The Federal Tax Clinic notched another victory this fall when Fordham Law students won a case for a client whose spouse had mismanaged household finances, saddling the client with tax debt that should not have been hers to pay.
The client approached the clinic after her husband had failed to pay over $200,000 of taxes due from their joint tax returns. Last summer, 3Ls John Nwaghanata and Jessica Drake and 2L Robert Krieger collected and analyzed the couple’s bank statements and other financial records. The students also obtained psychiatric evaluations as well as personal testimonies from the client and her husband. This background work, Nwaghanata explained, was needed to establish an accurate and effective narrative to present to government officials.
The students’ careful work paid off; the IRS granted the woman full relief from the tax debt and a refund from money the government had previously seized from her.
However, while the client’s tax debts were forgiven at the federal level, she still had to deal with New York State, which agreed to grant her only a partial reprieve. Although her IRS refund would have been enough to meet the demands of the state, the woman desired full justice.
Due to the nature of her husband’s misdeeds, which included depleting all of her retirement savings, “she felt strongly that she shouldn’t have to pay anything,” said Nwaghanata. “And she was right.”
This past fall, Nwaghanata and fellow 3L Allan Chen represented the client at a New York State tax conciliation conference to challenge the state’s determination of partial relief. Nwaghanata and Chen presented the case at the mediation, arguing that the state was applying the tax law incorrectly. Citing legal precedent and presenting the documentary evidence that established the financial abuse and control by the client’s husband, they were able to sway the mediator’s judgment in her favor. In the end, although the husband remained liable, the client’s entire tax debt of over $200,000 was relieved in full.
“While the students’ legal research shaped the framework for our legal arguments, it was their detailed and exhaustive review of the family’s financial records that was the key to winning the client’s case,” said Clinical Professor Elizabeth Maresca, who directs the clinic and supervised the students throughout the case. “The students learned that the factual development of a case can sometimes be just as important as the legal research.”
Nwaghanata and Chen agreed that the experience taught them the importance of listening to their clients and understanding their needs. Such needs, the students said, are often relative to one’s unique situation and background. What constitutes a small sum for one individual may represent a significant amount for another; every injustice ought to be combated, they stressed.
Without the help of the clinic, many of its clients would not be able to access necessary legal services. When these clients obtain legal assistance through the clinic, explained Nwaghanata, they tend to demonstrate complete trust in the clinic students who help them.
“They are grateful for any help,” he said. “They are visibly happy.”
For members of the clinic, that happiness is contagious.
“It was rewarding to have our work culminate in a victory for our client and see her joy,” said Chen. “It was good that her story was heard and validated.”