Clinical and Pro Bono Programs

Providing clinical and pro bono opportunities to Harvard Law School students

Tag: Tax Clinic

LSC Clinics Work Creatively to Assist Client Communities Affected by COVID-19

via LSC blog

The attorneys and student advocates at the Legal Services Center continue to work tirelessly for our clients as they face unprecedented challenges and financial distress.  Below is a brief update on just some of our latest work and innovative approaches as we advocate for our client community during these trying times.

Veterans Clinic

Getting safety net benefits to veterans in need

Our clinic has reported a tenfold increase in recent visitors to our new online calculator—MassVetBen.org—that helps veterans determine their eligibility for a unique $72 million Massachusetts program which offers emergency cash assistance to veterans and their family members for basic needs such as housing, food, fuel, and medical care. Although this program is more crucial than ever during the COVID crisis, disabled and low-income veterans often remain in the dark about how to actually access these benefits. We and other advocates have been reaching out to the state Department of Veterans Services and the media to get more financial assistance into the hands of our low-income veterans more quickly. Read the Boston Globe’s coverage of our advocacy efforts.

A social distance success: Executing estate documents in a pandemic world

When the pandemic began, Destini Agüero, director of LSC’s Estate Planning Project, was concerned because the Project’s clients—all of whom are disabled veterans and many of whom are of advanced age—face a unique combination of challenges in the COVID-19 outbreak. They have urgent needs to get their estates in order, are at high risk from the virus, and may lack access to virtual platforms or not be able to easily navigate them. In addition, until legislation was passed in late April, the execution of wills and other estate documents required an in-person notary.

LSC staff members carry out an outdoor, socially distant document execution for a veteran client.

Student attorney Bryce Burgwyn ’21—a veteran herself—had established a trusting relationship with her elderly client, a U.S. Air Force veteran seeking documents that protected his wishes in the event of a crisis. Burgwyn worked tirelessly since the start of the Spring semester to counsel her client and draft his estate planning documents. Once remote learning for law students was in place, Burgwyn pivoted immediately to ensure she stayed connected with her client and established a schedule of regular phone calls to complete his documents. She was not deterred by the added challenges the pandemic brought, and instead further earned her client’s trust as she assured him that her level of representation would not waiver despite an inability to meet in person.

Once his documents were completed, Agüero and her students set out to find a way to execute them. They created a plan for an outdoor document execution that would keep all parties well beyond six feet apart while still allowing for the documents to be reviewed, signed, and notarized. Agüero put out a call for volunteers to her LSC colleagues, looking for two witnesses and one notary. She also provided a detailed plan for the unique process to everyone ahead of time—what documents would be emailed and printed beforehand; what materials everyone would need to bring; and step-by-step rules for how the process would happen with all parties maintaining appropriate distance and personal protection.

On the day of the document execution, with chairs aligned around a field and plenty of hand sanitizer available, the process went smoothly, and the client was very happy to have his documents completed and fully executed. He now had peace of mind that his affairs were in order. Agüero expressed gratitude for the collaborative spirit that made the process a success, saying, “I’m incredibly appreciative to my colleagues who were willing and able to volunteer. With the help of our fantastic LSC community, we’ll continue to find creative ways of helping people during this crisis.”

Social Security Disability and SNAP/Food Stamp wins yield over 137,000 in back payments plus sizable monthly benefits for clients

In the two short weeks of March before LSC moved to remote work, Safety Net Project Director Julie McCormack, and her students (two of them veterans themselves) represented four clients in administrative hearings before the Social Security Administration and the Massachusetts Welfare Department. Three cases have been decided already, despite both agencies having moved to remote work – resulting in more than $137,000 in back payments for clients, plus ongoing benefits totaling $2360 per month moving forward. Read the full article…

Criminal record sealing self-help materials developed

Safety Net Project Director Julie McCormack and the students working with her on criminal record sealing (a mostly administrative process before the Massachusetts Probation Service) have taken advantage of the enforced slow-down brought about by COVID19 to develop audio-visual self-help materials for veterans and others seeking to remove the stigma of long ago involvement in the criminal justice system. These materials will be shared with Veterans Advocacy groups and community activists over the coming month. Read more…

Project on Predatory Student Lending

Class action filed against Florida Career College

The Project on Predatory Student Lending filed suit on behalf of students of Florida Career College (FCC), a Florida-based for-profit college chain, for selling a predatory product systematically targeting Black students using false representations and high-pressure sales tactics that leave students in mountains of debt they cannot repay.

FCC is a for-profit college that operates multiple campuses in Florida and one in Texas. Co-counsel for the case are the law firms Gelber Schachter & Greenberg and Carella, Byrne, Cecchi, Olstein, Brody & Agnello.

The suit was filed as a class action in federal court, despite FCC’s history of using of forced arbitration provisions in their contracts, because a 2016 federal rule requires schools taking federal student aid—like FCC—to agree that students may bring claims like this in court. FCC’s programs cost up to $51,925, yet in Fall 2018, FCC spent only between 4 and 18 percent of the tuition on programs at its Hialeah, West Palm Beach and Lauderdale Lakes campuses.

Its racially focused tactics include using Black models in many of its advertisements, targeting high schools with large percentages of Black students for outreach, and targeting its media placements to outlets whose audiences are predominantly people of color. Learn more from the Project on Predatory Lending’s press release about the suit, and additional coverage from Republic Report and Law.com.

Family Law/Domestic Violence Clinic

In telephone hearing, student wins protections for client seeking to extend restraining order against an abusive spouse

A student successfully represented a client looking to extend her restraining order against an abusive spouse amid the COVID-19 crisis. The hearing – held by telephone rather than in person due to the virus – resulted in the client obtaining a one–year extension of the restraining order, which was a longer-than-anticipated extension from the court.

Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic

Debt extinguished, debt collector punished

A judge ruled that a Fall River woman sued by a debt collector in the City of Boston should have her $4,000 debt extinguished and receive a $1,250 payment from the debt collector after her LSC student attorney successfully argued that the debt collector had erred in filing the suit in Boston when state law requires that such suits be filed in the jurisdiction where the debtor lives. The $1,250 payment was levied for the inconvenience to the client of having to drive to Boston to appear in court.

Tax Clinic

Fighting for tax justice on behalf of exonerees

The Tax Clinic has been fighting on behalf of multiple individuals who were exonerated for crimes and subsequently received substantial payments for wrongful incarceration. In 2015 Congress passed a new code section, 139F, excluding payments received as a result of exoneration from inclusion in income. It made the exclusion retroactive; however, before the passage of this section many exonerees had received payments causing engagement with the tax system. Across the country a number of exonerees were being pursued by the IRS for taxes that were believed to be owed on the exoneration payments made before 2015. In one case, thanks to the work of Tax Clinic students and lawyers, the tax liability has been successfully reduced from several hundred thousand to $419 dollars. That individual had been wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and incarcerated for twelve years. In another case, where an individual had been wrongly incarcerated for seven years a tax liability of over $100,000 has been reduced to zero. Both men were released after DNA evidence conclusively proved their innocence. The Tax Clinic continues its partnership with the non-profit organization After Innocence to assist exonerated individuals with any tax problems they may have.

HLS clinics and students fight for the most vulnerable amid COVID-19

via Harvard Law Today

by Brett Milano

Computer screen showing Zoom session between three people

Zack Manley ’21 (upper left) and Norah Rast ’21 meet with Clinical Professor Sabi Ardalan ’02 (upper right), director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, to discuss legal strategy to get their client, an asylum seeker, out of Stewart Detention Center, where several employees and immigrants have tested positive for COVID-19. They recently won a stay of their client’s deportation and are appealing his case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

For the Clinical Program at Harvard Law School, the past weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic have been a time to mobilize. As the clinics have moved to working remotely, their work has continued with new urgency—and often, with new challenges as well.

“The Law School’s clinics and student practice organizations have been incredibly nimble in their ability to continue to advocate for their existing clients and also to take on the emerging legal needs of community members related to the COVID-19 outbreak,” says Dan Nagin, Clinical Professor of Law and Vice Dean for Experiential and Clinical Education. “Clinical directors and supervisors and their students are using a variety of technology—from Zoom to FaceTime to telephone—to be accessible to each other and to their client communities, and to meet the pressing legal needs of the most vulnerable. Many courts and agencies have ongoing and active dockets and are conducting hearings remotely, and students, staff, and faculty at clinics and student practice organizations across HLS are continuing to do critical work in a variety of legal areas.”

“This work also includes absolutely vital policy advocacy by clinics to ensure that governmental responses to the pandemic take into account questions of equity and access to healthcare, financial assistance, and other supports,” Nagin added.

Each clinic has also adapted to working online. “Zoom is our new best friend,”  says Clinical Professor Robert Greenwald, faculty director of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation (CHLPI). “I’ve learned to teach online, and I’m now a savant at Google Docs. I have AirPods attached to my head for 12-15 hours each day. But we’ve adjusted.”

CHLPI, he says, remains on the front line of advocating for the care and treatment of low-income populations. “We are working to secure testing and treatment, as well as all other necessary health care, for those who are most vulnerable, including many people living with AIDs, racial and ethnic groups that are historically disenfranchised, and the growing number of people who are uninsured.”

The work involves numerous efforts on both the local and national levels. They have called on the Trump administration to use its emergency authority to allow for early and extended drug refills, and to fill gaps in the next stimulus package, including an increase in Medicaid funding and an extension of no-cost testing and treatment. They are also working with several partners, such as Feeding America and the national Food is Medicine Coalition, to address the food and nutrition needs of vulnerable populations. And they are working to promote equal health access within Massachusetts, calling on Governor Charlie Baker to collect and publish testing data related to race and ethnicity to identify the hardest-hit groups.

Robert Greenwald as seen through a video conferencing screen

Robert Greenwald, faculty director of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, has shared his public health expertise with multiple national media outlets during the COVID-19 crisis, including in an April 8 interview with WNBC on privacy concerns with police departments maintaining a list of addresses of confirmed coronavirus cases.

CHLPI has also taken on the challenge of preserving the Affordable Care Act. Two students, Isaac Green ’22 and Will Dobbs-Allsopp ’20, are currently working to get the Trump administration and 18 state attorneys general to withdraw from a Supreme Court challenge to the ACA. Though the administration seems determined to overturn the act, Dobbs-Allsopp says, grassroots efforts on the local level could make the difference. The clinic is planning to work with community health groups in different states.

“At the end of the day, attorneys general are politicians who respond to political pressure. People’s interest in universal health coverage has picked up, and you’re going to see some interesting polling in the next few weeks,” Dobbs-Allsopp says. “They’re realizing that getting rid of this law means the disease will persist and the economy will get even worse.”

In addition to the work we’re doing with individual clients, we are asking what work we can be doing to fight the systemic causes of poverty, so that these issues don’t keep coming up.

Kiah Duggins ’21, Harvard Legal Aid Bureau president

The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB) correctly predicted that the virus would disproportionately affect minority and impoverished communities—an idea that is only now beginning to hit the mainstream. HLAB’s President Kiah Duggins ’21, who works closely with HLAB Faculty Director Esme Caramello ’99, cites the inaccuracy of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s reference to the virus as “the great equalizer.”

“The narrative is that anyone can get the virus, which is true. But low-income workers are either on the frontlines without adequate protection, or they’re disproportionately in danger of losing their jobs,” Duggins says. “And as the numbers come out, we’re seeing that black people are dying at disproportionately high rates.”

She adds, “This has raised interesting discussions about our mission, because a lot of the issues that Americans are facing because of the crisis have been faced by lower-income people forever. The crisis has elevated that in the public consciousness. So, in addition to the work we’re doing with individual clients, we are asking what work we can be doing to fight the systemic causes of poverty, so that these issues don’t keep coming up.”

This, she says, includes working with Greater Boston Legal Services and City Life/Vida Urbana in Jamaica Plain.

“Even before the crisis we were trying to promote racial and economic justice, to empower those communities directly,” Duggins says. “And the crisis has made it clear how the causes and consequences of poverty affect these communities. So we’re now able to get things done, like an eviction moratorium or rent suspension. People who weren’t supportive before are supportive now because it affects a broader swath of people.”

A group of HLAB members standing in front of MA House of Representative steps. Many are holding signs or banners.

In early March, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Greater Boston Legal Services and City Life/Vida Urbana organized a rally in front of Boston Housing Court to make the case for a complete halt to any evictions while the state of emergency in Massachusetts remains in effect. On April 2, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed legislation based on HD.4935, an act providing for a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the COVID-19 emergency.

HLAB has also been working to help the University support lower-income Harvard students who were approved to continue living in on-campus housing. “Many of the members of HLAB are lower-income and people of color, so the worlds are more interconnected than you might think. We want to make sure we’re creating healthy lawyers,” Duggins says.

The Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC) is continuing its mission of advocating for immigrant justice. And it’s now, more than ever, trying to respond to the health-threatening conditions within immigration detention centers.

“We’re continuing our work on behalf of clients, including litigation and policy advocacy,” says HIRC Director and Clinical Law Professor Sabrineh Ardalan ’02. “We’re focusing on getting clients out of immigration detention, given the conditions and risks of being detained right now due to COVID-19.”

One of the HIRC clients, she notes, is an asylum seeker detained at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, where conditions are dire. “He sleeps in a room with more than 60 people in bunk beds, so there is no social distancing. At meals, they sit four to a table and he works in food prep, where there are 30-40 people who work the shift. Very few guards have protective gear, and there are documented reports of officials and immigrants with COVID-19 in the facility.”

Circumstances in Massachusetts detention facilities, Ardalan says, are also dismal. The Crimmigration Clinic, directed by Phil Torrey, has filed habeas petitions to seek the release of two immigrant clients detained at the Franklin County House of Correction in Greenfield, Mass. The petitions argue that these individuals are being held in violation of their Fifth Amendment rights and both have lodged claims concerning potential COVID-19 exposure. Sarah Libowsky ’20 and Michael Hur ’20 are tentatively scheduled to argue one of the habeas petitions on April 16 before Judge Mark G. Mastroianni, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

Similarly, the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic at Greater Boston Legal Services, led by Nancy Kelly and John Willshire Carrera, joined the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire in filing an emergency federal habeas lawsuit on behalf of an indigenous Guatemalan asylum seeker detained in Strafford, New Hampshire, and managed to secure his release from detention.

HIRC attorneys and its social work team are also trying to respond to the needs of immigrant clients who are not detained, but who are in precarious circumstances due to COVID-19. “Some are worried about how to pay rent and feed their families. Others are still going to work, because remote work isn’t an option, and their health is at risk because of it,” Ardalan says. Immigrant families may be afraid to access the health care and services they need, due to concerns about immigration enforcement.

HIRC has joined the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, among dozens of other organizations, in submitting a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local county sheriffs and jail wardens of the facilities that contract with ICE, urging them to cease local immigration enforcement operations and arrests and release immigrants in custody in light of the pandemic.

“It has been very difficult. A variety of lawsuits have been filed across the country with mixed results,” Ardalan says. One encouraging sign, she says, is that some local courts and officials have proved willing to step in and order immigrants’ release from detention. “I hope that all our advocacy efforts will bear fruit, because circumstances are so dire.”

Screenshot shows a Zoom meeting with 9 women holding signs that read 'free her'

The Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project is advocating for immediate release of vulnerable inmates who pose no public risk to protect the incarcerated community from COVID-19.

The Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP) has also been working to keep incarcerated people safe from COVID-19. PLAP hosted a Zoom phone bank on April 3 as part of the Massachusetts week of action, organized by Families for Justice as Healing and the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. PLAP is calling on district attorneys, sheriffs, the governor, elected representatives, and the Massachusetts Department of Corrections to demand immediate release of vulnerable inmates who pose no public risk to protect the incarcerated community from COVID-19.

Harvard’s Federal Tax Clinic has remained busy even as the IRS itself has largely shut down. That means pressing forward with cases that were underway before the pandemic hit. “We deal with people having some kind of problem with the IRS—either they owe and they need to work out payments, or the IRS says they owe more than they think,” says Clinic Director T. Keith Fogg. Clients are currently having difficulty reaching anyone at the IRS—which has closed its last operating service center, causing cases in the administrative stage to be put on hold. Yet cases in court are still moving forward remotely, so there is still plenty of work for clinic students.

The clinic is also working with direct consequences of the pandemic, including laying some groundwork for the post-recovery era. For one thing, Fogg says, we can probably expect a shift to more email filing and electronic signatures in the future. And the recent implementation of the CARES act, which provides a $1200 rebate to some workers, has also opened work possibilities.

“We’ve been talking a fair amount to people at the IRS about implementing their procedures during the crisis, and explaining to the community what new provisions mean,” Fogg says. The clinic is already engaged in advocacy to reduce the number of people who need to file a tax return to receive the rebate (the IRS has already exempted regular social security recipients). Advocacy efforts are ongoing to exempt recipients of Supplemental Security Income and Veterans benefits who desperately need the financial help.

Faculty and students at the Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) have also stepped up their work during the pandemic, writing briefs aimed at saving tons of food that could feed the hungry, and working to inform the response to COVID-19, including congressional legislation. In the early stages of the crisis, FLPC acted quickly to outline avenues for donating excess food in the wake of campus and business shutdowns to help feed the hungry. Since then, the clinic has developed and amplified several other resources on using food donation to support food banks and other food recovery organizations, which are facing both an increase in demand and limited resources.

“There are already so many people who were in vulnerable situations,” says Emily Broad Leib ’08, director of FLPC and deputy director of the Harvard Law School Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation. “The crisis has exacerbated food access challenges for those people, and it has added so many more individuals and families in need. Workers are losing jobs, especially those doing hourly work—many, in fact, who work in the food industry. We are going to see a huge increase in people who suddenly need help getting basic needs met, especially food.”

Screen shot of Emily Broad Lieb speaking on a podcast about food law

On “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg” on March 25, Emily Broad Leib, director of HLS’ Food Law & Policy Clinic, talked about food law and policy concerns in the COVID-19 crisis, including protecting and promoting better wages for food workers.

The FLPC has also responded to new concerns about food safety by preparing an issue brief with recommendations for federal and state governments to facilitate food delivery during the crisis using existing food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

They also have come up with proposals for getting food from food banks and other organizations delivered directly to people’s doors, and for getting Congress to  support these community-based food delivery organizations. Their recommendations include investments in technologies that connect food donors to recovery organizations.

“We make the point that these technologies can be really responsive to the challenges of the moment,” says Broad Leib, “but most of them have been developed by small nonprofits. Helping them scale up quickly to meet the needs of the growing number of people who need food support is going to require an investment.”

Remembering Dale Kensinger

via Procedurally Taxing

by Keith Fogg

Black and white headshot of Dale Kensinger

Dale Kensinger

On January 15, 2020, Dale Kensinger passed away leaving a big hole at the Tax Clinic at Harvard Law School.  You can find his obituary here.  Until very recently Dale put in a few days a week doing volunteer work at the tax clinic, where he had his own dedicated office as part of the supervising team.

I first met Dale on March 14, 1977, when I started working for Chief Counsel, IRS in Branch 3 of the Refund Litigation Division.  Dale was one of nine attorneys in the branch and was the second most senior.  As a newly minted law school graduate, I remember thinking Dale, who was about 35 at the time, was really old.  He was also extremely knowledgeable, generous with his time and kind.  I was fortunate to start my legal career in a small branch of attorneys that included someone like Dale.

Dale moved on to the Kansas City office of Chief Counsel only nine months after I arrived.  I moved on after just 18 months because of a reorganization that sent all of us to field offices across the country or to other National Office divisions.  Dale worked in the Kansas City office from 1978 to 1999 where he became the Assistant District Counsel.  Other than seeing him at the occasional training program, our paths essentially did not cross during these years though we both worked for the same large organization.

He retired in 1999 and founded the low income taxpayer clinic at University of Missouri – Kansas City.  He also became active in the ABA tax section and quickly rose to leadership in the low income taxpayer committee.  When I retired in 2007 and began teaching at Villanova, I reconnected with Dale through the ABA Tax Section.  Then Dale retired again in 2009 to move from Kansas City to Boston to be near his daughter, Elizabeth.  Following his retirement from the UMKC clinic, Dale became less active with the ABA but he was not finished helping low income taxpayers.

My colleague at the Legal Services Center at Harvard, Dan Nagin, arrived in 2012 to start a veteran’s clinic and quickly found that he had many clients who needed tax assistance.  Dan searched around for someone who could help these clients and connected with Dale.  Dale worked with volunteer students from Harvard to service the veteran clients until Dan could convince the Harvard faculty to formally start a tax clinic.  When the tax clinic formally started in 2015, I came to Harvard as a visitor to get it going and had the incredibly good fortune to have Dale there already to guide me once again.

Dale served three years in the air force during the Vietnam War.  His time as a veteran, his kind and patient nature as well as his deep knowledge of tax practice, allowed him to fix the tax problems of many veterans, and others, during the five years I worked with him in the tax clinic at Harvard.  He not only handled a substantial docket but he mentored students, fellows and me.  The tax clinic misses him on many levels.  His clients miss him deeply and several have commented to me over the past two months how much he helped them and how much they hoped and prayed for his recovery.

Because of his extraordinary service to low income taxpayers in his retirement, Dale was selected in 2018 as the co-recipient of the Janet Spragens Pro Bono Award which is the only annual award given by the Tax Section.  The ABA Tax Section describes the award and the selection criteria as follows:

This award was established in 2002 to recognize one or more individuals or law firms for outstanding and sustained achievements in pro bono activities in tax law. In 2007 the award was renamed in honor of the late Janet Spragens, who received the award in 2006 in recognition of her dedication to the development of low income taxpayer clinics throughout the United States.

Throughout the 50+ years of his career as a tax lawyer, Dale provided a model of caring about finding the right answer through his legal skills and caring about his clients with his interpersonal skills.  At the tax clinic we are reminded daily of Dale’s work as we try to finish what he started with the clients he was representing.  We were very fortunate to have him as a colleague and a role model for so many years.  I will miss our regular talks about baseball, politics, difficult clients, difficult IRS employees and wonderful granddaughters.  Our thoughts and condolences go out to his family at this time.