Student Perspectives

Innocent Spouse Relief in a Tax Case

By: Oladeji M. Tiamiyu J.D. ’20

Tim* never could imagine how complicated his taxes would become. A disabled veteran following physical injuries from military service, Tim found a steady job. He later discovered his former wife embezzled a large sum of money from her employer.

Embezzlement, though illegal, is subject to similar tax requirements as other forms of income. Since the late 1930s, individuals filing joint tax returns are jointly liable for omitted income or understatements on a tax return. The creation of innocent spouse relief revealed a clear Congressional intent to sever joint liability when one’s spouse accrues unlawful taxable income without the other’s knowledge. The relevant statutory recognition of innocent spouse relief is Section 6015 of the Internal Revenue Code, specifically sections 6015(c) and 6015(f). Section 6015(c) allows divorced or separated individuals to be responsible only for the portion of joint tax liabilities that is attributable to their activity. Section 6015(f) is an equitable vehicle that uses the totality of circumstances to consider whether innocent spouse relief should be granted.

The IRS was initially willing to grant Tim innocent spouse relief until his wife alleged during divorce proceedings that he had known of her embezzlement. As a result, the IRS assessed Tim a liability of over $100,000 in taxes, interest, and penalties.

Tim’s case has now reached the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Although granting innocent spouse relief for one year, the tax court denied relief following his former wife’s criminal conviction. In denying that relief, the tax court overlooked a host of important factors that weighed in his favor. The 7th Circuit will need to better balance the government’s interest in collecting taxes with the equitable principal of relief for individuals lacking knowledge of illegal income accrued by a spouse.

Tim’s background and his actions show that he did not have knowledge of the embezzlement.  His former wife handled their financial matters, while Tim had limited knowledge and experience in finance, accounting, and taxes. In addition, there is no evidence that he ever knew of her criminal conviction before the return in dispute was filed. He provided his financial information to her tax preparer.

Helping Tim receive the relief he deserves has been a great legal experience. Most of my work focused on writing the legal brief that will be submitted to the 7th Circuit, participating in mediation with the Tax Division of the Department of Justice, and communicating with our client to set procedural expectations. The government shutdown added complexities to our work because the mediation process was delayed. I am humbled by the procedural and substantive legal issues that my co-law student advocate—Rocky Li ‘20—and I have had exposure to. We have benefited from working with Keith Fogg and Carlton Smith, our clinical supervisors who are also among the nation’s leading tax experts. If Tim does not settle, our team is optimistic that the 7th Circuit will recognize the injustice he has been subjected to.

Oladeji M. Tiamiyu is a 2L at Harvard Law School. This post was published by the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs on April 12, 2019.

*Name and some identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

Harvard Gazette: LSC puts compassion into action

By Clea Simon.

Published by the Harvard Gazette on April 11, 2019.  Photos by Heratch Ekmekjian.

Legal Services Center Faculty Director Daniel Nagin speaks on a panel with LSC Tax Clinic Director Keith Fogg, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, ArchCity Defenders Executive Director Blake Strode, and disability rights advocate Haben Girma.

“Reaching out to others is how you find out who you really are,” said Daniel Nagin, vice dean of experiential and clinical education and faculty director of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (HLS). He was quoting the late HLS Professor Gary Bellow, LL.B. ’60, who in 1979 co-founded the Jamaica Plain center with his wife, senior lecturer in law Jeanne Charn, J.D. ’70. On April 5, Nagin and others celebrated the center’s 40th anniversary, and the quote strikes at the heart of the center’s mission of improving the legal profession through experiential learning while working with community organizations to enact real and lasting change.

Transformational change may be possible only through such a cooperative effort, said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey ’92. Giving the keynote address at the celebration, she pointed out that not only have more than 40,000 people used the center’s services over the years — people “who were shown an opportunity to have a life-changing experience” — but also approximately 4,500 students have worked there. “Students who have learned to see life, experience life, through the circumstances of another,” she said.

The Legal Services Center — or, as Bellow has described it in the past, the “teaching law office” — is similar to the teaching hospital model used in medical schools across the country, including at Harvard, and it has helped change the lives of thousands of clients in Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and other neighborhoods in Boston and beyond. Its programs address issues related to housing, domestic violence, predatory lending, and other community needs. The center offers clinics that specialize in areas including federal taxes, estate planning, and accessing veterans’ benefits. Its reach is broad and its results can often be life-changing.

During the 2017–18 academic year, HLS students provided pro bono legal assistance to more than 4,000 clients in Massachusetts, including more than 2,300 residents in the Boston area. The graduating class of 2018 contributed 376,532 hours of pro bono legal assistance, an average of 637 hours per student over their three years at the Law School. This is part of the effort to, in the words of HLS Dean John F. Manning, “make sure we’re always on the cutting edge of clinical education.”

The day’s events showed how this interaction can work. In the first of a series of roundtable discussions on how to narrow the gap between rich and poor and achieve justice for the most vulnerable, “#Connect: A Law Student and Client Discuss Collaboration” featured 2L student D Dangaran and a client recalling how they had worked together, under the guidance of Stephanie Davidson, J.D. ’13, a clinical instructor in the domestic violence and family law clinic. The client had been in the process of freeing herself from an abusive relationship when she met Dangaran, and had already obtained a temporary restraining order against her husband that allowed her and her children to stay in the family home. When Dangaran met her, the order was once again up for review — and her husband had already been arrested for violating it.

“My second week in the clinic and it was the biggest trial of the clinic,” recalled Dangaran. But the client was calm, assured by the student’s focus. “[Dangaran] already knew my case as if they’d been with us the entire time,” she said. “I was very comfortable, and it took a lot of my nerves away.”

Sameer Ashar, Vice Dean for Experiential Education and Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law; Luz Hererra, Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Experiential Education, Texas A&M University School of Law; Jeanne Charn; Sarah Boonin, Clinical Professor of Law and Associate Director of Clinical Programs, Suffolk University; Jeff Selbin, Clinical Professor of Law; Faculty Director, Policy Advocacy Clinic; and Co-Faculty Director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice, Berkeley Law

The preparation that went into the case paid off. The husband didn’t show for the hearing, and the client and Dangaran were called to the bench. The judge granted a permanent restraining order “before we even asked,” said Dangaran.

Charn, who was the center’s director for 28 years, served as the institutional memory for the next panel, “#Spark: The Influence of the Bellow-Charn Model on Legal Education.” The center’s beginning, she said, was rocky. “Almost no one supported what we were doing.”Committed to social justice, the center initially took students from several law schools and recruited experts from other institutions, such as MIT, to help them not only win cases but understand the underlying problems. If design could help a landlord maintain apartments, they would bring in designers, she said. “We were at ground level.”

The discussion then progressed to how the Bellow-Charn approach works. Moderator Sarah Boonin, J.D. ’04, now a professor at Suffolk University Law School, said the model was built on the idea that clinics should be immersed in the community they serve because “the community was also a teacher.” For Jeffrey Selbin, J.D. ’89, a professor at UC-Berkeley and director of its Policy Advocacy Clinic, the teaching element was immediately key. “When I walked to the center on my very first day, I was told, ‘You have a client in room one.’” The case involved Social Security benefits for a woman in her 50s. “She just looked at me and said, ‘You’ve never done this before.’ Then she said, ‘I’ve never done this before, either. It’ll be just fine,’ which was an early lesson in ‘client as teacher.’”

Martha Minow; Brandon German, community organizer; Nnena Odim, Director of LSC’s Family Law/Domestic Violence Clinic; Robert Greenwald, Faculty Director of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation.

The next discussion, “#Uplift: Using the Law for Economic Justice,” began by asking what had inspired the panelists to make a career seeking economic justice. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, J.D. ’09, shared his frustration as a Peace Corps volunteer unable to alleviate the grinding poverty of Haitian sugarcane cutters in the Dominican Republic. Haben Girma, J.D. ’13, who has limited vision and hearing, recounted being turned away from a summer job once her potential employer met her. Today, Girma, who was named White House Champion of Change by President Barack Obama, advocates for equal opportunities for people with disabilities.

For Blake Strode, J.D. ’15, the spark came even earlier. Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm in St. Louis, remembered a classmate in his elementary school, an immigrant from Cameroon, who was relentlessly teased for her poverty and accent until he finally gathered the courage to sit with her at lunch and speak up for her.

“It was my first experience of seeing what it meant to stand with someone as they are enduring injustice,” said Strode, who later in the day was presented with the Bellow-Charn Championship of Justice Emerging Leader Award.“That’s the role of the social justice lawyer,” he concluded, “to create community and stop that oncoming train.”

Students’ Legal Skills Help Prevent Homelessness

William* was feeling hopeless. Elderly, disabled, and receiving treatment for a recent kidney transplant, he was stunned when his landlord unexpectedly served him with a no-fault notice of eviction. With his health failing in the dead of a frigid Boston winter, he suddenly faced the alarming prospect of living on the streets.

Yet when it looked like all was lost, William experienced a spectacular reversal of fortune. He walked into Edward D. Brooke Courthouse in Boston and obtained free legal assistance from a student of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC), who was participating in the clinic’s ‘Attorney for the Day’ program.

Moments after William approached the Attorney for the Day booth that March day, LSC Housing Court student Nicolette Roger ‘19 went right to work; she reviewed the facts of his case and counseled him on how to advocate for himself in court.

A roll of the dice

It was not an easy task. According to Roger, his case “was a roll of the dice.” William was scheduled to be evicted from his home that same day; he had exceeded a deadline that a judge had given him to find new housing.

William had been struggling to manage the situation not only because of his extensive hospital stay after the transplant, but also due to the fact that, like 95 percent of low-income tenants who find themselves in Housing Court, he had no attorney to represent him.

He is precisely the type of Bostonian that Attorney for the Day aims to reach. Organized by the Boston Bar Association (BBA), the program draws attorneys from local legal services organizations as well as volunteers from the area’s leading firms.

The BBA advertises that these services are available at Boston Housing Court every Thursday morning, though many community members find out about the program by word of mouth or simply happen upon the sign and table on the day of their hearing.

The guidance that tenants receive can make a huge difference. Roger explains that for someone like William who has no familiarity with the legal system, “even just navigating the courthouse can be difficult,” much less winning a case as a pro se tenant.

While the Attorney for the Day program is a transformative learning opportunity for students, it is life-changing for clients like William, who receive last-minute, ‘game-day’ counsel.

“One of my favorite experiences at Harvard”

Tom Snyder ‘18, who was participating in Attorney for the Day with the LSC for the first time last spring before graduation, attests that it is an incredibly challenging and demanding experience, but also one so rewarding that “it’s been one of my favorite experiences at Harvard.”

The program is overseen by the Director of the Housing Law Clinic, Maureen McDonagh. Students’ responsibilities at Attorney for the Day typically begin with ensuring that clients are in the courtroom at the proper time to respond when the judge does roll call. This is crucial because if the client is not present, the judge will issue a default judgment – an outcome that will likely lead to eviction.

“You’re definitely thrown right in,” explains Tyra Walker ‘18.

While the student attorney is often needed inside the courtroom to help a client file a motion or address a judge, frequently the work takes place in the adjacent hallway or in the mediation room, where negotiations between tenant and the landlord’s attorney occur.

In these cases, students must quickly learn about the client’s situation, assess whether defenses or counterclaims exist, and, where appropriate, determine how to reach an agreement with the landlord.

Righting a power imbalance

The students’ presence is crucial because often, a striking power imbalance is at play. Over 95 percent of landlords enter the courtroom with an attorney, while only 5 percent of low-income renters have that same protection.

When tenants lack representation, it is typically the case that “the landlord’s attorneys have more negotiating power, and clients end up agreeing to terms they can’t adhere to,” according to Kelsey Annu-Essuman ‘19.

Clients like William could easily slip through the cracks without the help from students. There were 127 cases on trial that day, and just two judges and five mediators present.

For many HLS students, this high-stakes environment is the first in which they will be responsible for representing a client in a dispute with real-world consequences. The situation is distinctly challenging because they have just a fraction of the time that Housing Court students typically would to secure a favorable outcome for the client.

Last-minute intervention of the sort that Attorney for the Day provides can be a lifeline for a tenant in a tough situation and can play a vital role in preventing homelessness. Still, the majority of cases handled by Housing Clinic students involve full representation of low-income tenants in complex and ongoing litigation, rather than emergency advice.

Indeed, for the students, Attorney for the Day is a highly educative and memorable experience precisely because it is so different from the in-depth, long-term work that students normally do in the Clinic – instead, just an hour in the courthouse can save a client from homelessness.

“You don’t get a lot of these experiences in law school,” affirms Walker, a three-time veteran of Attorney for the Day.

Using legal training in high-stakes courtroom experience

During Attorney for the Day, students work toward the same outcomes as they do during the semester – preventing eviction, improving housing conditions, halting utilities shutdown — but in this case, they have the opportunity to effect change behind the scenes, and very quickly.

Roger seized this opportunity when she prepped William to stand in front of the judge and request an extension on his timeline to pursue alternatives.

She explained to him what was about to happen and provided William with talking points. He listened intently, and when the time came he explained to the judge that because of his kidney transplant and severe medical problems, he had not yet found a new place. Moreover, he explained, in his condition homelessness would equate to a certain health catastrophe. In setting forth all this, William – again, relying on the advice Roger had shared – successfully documented the efforts he had made to date to obtain housing.

The appeal was successful. The judge offered William a one-month stay of eviction, given that he provided ample evidence of his ongoing housing search.

Roger, McDonagh, and other members of the Housing Clinic team made sure to follow up and help William with the search. Shortly thereafter, he took the first steps through the doorway of his affordable new housing unit, with time to spare.

*Name and some identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

 

Student Reflections on Working at LSC

In two recent posts on the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs’ Blog, former Estate Planning clinic students Stephanie Jimenez and Travis Leverett discuss their experiences working on estate planning issues. Read both Stephanie’s post, “Empowering clients through the Estate Planning Project” and Travis’ post, “A reflection on my semester with the Estate Planning Project“.

In addition, former  Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic  students Suria Bahadue and Alison Burton share their experiences with family and domestic violence issues in the following posts: “Out of the classroom and into the courtroom” by Suria Bahadue and “A sense of community and a chance to represent clients in court” by Alison Burton.

LSC Student Reflects on Advocacy on Behalf of Veterans

In a recent post on the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs’ Blog, a former student from the Veterans Legal Clinic reflected on her experiences advocating on behalf of veterans.  Part of her post focused on the advocacy the Clinic is doing related to the problem of military sexual trauma:

I spent half of my semester working on an appeal brief to the Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims challenging a denial of VA disability benefits for post-traumatic stress as a result of military sexual trauma. One in three military women is sexually assaulted, and one in five women veterans will develop post-traumatic stress (PTS) as a result of military sexual trauma and other traumatic experiences while in service. Few of these women can successfully access the VA healthcare system, disability benefits, or educational loans to receive the assistance they so desperately need to rebuild their lives post-service. This leads tens of thousands of women veterans into poverty and homelessness—many are single mothers, and suicide rates are staggering. . . . After decades of neglect by an unfair system, with our help, our client finally attained a measure of justice—and an opportunity for income assistance—she so needs and deserves. It was unquestionably my most meaningful experience in law school.

Read the complete post here: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/clinicalprobono/2015/05/22/clinic-student-finds-a-meaningful-experience-in-representing-veterans/

Students Reflect on LSC’s Role in their Pursuit of Public Interest Careers

In a recent post on the HLS Admissions Blog, two students of the Project on Predatory Student Lending wrote about Building a Public Interest Career at HLS.  They name four building blocks for a career in public interest law, including clinical work.  Of their experience at LSC, they write:

Clinics are a key part of the law school experience for public interest students because they give us a chance to learn important lawyering skills while gaining experience working on issues that we care about.  We are both enrolled in the Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic at HLS’s Legal Services Center.  As part of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, we directly represent low-income borrowers who have received predatory student loans.  We’re experiencing firsthand what it is like to be a lawyer: conducting client meetings, filing motions in court, and making strategic decisions about cases.  We are closely supervised by a smart and energetic attorney who makes sure that we constantly improve our skills while offering top-notch services to our clients.

http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/admissions/2015/03/16/building-a-public-interest-career-at-hls/ 

Student Lawyers Making an Impact on Family and Domestic Violence Cases

Students in the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic manage all aspects of their cases. Under the supervision of Associate Director and Senior Clinical Instructor Nnena Odim, they conduct intake, provide advice, and represent clients in both Family and District Court in Massachusetts. They also draft pleadings, analyze discovery, negotiate with opposing counsel, and work with complex financial issues. These students are more than lawyers. They support clients through difficult and stressful experiences, and make a real impact on their lives.

This past academic year, four students – Alyssa Greenberg, J.D. ’15, Kathryn Mullen, J.D. ’15, Kate Aizpuru, J.D. ’14, and Lana Birbrair, J.D. ’15 – did just that.

Alyssa signed up for the clinic to get substantive litigation experience. “I was not disappointed,” she said. “I drafted complaints for divorce, motions for temporary orders, and discovery requests; I prepared to take depositions, led a negotiation, and represented my client at a hearing in Probate and Family court; I spoke to my clients regularly, counseling them and working with them to determine what course their case should take.” Alyssa’s work has helped women who were married to abusive husbands get the closure and financial support they needed.

For Kathryn, representing clients “has been deeply rewarding”. Kathryn represented a husband seeking a divorce. “This case was not only an excellent learning opportunity, but a good reminder that anyone can be a victim of domestic abuse,” she said. Kathryn’s client experienced great psychological distress, suffered serious health problems and was also in dire financial straits. Yet, despite the difficult circumstances, he did not want anything except a divorce on grounds of cruel and abusive treatment. This “meant he would have to testify about his wife’s behavior,” said Kathryn. “It was important to him to tell his story on the record.” The experience contributed to and shaped her desire to become a public interest lawyer.

Kate Aizpuru signed up for the clinic to translate her interests in gender issues into practical experience. “I wanted to spend some time learning the types of skills I wouldn’t be able to get in a classroom: working with clients, drafting legal documents, and appearing in court,” she said. She represented a client who had suffered domestic violence. “At first, I felt nervous—I had only appeared in court on motions, never for a full trial,” said Kate. But the more she thought about the skills she had acquired throughout her two semesters at the clinic, the more confident she felt, and took charge of the entire case. “It was an incredible experience,” she said. Kate delivered the opening statement at trial, answered questions about the case’s procedural history, objected to inadmissible evidence, and cross-examined her client’s husband. Several weeks later, she received a favorable judgment for her client.

Lana took on a divorce case involving domestic violence and custody. “By the end of the semester there was a  6 inch case file with 8 pounds of paper representing 10 weeks of investigation and research,” she said. By her second week at the clinic, Lana was in court seeking a custody order. She met with her client regularly, culled through medical records, tax filings, negotiated with opposing counsel, and subpoenaed records from various banks. She even examined deeds to real estate, written in French. “After a semester, I appreciate the days when we can get a “good” or “great” result for a client we can genuinely help,” she said.

Family Law Clinic Student Advocates for Survivor of Domestic Violence

Akhila Kolisetty

Akhila Kolisetty

by Akhila Kolisetty, J.D. ’15, Harvard Law School

As I sat in the courtroom with my client, waiting for the judge to call us for a pre-trial hearing, we saw my client’s abusive husband enter the room. Immediately, she became nervous and tense. In that moment – as she started tearing up and remembering the past abuse he had put her through – I saw the impact that a lawyer and advocate can make in the lives of survivors of domestic violence. I listened to my client’s needs, reassured her that she would be safe, and that we would achieve the best possible outcome in her divorce case.

A few minutes after this conversation, I had the chance to present the key issues in the case before a family court judge. In my opening statement, I detailed the history of abuse my client had gone through. I explained why she deserved custody of her children, why she should reside in the marital home, and receive child support. Through discovery, I had gathered evidence of a substantial sum of money that my client should have received during the marriage, so I also argued why she deserved a portion of those assets. The judge was sympathetic to our requests and gave us more time to collect critical evidence needed before a trial. I left feeling that the case would have a positive outcome, and my client left feeling a sense of hope for the future.

The experience of representing low-income survivors of domestic violence was an incredible one. I had come to law school with a deep interest in improving my ability to advocate for survivors of domestic abuse. Prior to law school, I had volunteered as an advocate providing peer support to immigrant survivors of violence but often felt that I lacked the capacity to fully advocate for them. The Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic helped me pair empathy with crucial skills in negotiation, oral advocacy and legal writing, to be a much stronger advocate for clients. I not only learned to represent clients in pre-trial hearings, but also conducted discovery, helped clients file for divorce, and advised them on their options. Throughout this process, I received helpful feedback that concretely improved my skills.

Many survivors of domestic violence are immigrants and low-income; they have difficulty navigating the court system and lack the finances to hire a lawyer. Furthermore, abusers often appear confident in court, while survivors of abuse feel intimidated when required to speak in court alongside their abusive partners. Lawyers in family law cases can help survivors of abuse advocate for themselves and ensure that they obtain the financial resources and the independence they need in order to move forward and thrive. Lawyers can also simply listen to difficult stories, acknowledge past abuse, and serve as a support system.

The Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic helped me develop vital skills needed to become such a lawyer and advocate, while also providing a needed service to a vulnerable population. I cannot think of a better experience to have as a law student.

———–

This piece was originally posted on the Harvard Law School Clinical and Pro Bono Programs blog.

Student Contributes to People’s Law School

Jewel Hand presenting to People's Law School participants.

Jewel Hand presenting to People’s Law School participants.

by Jewel Hand, J.D. ’15, Harvard Law School

Recently, I was able to contribute to the Legal Services Center’s second annual People’s Law School. It is a unique day-long community outreach program designed to teach people their basic rights as borrowers, tenants, disabled citizens, and veterans, among many other things. Workshops throughout the day informed and empowered approximately 100 local citizens, while one-on-one counseling allowed the staff and students to give more individualized legal advice. The day ended with intake interviews for individuals with legal issues that make them candidates for the Center’s services. As a student advocate at the Center, I was able to take part in the program at all levels: from planning and setup, to teaching a workshop, to individual counseling and conducting an intake interview. I feel fortunate to have contributed to a program that clearly helped so many individuals while also practicing valuable skills as a counselor and advocate. I hope the People’s Law School continues to grow and that I can contribute again next year!