As told by Abby Fitts
Twice a year, the IRS Counsel’s Atlanta office participates in Pro Bono Day, which allows the counsel’s office to address upcoming tax court cases that they believe are good candidates for settlement. Law students in the Philip C. Cook Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic serve as temporary representatives for the taxpayers and guide them as they discuss their cases with counsel.
On Oct. 5, I walked into the clinic a bit nervous. I have been a student in the clinic for four semesters, and have participated in Pro Bono Day before, but I always feel worried that there will be a situation I’m not qualified to handle. However, there is never much time to worry, because Pro Bono Day is the emergency room of tax law. We are presented with fact patterns we have never seen before, and we have to work quickly to find a solution.
As soon as I walked into the clinic space, I was introduced to a taxpayer and placed in a conference room. My first client was a friendly, older man with white hair and tan skin. He was wearing a golf shirt and khaki shorts, and he laughed nervously every time he spoke. For some reason, seeing this man visibly anxious made me forget about my own nerves and focus on finding a solution for his tax issue. After sorting through dozens of documents and receipts, we determined he didn’t have the appropriate paperwork to prove the expenses the IRS had disallowed on his tax return. However, we were able to put together a list of documents he would need to mail in to prove his case. So while we weren’t able to settle the case that day, we left hopeful for a solution in the near future.
By the time my first appointment was over, it was lunch time, but there was no time for a break. My next clients were a couple who had several filing boxes full of documents. As soon as I walked in the room, I could feel the tension in the air. The woman was clearly emotional, on the verge of tears for most of the meeting. Her husband seemed irritated and embarrassed to be there. They were victims of the housing crisis and had made the mistake of trusting the wrong accountant. After speaking with the couple for what felt like several hours, we were finally able to settle their case for a fraction of the amount they owed.
After such an emotionally tolling appointment, I was absolutely thrilled to meet my third client, a man with a very simple problem that I have encountered multiple times with my clients in the clinic. After settling with counsel, I was able to help him complete an intake form for long-term representation in the clinic. It was a satisfying end to a busy day, and it felt good to end on a high note.
Overall, 26 of the 32 cases that we saw on Pro Bono Day this year were settled with IRS counsel. This means thousands of dollars were saved by taxpayers who would have otherwise had to defend themselves in tax court, and potentially pay heavy penalties on top of their liabilities. It was yet another successful Pro Bono Day, and I look forward to participating in next semester’s event to help even more taxpayers navigate tax court.