Since September 2017, Pro Bono Settlement Days have become a fixture of the Philip C. Cook Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic at Georgia State University College of Law. The semi-annual observance teaches students how to apply federal tax laws, or the tax code, to resolve tax disputes and negotiate settlements with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), providing critical aid to low-income and underrepresented taxpayers in the community.
Ted Afield, director of the clinic, takes the issue of tax justice seriously in his administration of the clinic's pro bono services. "The tax code is not only a tool to raise revenue for the government," he explains. "It is also a tool to provide social benefits to the economically vulnerable."
Afield connects the dots between a person’s income level and their ability to get a favorable outcome in court. In a dispute, tax laws can be hard to navigate, and most people need an attorney to represent them. This added expense can make legal representation out of reach for many.
"If these taxpayers do not receive help from low-income taxpayer clinics, they will have their lives much more negatively impacted by the tax system than wealthier taxpayers." Afield said.
In the past, the clinic has hosted its spring Pro Bono Settlement Day in February, but this semester’s event took place on March 25. When held earlier in the semester, first-semester clinic students act primarily as observers, still learning the information they need to move into an active role. However, scheduling Pro Bono Settlement Day later in the semester allowed students to take on more advocacy responsibilities including resolving cases directly.
This semester, the clinic reached a basis for settlement in 17 cases and established installment agreements in six cases, thanks to the hard work of more than a dozen volunteers. In one instance, Jen Rinkenberger (J.D. ‘23), who joined the tax clinic this spring, was able to demonstrate that a taxpayer was legally entitled to credits the IRS previously denied, securing a much-needed refund for the taxpayer.
"What normally takes weeks to months to accomplish could be completed in a single day," she explained. “We didn't have to mail documents back and forth for signatures or sit on hour-long phone calls waiting to ask the IRS questions. The client was able to sign final documents and leave knowing that their case was resolved, and they didn't need to go to court. It was a great experience."
Second-year law student Shanté Ruffin (J.D. ’24) worked with the clinic for the second semester in a row, and this time, helped to settle a case on her own. Ruffin worked with a taxpayer whose monthly expenses exceeded her modest income, leaving her unable to settle what she owed. “If the IRS were to garnish the little wages that she earns, she may not be able to afford to live,” Ruffin explained.
With a few tenacious phone calls, Ruffin was able to have the IRS identify this taxpayer as Currently Not Collectible (CNC) for three years, meaning that the IRS will not engage in any collections efforts against her. “While placing a client into CNC status does not get rid of their tax liability, it does relieve them of the stress of future wage garnishment,” Ruffin said. “It’s a small, but worthy accomplishment.”
Working jointly with the IRS provides a unique learning opportunity for students, helping them put theoretical knowledge into practice under the supervision of IRS attorneys. Students often have no advanced preparation for the types of cases handled on Settlement Days and call on knowledge from their classes to deliver rapid responses to real-world disputes.
Founded in 1992, the tax clinic represents taxpayers who are unable to afford legal representation in federal income or employment tax disputes with the IRS and is nationally recognized for the training it provides students. As the only low-income taxpayer clinic in the city of Atlanta, these pro bono services deliver vital assistance to members of the community who need it the most.
Written by Lauren Allred