Bankruptcy attorney Rogalski wins Legal Aid Barnes Pro Bono Award



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

“Early on, when I was first thinking about getting involved with donating my time, someone told me, you will never regret taking a pro bono case. You’ll learn from it. You can concentrate on the case much more than you would otherwise because you don’t have to worry about the hours increasing the costs for your client. The time is yours to give freely,” said Martin Rogalski recently.

Rogalski is the 2018 winner of the Michael S. Barnes Award from Legal Aid of Western Michigan (LAWM). The award is an annual recognition of those who are willing to “give freely” to help ensure that equal justice for all does not remain “an unfulfilled promise,” as attorney and master of ceremonies Paul Jensen put it.

A crowd of approximately 100 gathered at City Flats Hotel on Oct. 25 to honor Rogalski, who is in solo practice. Jensen began by introducing previous award winners in attendance. He noted that of the many winners, four have gone on to win the State Bar’s John W. Cummiskey Pro Bono Award, and three were present: Elizabeth Joy Fossel, Thomas Clinton, and Judge Daniel Zemaitis. Corporate attorney Michael S. Callahan was the fourth; in addition, the very first winner of the statewide Cummiskey Award, in 1983, was the Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge attorney in whose name the LAWM award is given, Michael S. Barnes.

Smith Haughey continues to be a sponsor of the Barnes Award recognition event.

Because Rogalski is primarily known as a bankruptcy lawyer, it was U.S. Bankruptcy Court Chief Judge Scott W. Dales who said a few words about Rogalski at the award presentation. Occasionally teasing Rogalski about his meticulous pronunciation, Judge Dales said that he has come more and more to appreciate both the need for pro bono representation within the justice system and people like Rogalski who fill the need.

“The Supreme Court said recently, ‘...we rely on the parties to frame the issues for decision,’ but that doesn’t work when parties are not represented. This is where the people in this room come in. What is the solution? Marty’s solution is to take more pro bono cases than anyone else,” Judge Dales said.

Most of the cases Rogalski has donated his time for are bankruptcy cases, but Rogalski also does probate and estate planning, establishment of corporations and LLCs, and real estate transactions.

However, he is best known for “practicing with compassion” (according to Judge Dales speaking in the brief video shown at the award ceremony) in the area of bankruptcy.

And Rogalski is one of a small number of local Board Certified Specialists in Consumer Bankruptcy Law, designated by the American Board of Certification. “You have to be in practice a minimum of five years, and you have to go ahead and get multiple recommendations from others who practice in the local area. And then you have to take a very lengthy test that lasts basically the whole day,” Rogalski says.

He has also spoken widely on panels and seminars, helped out with continuing legal education classes, and presented for bankruptcy classes at WMU-Cooley Law School. “The person at Cooley who asked for my assistance was an excellent bankruptcy lawyer, but he hadn’t filed many Chapter 13 bankruptcies, which is a lot of what I do,” he explains.

The Grand Rapids native attended Aquinas College and the Detroit College of Law (now Michigan State University College of Law). He not only got his undergraduate degree at Aquinas, he says, but also his wife. The two had four children and so far have five grandchildren, ranging in age from five months to nine years.

Rogalski was thrown into bankruptcy very early in his career. At the first firm he joined, Hess and Loeks, the attorney he was working with left for a corporate counsel position, “He wrote 72 memos on 72 files, and I worked on 54 of them, all bankruptcy cases. It was a baptism by fire, but I found out I was good at it,” says Rogalski. “I like the way that it challenges your mind and that you’re applying it to help a human being.”

He stayed with Hess and Loeks one year, followed by an additional year at the Jenison firm of Black and Hall, but then branched out on his own. Martin L. Rogalski P.C. has now been in business for 37 years.

Rogalski notes that LAWM tries to fit the case to the attorney, so most of his pro bono work has been in bankruptcy as well. He adds that Legal Aid is careful not to pressure their pro bono attorneys, and always offers the choice to limit their involvement.

Many cases have been rewarding for Rogalski, but he says one particular case stands out for him so far. A single mother was facing penalties stemming from charges that she had committed fraud in obtaining unemployment insurance — “It’s all a computer determining this,” Rogalski comments – but the approximately $240,000 she was said to owe had been forgiven due to hardship. But then the Unemployment Insurance Agency appealed the forgiveness; Rogalski says that had he not sat down with the woman and spoken to her at length, he would not have known any of that. He was able to turn back the appeal, and continued representing her until her bankruptcy was filed and she was free of the debt to the state.

Rogalski also has given time to the community over the years, including as a board member of the Polish Falcons Aid Society of Grand Rapids, St. Pius X Finance Council, and the Jenison Public Education Foundation. He has been very active in the Kenowa Chapter of AMBUCS, a business club which serves people with disabilities. He is a past president, has won national awards, has served as a district governor, and continues to be on the local chapter board.