Clinic Successfully Advocates for Poverty Amendment to Tax Law

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A group of Fordham Law students and clinic professors have been strongly advocating for an important amendment to a New York State tax law. This week they gathered to celebrate a victory in the form of the amendment’s passing.

Tax Law § 171-v mandates the Department of Taxation and Finance to suspend an individual’s driver’s license if they owe $10,000 or more in past-due state tax debt. For three years, Fordham students have lobbied the state legislature to include a hardship exemption for low-income New Yorkers. The students worked on the project through Fordham Law’s Poverty, Tax, and Justice Clinic and its Legislative and Policy Advocacy Clinic and under the supervision of professors Elizabeth Maresca and Elizabeth B. Cooper.

The law, which has been very effective at raising revenue for the state, led low-income New Yorkers to lose their driver’s licenses not because they did not want to pay their tax debt, but because they could not pay.  Now, thanks to the new amendment, which was included in the 2020 New York State Budget, low-income taxpayers will be able to challenge the suspension of their driver’s license.

“I never imagined that a group of students could have a direct impact on State legislation,” said 3L Gaby Kornblau, one of the students who took part in the project. “Two years ago, we drafted the amendments and we sent them to Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, who used them to shape her proposed legislation,” Kornblau continued. “It’s been great to have such an impact on something that I previously thought was so out of reach for students to be able to do.”

As soon as the law was passed in 2013, Prof. Elizabeth Maresca, who also teaches the Law School’s Federal Tax Clinic, predicted there would be trouble.

“I anticipated that it was going to be a very big problem for our clients,” Professor Maresca said. “We started getting phone calls from low-income taxpayers whose driver’s license was being suspended.” When it became clear that the Department of Taxation and Finance would not exempt the people who were too poor to pay off their tax debt, she decided to attack the law in court, as well as on the legislative side.

Professor Elizabeth Cooper, who also teaches Fordham’s Clinic for Legislative and Policy Advocacy, said that the project was a “perfect collaboration.”

For the students, the project was demanding and fast-paced. They began by doing research on how the law was affecting low-income New Yorkers; then, they worked on the language for the proposed amendment, and started looking for sponsors in the State Assembly.

3L Jessie Boas, who was involved in the cause from the beginning, said the group submitted dozens of FOIA requests to get access to public records. They discovered that as many as 80,000 people received a notice on their driver’s license suspension between 2014 and 2017.

With the help of the professors, the students traveled multiple times to Albany and to legislators’ district offices; they created and distributed advocacy materials and presented oral testimony before the Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means Committees at the Joint Legislative Budget Hearing on Tax.

“It felt like a job, not like a class,” said 3L Gaby Kornblau. “Now we can use these skills when we start working.”

The team of students this year also included Elaine Aquila, Rachel C. Smith, Samantha Zuckerman, and Daria Schieferstein. The Clinic is nominating the project for the Clinical Legal Education Association’s Award for Excellence in a Public Interest Case or Project.  Prior students who worked on the project include Jessie Boas, Emerson Argueta ‘18, Joshua Liebman ‘17 and Christopher Ziemba ‘17.

Prof. Maresca said that the amendment that was passed in the State Budget has the potential to truly protect all of the low-income clients represented by clinics around the state. “I hope that the new law more readily allows people to represent themselves against the Department of Taxation,” she said.

New Yorkers will now be exempt from the law if they receive public assistance or supplemental security income, or if they demonstrate that the license suspension will cause them undue economic hardship. The amendment also requires that these exemptions be included in the notice sent by the Department of Taxation and Finance to taxpayers to notify them of impending license suspension. These provisions will affect tens of thousands of New Yorkers.

The Clinic said it will continue to work to ensure that low-income taxpayers are protected by the new law.

“The students worked so well together. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of collaborators,” Prof. Maresca concluded. “They were exemplary.”

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