IRS came and cleaned the board. I tried to do it on my own without a lawyer, but it was futile. I was rock bottom.”
Then one day in 2016, he heard a radio ad about the Houston Volunteer Lawyers group – a pro bono operation of the Houston Bar Association that helped low-income people in need of legal services.
Locke Lord associate Emma Doineau, who practices civil litigation in Houston, took on Burke’s case. Doineau worked for free on the case for more 200 hours over three years, during which she discovered that the IRS actually owed Burke money. She battled the IRS bureaucracy and eventually filed a federal lawsuit in Houston in July 2018.
Five months ago, the IRS sent Burke a check for $236,527 and dismissed the agency’s $100,000 claim against him.
“When I first met Emma – all 100 pounds of her – she told me, ‘we will figure it out together,’ and that we were going to take on the IRS,” Burke said Monday at an HVL meeting that honored Doineau with an Outstanding Pro Bono Achievement Award and officially kicked off National Pro Bono Week. “Emma’s tenacity speaks for itself.
“If it wasn’t for you,” Burke told Doineau, “I don’t know where I would be today. Probably still living in my truck.”
Doineau was quick to point out that Chamberlain Hrdlicka shareholder Peter Lowy did a significant amount of the work on the tax issues for free.
Houston-based CenterPoint Energy General Counsel Jason Ryan and Deputy GC Monica Karuturi hosted Monday’s event.
“We as lawyers don’t only have jobs, we are part of a profession and with that comes obligations,” Ryan said. “We need to provide access to justice to those who cannot afford it. Part of making a thriving community is making sure that everyone has access to justice.”
During the past year, the HVL has hosted 349 legal clinics, which helped more than 6,000 individuals with advice and counseling.
The HVL reports that the volunteer lawyers donated more than 13,000 hours of free legal services valued at $3.4 million.
Other award recipients included:
- Cassandra McGarvey, a named partner at Sanders McGarvey, who helped an 83-year-old Houston woman who inherited a home from her father, which he purchased in 1929. The deed, however, had never been transferred to her father’s name. The woman paid property taxes for decades. McGarvey took on the case pro bono. She spent three years tracking down heirs in multiple states and overcoming several other obstacles. But several months ago, McGarvey was successful in having her client named as the property owner.
- Jared Grodin, a transactional lawyer with Hunton Andrews Kurth, has handled 15 pro bono cases in April 2016 – 11 of them have been guardianship matters. He has donated more than 308 pro bono hours to his clients. “It is really special work for the people we are helping,” Grodin said. “These clients are afraid that they are going to lose their children. This is life-impacting work.”
- HVL also honored its partnership with the City of Houston Department of Neighborhoods and Neighborhood Recovery Community Development Corporation. The NRCDC provides estate planning documents through its clinic on wills. It also informs the community on the importance of estate planning for property preservation through a robust educational workshop series. Since the establishment of the partnership in Spring 2018, HVL has provided estate planning documents for 432 low-income individuals.
The message from CenterPoint GC Ryan and the HVL was clear: The Houston Volunteer Lawyers program needs more attorneys to step forward. The demand is simply too high. At a time when lawyers and law firms in Texas – especially those in the corporate legal world – are making record profits, it is time to give with something only they can provide: legal advice.
To make a difference, please contact the HVL at 713.255.1829 or visit www.makejusticehappen.org.