Jamila is a United States citizen and the single mother of three children. Her husband died before she and her children moved to the United States. Jamila studies hard, but English is still difficult for her. Most of her income goes to cover the family’s basic needs, and she counts on her tax refunds.
The money goes immediately into her savings account as an emergency fund. In 2017, instead of receiving her expected tax refund, Jamila received a letter from the IRS saying that she had a tax deficiency of over $7,000.
Turning to Isuroon for Tax Help
“I knew I didn’t owe money and that I should get a refund,” says Jamila. “Something had gone wrong, but I didn’t know how to get through and reach the right person. It was hard for me to talk with anyone by phone. I didn’t know which door to knock on. I finally came to Isuroon for help.”
Isuroon is a woman-led program in south Minneapolis that partners with Legal Aid’s East African Community Legal Clinic. Isuroon provides office space and interpreters for Staff Attorney Greger Calhan, whose work is generously funded by the Pat and Tom Grossman Family Fund of the Minnesota Community Foundation. The clinic aims to address the difficulties that Minnesota’s East African and Somali communities have in gaining access to justice.
“Jamila was lucky that she came to the Isuroon clinic when she did,” says Calhan, who consulted with Legal Aid colleague Nick Xanthopoulos, Staff Attorney in the tax unit. “Tax law is complicated and highly technical with little accommodation for honest mistakes. The process for bringing a case is complex, and the window for a taxpayer to petition the court for review is quite narrow. If they move too soon or too late, the tax court doors are closed.”
Xanthopoulos immediately recognized that Jamila’s tax court window was open. He also discovered some serious mistakes on her tax return. Legal Aid advises clients to always use a free Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) preparer, because their members must pass a tax and ethics test that is certified by the IRS. Like many of Legal Aid’s tax cases, Jamila’s problem stemmed from mistakes by a paid tax preparer who was either inexperienced or unscrupulous.
“It’s very important to have Legal Aid here at the Isuroon office,” Jamila says. “There are people like me who need help, and it’s good to have a place where we can come and get that help to solve our problems. The government offers benefits to citizens but doesn’t tell you how to get them.”
A Swift Resolution
Calhan and Xanthopoulos helped Jamila file her petition with the tax court. After a series of requests for supporting evidence, which Jamila was able to provide, the Chief Judge of the United States Tax Court determined that Jamila had no tax debt, and that she was entitled to a refund of over $6,000. The refund was paid, and Jamila once again has emergency funds in her savings account.
“Some of the back and forth was related to the confusing, bureaucratic nature of the IRS,” Calhan says. “Rights are only as good as the practical and realistic avenues for enforcing them. If the enforcing tools are inaccessible — physically, culturally, linguistically — then the rights themselves are inaccessible. Working with Isuroon, I can put clients’ rights within reach. Isuroon is a place that is warm, welcoming, and trusted by the community. Somali women, in particular, find that they can get reliable help with complicated problems.”
Jamila appreciates the ease of meeting with a lawyer close to her home and finds Isuroon to be a convenient, familiar, and welcoming place. The staff all speak Somali, and it’s a comfortable place to meet with an attorney.
“I was so relieved and happy with the help I received from Legal Aid,” she says. “I’m very thankful for Isuroon and for Greger and Nick.”