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Joe Surkiewicz: UB Law Tax Clinic helps the poor in disputes with the IRS

What’s worse than getting a notice of deficiency letter from the IRS?

Getting that letter and being poor.

Which is why the University of Baltimore School of Law created the Tax Clinic, where student attorneys represent low-income taxpayers in disputes with the IRS.

But they do not, it’s important to note, perform routine tasks.

“We don’t do tax returns, but we help people who get letters from the IRS saying it’s going to levy their wages or bank accounts in a tax dispute,” said UB Law professor John B. Snyder III, the clinic’s director and a former trial attorney with the Tax Division of the Justice Department. “It’s expensive to get private representation.”

While tax law is the same regardless of income, low-income taxpayers are particularly vulnerable when dealing with the IRS.

“People are intimidated when they get the letters,” said Snyder, who also teaches in UB Law’s Graduate Tax LLM program. “The instructions for applying for the earned-income tax credit are longer than the regular instructions for filing, so it’s easy to make mistakes.”

Tax preparers also can cause problems.

“Higher income people tend to go with a CPA or a named tax preparation chain, while low-income people tend to go to someone who does 10-to-12 returns a year in a room over a garage,” Snyder said. “They may or may not do a good job, so we spend a lot of time cleaning up after them. Often it’s just the result of honest confusion.”

Much of the clinic’s work involves business expense substantiation cases — things like claims for deductions for home offices, uniforms and car mileage.

“When they come to us, it could be the result of an audit, but our clients tend to be unsophisticated, so there are often mistakes,” Snyder said. “There’s a life cycle to tax disputes. First, there’s the tax return, then an audit. Sometimes we get involved at the audit level, but more often we get involved after they get a notice of deficiency letter from the IRS, which allows us to file a case in U.S. Tax Court.”

Calendar calls

In the best case scenario, that’s when people reach out to the clinic.

“But what’s more problematic and common is that people ignore the letter,” Snyder said. “Often, they say they’re afraid to open it, and they throw it away. In the later stage of the life cycle, the IRS says it’s going to collect by levying wages or a bank account or certain public benefits or put a lien on property. That’s the stage where we get involved. Collection cases are common.”

On the plus side (if there ever is a plus side in an IRS dispute), U.S. Tax Court is a good place to be if you’re pro se or low-income.

“They’re good at helping people and letting them know clinics like ours are out there,” Snyder said. “It’s a big source for a lot of our cases.”

Another source of clients are Tax Court calendar calls, which take place in Baltimore three or four times a year.

“The judge goes through up to 200 cases and will point out that the UB Law clinic is there or another clinic,” Snyder said. “A client can get advice or even representation that same afternoon from us or the University of Maryland’s tax clinic, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, or the tax section of the Maryland State Bar Association.”

‘Own the cases’

The Tax Clinic, which was restarted last spring after a five-year hiatus, started with four students. This fall, five students enrolled in the clinic, and six will be enrolled in the upcoming semester. To qualify, a law student must be in the second or third year (or fourth year for evening students), and have taken Evidence.

“I tell students to ‘own’ the cases,” Snyder said. “It’s not about learning substantive tax laws, although they will. It’s about how to manage tasks, figure out what tasks to do, and manage the clients. I’m here for advice, teach weekly seminars and meet with them individually.”

While “tax groupies” often enroll in the clinic, that’s not always the case.

“I also get some students without a particular interest in tax law,” Snyder said. “But they usually leave saying it was interesting and that they may want to do it professionally.”

Demand for the clinic’s services appears to be high, but it’s hard to tell, he added.

“That’s because you can’t determine who you’re not reaching,” Snyder said. “There are two reasons we don’t take a case: the person’s income exceeds 250 percent of the poverty level or they just want a tax return done, which our IRS funding doesn’t cover.”

Currently, the clinic is operating near capacity.

“But I prefer not to turn anyone away if it’s a good case, and hopefully I won’t have to,” Snyder said. “I hope to keep expanding in the fall for more case coverage.”

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is jsurkiewicz@hprplaw.org.