Professor Gellner Hosts Tax CLE: 9th Circuit Win – A Students’ Perspective

September 13, 2017

Last week, the WSBA Taxation Section and Gonzaga Law’s Federal Tax Clinic presented a new kind of CLE that was guaranteed to keep the attendees’ attention. Instead of the usual PowerPoint or webinar, a panel of four former Gonzaga Law Federal Tax Clinic students discussed their recent win before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Palomares v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, No. 15-70659. Led by Jennifer A. Gellner, the director of Gonzaga’s Federal Tax Clinic, the students convinced the circuit court to reverse the U.S. Tax Court in an unpublished decision released on May 31, 2017. The four grads performed the most significant work on the case when they were law students in the Federal Tax Clinic.

The former tax clinic students on the panel were Derek Johnson (’14), who researched and drafted the Tax Court petition and briefs; Natalie Lane (’14), who conducted the Tax Court trial; Davis Mills (’16), who participated in mandatory mediation and took the lead in the drafting of the Ninth Circuit appellate briefs; and, Megan Nibarger (’18), who conducted the oral argument before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. All told, the case took four and a half years and around twenty students to get to this point and, as Professor Gellner pointed out, it is extremely rare to have a Tax Court case go to the Ninth Circuit – and for the taxpayer to win.

Despite the odds, and the lengthy lifespan of the case, the students learned more than simply how to argue the tax code. They learned that grit is a vital part of a lawyer’s character and that it is important to keep going if you think the law is on your side. This hands-on experience also cemented their understanding of the effort, skill, and time that this case specifically, and practicing law generally, requires. In this case, the Federal Tax Clinic will be requesting attorney’s fees from the Court to be paid by the IRS, which will benefit the continuing work of the tax clinic in helping low income taxpayers against the IRS and in Tax Court —so stay tuned for the next chapter of Palomares v. Commissioner.