Students in Ronald M. Mankoff Tax Clinic Secure Major Settlement for Client

When U.S. Tax Court came to Saint Paul this spring, three students and Professor Caleb Smith, director of Minnesota Law’s Ronald M. Mankoff Tax Clinic, were on hand to provide legal support for low-income, unrepresented taxpayers who have a tax controversy. Their support paid off for one individual, whose case changed from a motion to dismiss, with her owing $348, to a settlement in which she will receive a refund of approximately $11,000.

“This was a pretty big win for her and a pretty dramatic change of events,” Smith said. “The students and I reviewed her tax return and thought she was right. But like many people, she was very nervous. Part of our job is to put people at ease. She did everything right, but she got caught up in this scary system.”

After reviewing her documents, the students and Smith laid out their case for the Internal Revenue Service attorney. “The IRS took our work and three hours later agreed that our client was right, that she was due about $11,000,” said Smith.

Caroline Moriarty, 2L, said this experience showed her how valuable representation can be for an unrepresented taxpayer. “We didn't collect documentation, do any legal work, or know any of the facts of our client's story before that day,” she said. “Yet, because we knew the law, the procedure, and most importantly, how to work with the IRS, we were able to settle much quicker than if the client went at it on her own.”

Securing justice for this client helped Xiaoyuan Zhou, 3L, understand the skills necessary to achieve successful outcomes. “I came to understand that tasks we usually do in the Clinic, like collecting documents, gathering information, examining potential courses of actions and analyzing legal options and implications, are all essential skills that all aspiring attorneys should cultivate.”

Before reaching the settlement, the judge in the case invited Smith and the students to his chambers, where he spent an hour answering their questions.  

Currently, 13 students are enrolled in the Mankoff Tax Clinic, which is supported by a federal grant. “But for our clinic, people with low income wouldn’t have options for representation,” said Smith. “Clinic students are now doing the same level of work they will be paid to do at firms in a matter of months so it’s an enormous value both for them to get the experience and for the clients to be recipients of their good work.

Cierra Johnson, 2L, the third student involved in this recent case, found enormous value in the experience working with a real client. “Being able to gather the information needed to best represent them and put them at ease are all skills that can only be learned through experience and working with many clients from varied backgrounds,” she said. “I feel confident these are skills I am learning through my work in the Clinic and will help me better represent my clients in the future.”