State Bar Taxation Section honors Roberts for contributions including role in legislation

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Varnum taxation attorney Wayne Roberts

legal news photo  by cynthia price

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Wayne Roberts speaks quietly and precisely about taxation law and continues explaining until the listener understands.

This generosity, stemming from his own in-depth understanding of the ins-and-outs of tax law, extends even to those already familiar with the law, which is one of the reasons the Varnum attorney recently received the L. Hart Wright Chair’s Service Award from the State Bar of Michigan (SBM) Taxation Section.

“He assists many people behind the scenes -- the leadership of the Taxation Section, MICPA [the Michigan Association of Certified Public Accountants], and the Michigan Women's Tax Association,” says Marjorie Gell, the immediate past chair of the section.

And her opinion certainly counts, since it is the outgoing chair who is re-sponsible for giving the newly created award, which is given to recognize service and contributions to the Taxation Section, the Section Chair, and the legal and tax community.

Gell, a Professor at Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School, teaches taxation law at both the J.D. and L.L.M. levels. Her own involvement with the SBM Taxation Section, which has over 1200 members from all segments of tax practice including government, dates from 2005.

She explains that Prof. L. Hart Wright was a highly-respected tax law professor at the University of Michigan Law School, who chaired the SBM Taxation Section from 1966-1967. He was also very much involved with federal tax legislation in the 1960s.

That resonates well with Roberts’ own long-term work on legislation in Michigan — another reason for his receiving the award.

As Roberts explains it, he has been working towards passage of legislation which would allow an Offer-in-Compromise program since he was at Raymond and Prokop, a Detroit law firm which closed its doors in 2006.

“When I went up to talk with some of the legislators in 2014, I found the original memo from the first work we did, and it was from 2004. I realized this had been a 10-year process.,” he says.

That work was rewarded when legislation Roberts wrote became House Bill 4003, introduced by Rep. John J. Walsh, who was instrumental in the passage of so much legislation that had to do with the legal system, and who was named Governor Rick Snyder’s Director of Strategy after his time in the House., which states, “Beginning January 1, 2015, the state treasurer, or an authorized representative of the state treasurer, may compromise all or any part of any payment of a tax subject to administration under this act including any related penalties and interest...”

“Offer-in-compromise brought together a unique group of proponents,” Roberts said. “In addition to the Taxation Section’s position statement — the Section can’t lobby so attorneys act as individuals, which I’ve always done — we had the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, so we had the businesses. What really made it unique is that the low-income taxpayer clinics from the law schools joined us. We were  all aligned and supporting the same thing.”

“Unlike Tax Amnesty, an Offer in Compromise is for those who truly cannot pay due to circumstances like bankruptcy, medical expenses or loss of job,” said a?Michigan Chamber of Commerce white paper.

Says Roberts, “Offer-in-compromise has three elements: doubt as to collectability; doubt as to liability – under the law the person probably does not owe the tax but for some procedural reason, such as time limitations, they’re on the books as owing it. I remember when I was talking with the legislators, that caught their attention.

“And finally, if there’s already a federal Offer-in-Compromise. The feds have already analyzed it and determined that’s appropriate, so the state doesn’t have to do a significant amount of work.”

“"The Taxation Section is proud to have been involved in the adoption of this legislation which represents sound tax policy and replaces Michigan's prior policy, under which no compromise of a tax liability was ever allowed, regardless of the circumstances,” Gell said in a statement.

Another important piece of legislation set in place through Roberts’ hard work was the elimination of what is often called “pay to play” in disputes coming before the Michigan Court of Claims.

In a Grand Rapids Legal News article July 13, 2011 Roberts set out the problem. The article reads: “In order to appear before the Michigan Tax Tribunal, a quasi-judicial agency, a client disputing a tax need not pay it until a determination is made, but in order to dispute it before the Michigan Court of Claims, tax, penalty, and interest must be paid first... The State Bar of Michigan Taxation Section Council has adopted a formal position recognizing that and asking that it be remedied.”

That too came to fruition with Senate Bill 100, which became PA 79 of 2015. Among other things, the bill eliminated the line “In an appeal to the court of claims, the appellant shall first pay the tax, including any applicable penalties and interest, under protest and claim a refund as part of the appeal” in PA 122 of 1941, which governs the Revenue Division of the Department of Treasury.

“To go before the court of claims, you had to pay your whole tax liability, and it could be years before it was finally resolved. The Tax Section saw it as a question of equal access to the courts, and the group working on it asked legislators, what valid reason is there to have that distinction?” Roberts said.

Roberts does all this in addition to a very active practice in all aspects of tax planning and tax litigation. His clients include closely-held and Fortune 100 companies, and he represents them in disputes with the IRS as well as treasury departments across the country.

The native of Constantine, Mich., received his BBA in Accounting from Western Michigan University and graduated with distinction from Grand Valley State University with an MS in Taxation before getting his J.D. from Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, again with honors.

He is still a registered CPA in Michigan, Illinois and Ohio.

His law career started out with a large law firm in Cleveland followed by the above-mentioned Raymond and Prokop in Detroit. He then spent several years at Dykema Gossett, where he co-led the Tax Practice Group.

While he was very happy there, he comments about Varnum, “It’s nice to be at a significant law firm that’s headquartered here in West Michigan.”

Named the Best Lawyers 2014 Lawyer of the Year for Tax for Grand Rapids, Roberts serves on the Tax Committees of both the Grand Rapids and Michigan Chambers of Commerce.

In addition to  work on several committees of the American Bar Association Taxation Section and serving on the Executive Committee of the National Association of State Bar Tax Sections, Roberts chaired the SBM Taxation Section in 2012-2013.

“There’s a past chairs committee, and I’m the chair of that,” he says. Indeed, his service there was a factor in his winning the L. Hart Wright Award.

“We recognize that your past efforts on Council have led to the furtherance of one of the Section's core missions, which is to achieve an ‘equitable, efficient, and workable tax system’,” Marjorie Gell said in presenting the award.

Gell, who is herself a widely-published expert on Michigan tax law, added recently, “Wayne is an amazing human being; he does so much that he is never recognized for. He has the respect of the Michigan tax world — legislators, tax lawyers, accountants.”

Roberts says the Taxation Section “sat back this past September at a meeting and looked at everything that’s been accomplished, and thought, this is really a significant 18-month period for Michigan.” He adds, “I think Michigan is really placed in a great posture as far as tax structural changes and the right elements are in place.”

He adds that there is still more work to be undertaken after assessment, but he is not sure what direction it will take. “I’m kind of a has-been in the management of the Tax Section,” he says. “The section has high-quality, very competent and hard-working leadership, so we’ll see what they come up with. But it appears the situation in Michigan
is much better today than it was yesterday.”