Like everything else, the work of the Tax Clinic at UDC Law changed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, but Clinic Director Prof. Jacqueline Lainez Flanagan and her students found a way to continue providing service to their clients. Students, faculty and staff across the University and Law School transitioned to remote operation in March 2020, and that included the clinical program.
Nonetheless, people facing drastic financial measures that could affect their livelihood or health needed the help of the Clinic. Many were clients the Clinic had been working with for years – either experiencing ongoing hardship, dealing with a resurfaced problem or concerned over a new issue. Many elderly clients receive a yearly reminder of an outstanding tax debt that triggers them to contact the Clinic.
The Clinic has pivoted as necessary to assist these clients, often adapting in the moment. “Shortly after the lockdown, a former client physically showed up at our office with an updated collection notice in hand,” said Lainez Flanagan. “This person is in a high-risk category, so protecting their health was our primary concern. Our rotating in-office staff did a wonderful job of collecting their documents and locating me. And I was able to contact the IRS to confirm this person’s ongoing Currently Not Collectible (CNC) status. The former client was very appreciative and noted they were willing to meet in person despite potential risks.”
Jennifer Keane Valdez, a student in the Tax Clinic, said she is excited about the work they are doing to help clients during a time when “stress, anxiety and uncertainty are at an all-time high.” She added, “Facing the challenges that come with a global pandemic – as well as having to deal with a tax issue – is overwhelming, to say the least. I like to believe that we empower and provide our clients with some peace of mind as we walk through each step of confronting their tax issue together.”
“Generally,” she said, “our former and existing clients have exhibited resilience despite many odds and systemic inequities. They prioritize their tax issues,” making the potential risk of an in-person meeting worth it for them. However, Lainez Flanagan added that while many clients were willing to take the chance with an in-person meeting, technology – both new and old – has allowed them mitigate the risk. Despite planning to offer virtual services as long as necessary for public health, Lainez Flanagan believes a post-pandemic world will bring much of their work back to an in-person format, but there may be opportunities to expand the types of services offered thanks to increased familiarity with technology and better tools for connecting.
The Clinic has relied on telephone and U.S. mail to work with clients, as many may not have internet access or the digital literacy to attend virtual meetings via video conference. As well, they have relied on traditional mailing to reach their clients with necessary information. “This has presented important ethical considerations, in terms of protecting communications, preserving confidentiality and navigating representation in a space where the digital divide is stark,” Lainez Flanagan explained. “We have to meet clients where they are in terms of their technological prowess, access to secure technology and more often the lack thereof.”
The Clinic is also working with community partners to develop secure and effective communication methods for clients and revenue departments, including creating virtual events and rendering technical advice to organizations assisting District residents with the CARES Act stimulus payment. Lainez Flanagan stressed the importance of access for immigrant taxpayers attempting to navigate this space with the myriad barriers that exist.
In regard to the specific services the Clinic has provided, Lainez Flanagan said that while issues are not that much different than before the pandemic, there are new complications and circumstances. “For example, a pre-pandemic client may have presented solely with a collection matter,” she explained. “Now, they are still presenting with a collection matter or a pending U.S. Tax Court liability dispute, but they may also be dealing with issues surrounding the Economic Impact Payment (EIP). This is all compounded by reduced IRS operations and the strain of additional economic hardship.”
Additionally, the Clinic has seen an overall reduction in inquiries, but it is unclear whether they are related to the decline in collection activity or other factors. However, “some collection notices did issue, and taxpayers resumed calling upon receipt of these notices, in some instances several notices at once, presumably due to the backlog created by the pandemic,” Lainez Flanagan said.
“On perhaps a more lighthearted note,” Lainez Flanagan shared, “at the precipice of the full lockdown earlier this year, I met with an immigrant ESL couple wielding the biggest tub of Clorox wipes I could find at the time. They smiled and dutifully grabbed a wipe on the way into our meeting – and a couple for the road. That was my last in-person client meeting until we initiated semi-regular client meetings eighteen months later.”