Woman Says IRS Killed Husband -- Suit Blames Harassment Over Back Taxes, Penalties For His Depression, Suicide

CONCORD, N.H. - Shirley Barron isn't the first person to complain about harassment from the Internal Revenue Service, but she may be the first to sue the agency for killing someone.

Last August, deeply depressed after a nine-year struggle to pay back taxes, Bruce Barron shut himself in the garage of the family's Cape Cod, Mass., vacation home, turned on his car and died of carbon-monoxide poisoning.

The IRS "sits, does nothing, and watches you die," he wrote in a suicide note left for his wife and daughter, now 17.

Mrs. Barron has filed a $1 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the federal agency, saying its agents drove her husband - a 47-year-old lawyer - to take his life.

Mrs. Barron, 49, claims that IRS agent Donna Greeley and her superiors illegally harassed the Barrons and invaded their lives while trying to collect $330,000 in taxes, penalties and interest.

Collection agents phoned Barron's clients, seized Mrs. Barron's retirement accounts and garnished her wages as director of Londonderry's library, the suit alleged.

Barron didn't tell his wife the details of his battle with the IRS, but she knew something was wrong when her normally happy-go-lucky husband began showing signs of stress in 1995.

"He didn't sleep very well. He was nervous and fidgety. He lived on Maalox. He was very sad," she said in a telephone interview yesterday. Mrs. Barron's lawyers said her suit - filed in May in U.S. District Court in Concord - is one of the first to test a 1996 amendment to the Taxpayers Bill of Rights. The amendment allows people to seek up to $1 million in damages if they can prove the agency "recklessly or intentionally" used unauthorized collection tactics.

Department of Justice officials refused to comment on the suit.

IRS letters to Mrs. Barron deny the agency's tactics had anything to do with her husband's suicide and insist agents acted legally.

The couple's financial problems started in 1985 when a Salem recycling company Barron had invested in failed. The Barrons' accountant said Barron could claim the $80,000 loss on his taxes. A year later, the IRS said the deduction was illegal.

The Barrons' debt mushroomed as interest and penalties were added.

They came close to settling the debt in May 1994, when they offered to pay their net worth - $30,500, the lawsuit alleges. Mrs. Barron claims Greeley rejected the settlement without saying that the agency was seeking only $2,610 more.

The settlement would have allowed the IRS to collect some of the back taxes while keeping the Barrons out of bankruptcy. Barron did not want to declare bankruptcy, to protect his law practice.

Barron tried to work out a settlement, but IRS officials would not call him back, Mrs. Barron said. In July 1996, a month before his death, Pelham Bank & Trust Co. - which has since been taken over by another bank - threatened to foreclose on the family's home in Derry, she said.

Even after her husband's suicide, the harassment has not stopped, Mrs. Barron said. The agency has placed a claim against Barron's two $200,000 life-insurance policies and put a lien on the couple's home.

"An agent came to the house in February," despite an order that the IRS should act through her accountant, she said.

"I said, `You killed my husband, and now you're coming after me?' "