A candidate for Common Pleas Court judge who has been endorsed by the city’s Democratic Party has accrued more than $119,000 in unpaid federal taxes, some of it dating to 2010, records show.
Sherman C. Toppin, a lawyer and real estate broker, is one of 25 candidates running for six seats on the bench in the May 21 primary. The 48-year-old East Mount Airy resident is one of six candidates endorsed by the Democratic City Committee, which wields considerable influence in judicial elections, in part because of little interest by the public.
Endorsed candidates are included on the Democratic sample ballot, which the party distributes to voters. Party Chairman Bob Brady said the tax issue didn’t come up in the review process.
In an interview, Toppin said he didn’t owe the IRS the full amount indicated in public records, though he declined to say how much he owed. But he acknowledged the unpaid debt was why the Philadelphia Bar Association, which investigates the backgrounds of judicial candidates, gave him its lowest rating, “not recommended.”
He said he has been repaying the debt since the government first filed a claim and that he hopes to settle it by the end of the year. “Should I be successful [in the election], I will not enter the bench with a balance of any amount,” he said.
Judicial candidates “don’t have to be perfect, but they have to demonstrate a respect for the law,” said Abraham C. Reich, partner and chair emeritus at Fox Rothschild LLP. He teaches ethics at Penn Law.
“They should pay their taxes when they’re due,” Reich said, adding that he was speaking generally and not about any particular candidate. “They should avoid needless litigation.”
Toppin is a former son-in-law of T. Milton Street Sr., the former state senator and brother of former Mayor John F. Street.
The Bar Association’s evaluation criteria include legal ability, trial experience, character and integrity, financial responsibility, and temperament. Beyond its ratings, the bar doesn’t comment on individual candidates.
A self-employed real estate attorney, Toppin attributed his debt to the stock market crash of 2008 and the 15.3 percent tax the federal government imposes on self-employed individuals for Social Security and Medicare. The tax “caused a severe impact on my business during the crash,” he said.
The IRS has filed a tax lien against at least one other judicial candidate in Philadelphia. Lawyer Janine Momasso owes $49,139.35 for the tax year that ended in 2015, records show.
Tommie St. Hill, a consultant for Momasso’s campaign, said she “does not believe she owes that much, if she owes anything,” and that "she is working that out with the IRS as we speak.”
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Records show Toppin owes the IRS for income taxes in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2016, and 2017. The IRS filed its first lien in March 2014, citing an unpaid balance of $88,942.32 for 2010-12. The agency has filed three more liens since 2017, bringing his total unpaid balance to $119,313.80.
In addition, the state filed a lien against Toppin’s firm, Sherman Toppin Law Firm LLC, in 2015, seeking $600.22 in capital stock tax incurred in 2010 and 2011. Toppin said he hadn’t been notified of that lien and believed it was an error.
Each lien is described in court records as active. A lien indicates how much a taxpayer owed at the time it was filed; it may not reflect subsequent payments or penalties.
The city and state have filed more than a dozen additional liens for taxes and gas service against Toppin and his companies since 2003, though he has satisfied those debts.
Toppin has had other financial problems. In 2008, Temple University sued him for $8,149 in tuition, general fees, and court costs. He disputed the amount owed, according to court records, and settled in 2010.
Toppin received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and a law degree from the College of William and Mary, according to his website.
Sherman Toppin Law Firm says it specializes in real estate litigation, tax problems, foreclosure and sheriff sales, and receivership, among other areas. In 2013, his firm won a contract to collect real estate taxes owed to the city and School District.
Toppin, who has taught real estate law at Temple, also is the president and owner of Sherman Toppin Real Estate LLC. Its website says the brokerage provides “turnkey real estate solutions for commercial and residential clients, buyers and sellers, investors and developers.”
In 2011, that firm was sued for negligence in a slip and fall case by a tenant at an apartment complex Toppin managed in the city’s Hunting Park section. The property was in foreclosure, and Toppin’s firm had been appointed as a receiver to manage it.
The tenant, Lopez McCray, suffered herniated discs after slipping on steps covered with snow and ice while he was taking out the trash in a dark alleyway, according to court records.
A judge ordered Toppin’s company to pay $25,000. He was sued again for refusing to pay, and eventually settled, agreeing to pay the same amount to avoid trial and a damage award against him personally, court records show.