I waited six months to hear back from the Board of Equalization. Six month. When it finally arrived in a thick packet, along with their willingness to hear my case (yeah), was a copy of the State Franchise Tax Board’s rebuttal to my appeal (ick). It was eleven pages of dense posturing that made no sense even to my lawyer which I was required to write a rebuttal to. Suffice it to say, a year and a half later I finally had my day in court.
The following scene from Willful Avoidance takes place outside the courtroom before the hearings were set to begin and is written from the perspective of the clerk for the Board of Equalization who, in real life, I got to know rather well during all those rebuttals.
The battle was about to begin: the Invincible Tax Men versus the Appellants. Each side would have their moment in the ring, unless an Appellant cried “uncle” after arm-bending, threats and promises for leniency were made in last-minute deals. Fully versed on all new laws and decisions, the Tax Men had the home court advantage. The Appellants, especially the small-scale divisions with no direct plan (just an overwhelming belief in the humanity of their story) had little chance. But it all rested ultimately in the hands of the judges, the mighty BOE, now sharpening their pencils (metaphorically) as they prepared to play Solomon. On this day they would need to appear kindly but judicial, full of wisdom but not easily conned. All opinions rendered were, of course, of public record and therefore available for scrutiny by the voting public.
The hall outside the boardroom held all the merriment of a morgue. Four or five groups stood in nervous circles negotiating with FTB lawyers. They rattled their sabers quietly, in hushed tones as though at any moment one of the illustrious members of the BOE came through the boardroom door.
The appellants for the two cases Roberta knew were doomed to fail already sat in the back of the boardroom confidently. Their summaries were astonishingly brief, they had no exhibits to speak of, no legal representation, just some sort of rambling notion that they were in the right or that their current economic condition would get them out of an FTB debt. One appellant had even sent his cousin to plead his case because he couldn’t get off work. That would be a costly mistake. At nine thirty she walked over to the two groups still remaining in the hall. One was the Ravel Stone & Gravel gang with the Very Important lawyer. The other, a woman and two men, one of whom Roberta knew quite well. Mark Slattery, an attorney better suited for Vegas than Sacramento.
It was time to go into the boardroom, she explained to both groups. “Even if your case isn’t scheduled until eleven, the board requires all litigants to be in attendance for opening remarks. After the board begins hearing cases, you can move your negotiations out to the hall again. But,” she cautioned, as Ravel Stone & Gravel sulked away, “keep in mind that the BOE rarely needs the allotted thirty-five minutes to decide a case. After they hear one case, they continue right on to the next one without taking a break. If your case is called in court and you do not respond, you will lose your chance to appeal.”
“What would we do without you, Robbie?” Slattery chuckled, putting an unwanted hand of her shoulder.
“Cut the bull.” He flirted with her as young men often do with women they consider mother figures, only Slattery wasn’t that young, and Roberta wasn’t that old.
“You must be Maya Bethany,” she said, reaching over to shake the hand of the woman standing across from Slattery. She was a gentle-looking woman with wavy auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail, soft grey eyes, and the high cheekbones of someone of Slavic descent. Other than a hint of lipstick, she wore no makeup and she’d dressed conservatively in slacks and a crisp, white blouse. Bravo, Roberta thought. It was the perfect look—neither flashy nor too casual. Over the past year she felt she’d gotten to know Maya Bethany, having read her appeals to the board. And now, here she was. Almost exactly as Roberta had imagined.