Clinic delivers for veteran after battle with IRS
The story of how Jin Park and John Clynch met spans two decades, three continents and hundreds of volunteer hours. Its plot revolves around a house, and a $12,000 check set the final act in motion.
And it ends, as it so often has for Clynch and his students in UW Law’s Federal Tax Clinic, with justice being served.
Park was just 16 years old when he immigrated to the United States with his parents from South Korea. They opened a small grocery store in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood where Park helped out as the only English-speaking member of the family.
Park stayed local for college, earning his undergraduate degree at the UW’s Jackson School of International Studies before heading halfway around the world as an active duty member in the United States Army.
Over the course of three tours in Iraq (twice) and Djibouti, Africa, Park faced challenges in his personal life. He divorced from his wife, suffered a leg injury that required months of rehab in an army hospital, and had to walk away from the house he and his now-ex-wife owned together. That’s when financially, things got weird.
“When you get through the clinic experience, you feel like you can go out and practice.”John Clynch
“I left the house in August 2014, and by November, I received a $12,000 check from [the loan-holding bank] saying ‘thank you for your service’ with a phone number to an automated message,” Park said. “I didn’t know what the check was about.”
The problem was that the IRS saw the $12,000 park received as income and wanted to assess tax on it. But because the bank did not identify the reason for the check, whether or not it was taxable was in dispute. That’s when Park connected with John Clynch.
Clynch is managing director of UW Law’s Federal Tax Clinic and a senior law lecturer at the school. Over his time at the UW, he has worked with hundreds of students interested in getting hands-on experience in tax law — experience that includes contacting the IRS, writing up case memos, and working directly with clients as first-chair attorney on each case under Clynch’s supervision.
The mission of the Federal Tax Clinic is to assist low-income individuals throughout Western Washington to resolve their disputes with the IRS. The clinic offers this assistance as a public service and as a means of training law students in tax practice.
Each year, approximately 18 students join the clinic, working with a network of 45 volunteer attorneys to handle individual caseloads
“When you first start in the clinic, your stomach’s going to be churning,” Clynch said. “It’s a lot of responsibility. Before they start, I sit down with each student and go over their cases, then we meet at least once per week after that. After a few weeks, they get into the groove and start feeling comfortable.”
During the year, students work on cases with potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake. They work on behalf of people in moments of financial panic. And they learn the complex structure of the federal tax law system and what it’s like to see a case through from start to finish.
Year over year, the clinic delivers. Over the course of 345 cases and 701 volunteer hours in 2018, students secured refunds totaling $40,426 to clients, and clients’ taxes, penalties and interest were lowered by $2.7 million.
The experience, Clynch noted, is invaluable both for those interested in tax law and those looking to practice in other fields.
“When you get through the clinic experience, you feel like you can go out and practice,” he said. “Not just in tax law, because you see how it’s structured, you see the processes, and you get used to working with clients, getting organized and following through.
“With any type of law, students learn that if they do the research and ask the right questions, they can get through it.”
When Park received the check, he had just walked away from the house he still owned with his ex-wife. She had since gotten remarried and moved to Issaquah with their kids, and Park was moving as well to be able to spend more time with his son and daughter.
When the check indicating something was off arrived in the mail, Park was not in a position to secure legal services and dig in for a lengthy battle in court. He had heard of the tax clinic during his time at the UW, so he forwarded along the letter and gave them a call. That’s when he met Clynch for the first time.
Clynch took up the case with two students, one who went to work for an accounting firm and the other who joined a law firm.
For two years, Park remained in constant contact with the tax clinic team as the case worked its way to trial.
“I knew they’d get the job done for me, so I was patient, and I had a great experience.”Jin Park
“The entire time [the loan-holding bank] stonewalled us,” Clynch said. “They would never let us know what the check was for. A tax court judge got involved, but the bank continued to say they had no information. We tried negotiating with the IRS attorney, but the tax court attorney wasn’t willing to negotiate. And in the end, the judge found in our favor.”
The mystery of the check was never solved — the bank never verified the origins of the funds. But in the end, it didn’t matter: Without being able to prove the money was in fact income, the IRS was unable to assess tax on it. Just like that, it was over.
Park is now in his 20th year of his military career. In that time, he has risen through the ranks and today lives near his children, of whom he has joint custody, as a member of the U.S. Army Reserves.
His experience with the clinic, he said, was key to him taking the next steps forward in his life.
“The clinic was so great,” he said. “Every time I tried to talk to them, they got right back to me. I just followed what John said, and I knew they’d get the job done for me, so I was patient, and I had a great experience.”
For Clynch, the case was another example of the impact students can have in the lives of others.
“It’s really interesting work as you run into issues you won’t typically run into in normal tax practice because you’re working here with low-income clients,” Clynch said. “And it’s fun.”