UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
January 12, 1978
Michael M. Conway, Plaintiff
United States Internal Revenue Service, Defendant
Gasch, District Judge.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: GASCH
GASCH, District Judge:
Plaintiff herein seeks access to certain Internal Revenue Service (IRS) documents pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552 (1976). On September 8, 1976, plaintiff requested from the IRS
(1) all statements of policy, final decisions and instructions to staff relating to the Ontario Mining Tax ("OMT") imposed by the Province of Ontario, Canada, particularly the creditability of the OMT as a foreign tax credit under Section 901 of the Internal Revenue Code and (2) any orders, summaries or written records of a meeting held on April 24, 1975 between IRS personnel and Dr. Thomas A. Mohide, the Ontario Mining Assessor who administers the OMT.
In its initial search, the defendant found two documents it deemed responsive to the request, but it notified plaintiff by letter on June 7, 1977, that it would not produce either of them. On June 20, 1977, plaintiff filed this action. As a result of discussions between the parties, the IRS conducted another search of its files and found additional documents bringing the total number at issue in this case to forty.
These forty documents generally appear to fall within one of three categories, but all were generated in connection with two technical advice memoranda (TAM)
dealing with the creditability of the Ontario Mining Tax as a foreign tax credit under section 901 of the Internal Revenue Code. The three categories of documents are:
(1) the two technical advice memoranda and the documents constituting the background file for each;
(2) a proposed revenue ruling based on the first TAM and documents generated in the course of its consideration by various officials of the IRS (this led to promulgation of the second TAM); and
(3) additional documents generated during consideration of proposed revenue rulings dealing with the creditability of the tax after issuance of the second TAM.
The case is now before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. The issues presented to the Court essentially are whether the documents within category one are exempt from disclosure at this time because of the effect of the Tax Reform Act of 1976
and whether the documents in categories two and three are exempt from disclosure because they are documents exempted by other statutes
or are interagency memoranda,
The threshold issue concerns the possible lack of subject matter jurisdiction by this Court to grant plaintiff's request for access to the documents within category one. This issue arises out of section 1201 of the Tax Reform Act of 1976,
which added a new section 6110 to the Internal Revenue Code providing a complex statutory framework for public disclosure of "any written determination and any background file document relating to such written determination." I.R.C. § 6110(a). A "written determination" is defined as "a ruling, determination letter, or technical advice memorandum." I.R.C. § 6110(b)(1). A "background file document" is defined to include
the request for that written determination, any written material submitted in support of the request, and any communication (written or otherwise) between the [IRS] and persons outside the [IRS] in connection with such determination . .. received before issuance of the written determination.
I.R.C. § 6110(b)(2). These definitions clearly encompass the documents described in category one above. The general rule is that these documents are to be open to the public pursuant to regulations prescribing the place for inspection. There is an exception to this rule, however. Subsection (h) addresses written determinations and related background file documents that were issued pursuant to a request made before November 1, 1976. It provides that these documents are to be made "available to public inspection at the earliest practicable date after funds for that purpose have been appropriated and made available to the [IRS]."
I.R.C. § 6110(h)(2) (emphasis added). The two technical advice memoranda and the background documents at issue here were both requested prior to November 1, 1976. Therefore, the express language of subsection (h) would apply, requiring plaintiff to await for disclosure under this provision.
Plaintiff submits, however, that section 6110 does not apply because the two exceptions to the exclusivity provision of section 6110 permit disclosure in this case. That provision provides:
EXCLUSIVE REMEDY. -- Except as otherwise provided in this title, or with respect to a discovery order made in connection with a judicial proceeding, the Secretary shall not be required by any Court to make any written determination or background file document open or available to public inspection, or to refrain from disclosure of any such documents.
I.R.C. § 6110(l). Plaintiff argues that an order granting disclosure pursuant to an FOIA request can be interpreted as a "discovery order made in connection with a judicial proceeding." This argument is without merit, however, because the legislative history of section 6110 clearly indicates that Congress intended the provisions of this section to replace those of the FOIA in this area. S. Rep. 938, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. 314-15 (1976); see H.R. Rep. 1515, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. 474 (1976). Plaintiff also argues that this exceptive provision applies because the effective date of the Tax Reform Act is a provision "in this title," and therefore it should not apply to FOIA requests prior to that effective date.
Although at first blush this argument appears to have merit, Congress also addressed this point, and its resolution is contrary to plaintiff's position.
Congress was aware that its enactment of section 6110 would have an effect upon FOIA requests then pending.
Therefore, it added to the Act a provision which states:
EFFECT UPON PENDING REQUESTS. -- Any written determination or background file document which is the subject of a judicial proceeding pursuant to section 552 of title 5, United States Code, commenced before January 1, 1976, shall not be treated as a written determination subject to subsection (h)(1), but shall be available to the complainant along with the background file document, if requested, as soon as practicable after July 1, 1976.
Tax Reform Act of 1976, Pub. L. No. 94-455, § 1201(b), 90 Stat. 1667. Moreover, in the floor debate, when Senator Long, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, was explaining the conference report to the Senate, he was specifically asked about this point by Senator Hansen. Senator Long's reply was that section 6110 would not affect FOIA cases then pending in the courts. The focus of both section 1201(b) and the exchange between Senators Long and Hansen was the effect the new section 6110 would have on FOIA cases already in litigation.
They did not address the effect the new provisions would have on requests that had been submitted to the agencies but were not acted upon nor the subject of judicial proceedings until after the new law became effective. The conscious preferential treatment of FOIA requests already in a litigious posture and the neglect of FOIA requests in any other posture logically leads to the conclusion that Congress intended the new provisions to preclude the courts from exercising their jurisdiction over further requests for this kind of information under the FOIA. Instead petitioners for this information were to rely only on their new statutory access under the Internal Revenue Code.
As previously noted, the Court's conclusion that the Tax Reform Act of 1976 eliminates jurisdiction to disclose IRS "written determinations" and their "background file documents" does not dispose of this case. There are still other documents requested by plaintiff that remain unaffected by this recent legislation. As to these, defendant contends that disclosure is not required because of the exemptive provisions of FOIA.
The first exemption raised by defendant is that for inter-agency memoranda.
That exemption, by rough analogy, encompasses the principles applicable to discovery issues generally, such as the privilege of secrecy for the governmental deliberative process, and the attorney-client and attorney work-product privileges. NLRB v. Sears Roebuck & Co., 421 U.S. 132, 149-50, 154, 44 L. Ed. 2d 29, 95 S. Ct. 1504 (1975); EPA v. Mink, 410 U.S. 73, 93 S. Ct. 827, 35 L. Ed. 2d 119 (1973). Defendant asserts that each of these privileges applies to all or some of the remaining documents. Plaintiff does not deny the applicability of the privileges nor claim that he is nevertheless entitled to the documents. Rather, he requests that the documents be edited and that segregable summaries be turned over to him. Both the statute
and the case law
direct that such factual material be released. Prior to addressing this segregability issue, however, it is necessary to consider defendant's argument on the other exemption it raises.
Defendant submits that the documents requested also contain return information and therefore may not be disclosed because of the (b)(3) exemption which provides that FOIA does not apply to matters "specifically exempted from disclosure by statute."
Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code as amended by the Tax Reform Act of 1976 is cited as such a specific statutory exemption. Section 6103(b)(2) defines "return information" as
(A) a taxpayer's identity, the nature, source, or amount of his income, payments, receipts, deductions, exemptions, credits, assets, liabilities, net worth, tax liability, tax withheld, deficiencies, overassessments, or tax payments, whether the taxpayer's return was, is being, or will be examined or subject to other investigation or processing, or any other data, received by, recorded by, prepared by, furnished to, or collected by the Secretary with respect to a return or with respect to the determination of the existence, or possible existence, of liability (or the amount thereof) of any person under this title for any tax, penalty, interest, fine, forfeiture, or other imposition, or offense, and
(B) any part of any written determination or any background file document relating to such written determination (as such terms are defined in section 6110(b)) which is not open to public inspection under section 6110,
but such term does not include data in a form which cannot be associated with, or otherwise identify, directly or indirectly, a particular taxpayer.
Defendant asserts that a few of these documents consist totally of return information and that the remaining documents contain some return information plus additional material. It maintains, however, that all of the documents are exempt in their entirety. The only support defendant has for this total exemption argument is its interpretation of Congress' intent as gleaned from the legislative history of the 1976 Tax Reform Act. The Court finds that legislative history to be inconclusive, however. More significantly, defendant's argument is clearly contrary to the intent of FOIA. The statutory provision defendant cites as a (b)(3) exemption prohibits disclosure of return information, not all documents that may contain some such information. The FOIA exemptions are to be construed narrowly. Vaughn v. Rosen, 157 U.S. App. D.C. 340, 484 F.2d 820, 823 (1973), cert. denied, 415 U.S. 977, 39 L. Ed. 2d 873, 94 S. Ct. 1564 (1974). There must be more than some suggestion of Congressional intent that was not articulated in the statute to outweigh the unequivocal mandate of FOIA that segregable material be disclosed from a document also containing exempt material.
The issue thus becomes whether the documents contain any factual material that may be segregated and disclosed to plaintiff in spite of the presence of other material that may be exempt because of either the (b)(3) or (b)(5) provisions. Defendant contends that there are no factual portions that can be segregated from the rest of the document without reflecting on the deliberative process.
In a recent opinion, this circuit noted that a party requesting information is helpless to counter an agency's contention that there is no segregable material within the documents requested that may be disclosed. Mead Data Central, Inc. v. Department of Air Force, 566 F.2d 242, 184 U.S. App. D.C. 350 (1977). Thus, the burden is on the agency to justify its non-segregability claim, and this burden should not be transferred to the Court by making a generalized claim of exemption and submitting the documents for in camera inspection. Id.
The defendant herein, however, has not supported its claim with any justification. This presents the Court with one of two alternatives: review the documents in camera and determine for itself whether any portions are segregable, or require the agency to submit a detailed justification if it intends to press its claim
and then evaluate that justification. In either case, the Court's responsibility is one of de novo review. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). Therefore, in order to expedite the resolution of this litigation, the Court has chosen the first alternative.
The Court finds that the documents do contain some factual material that must be disclosed to plaintiff. In each instance the material is essentially of the same nature: it relates the historical development of the Ontario Mining Tax. After setting forth that factual background, the documents then discuss whether the tax qualifies as a foreign tax creditable to the taxpayer's tax liability under the United States Internal Revenue Code. In the Court's view, this historical description is neither "return information" nor factual material that will reveal the substance of defendant's deliberations on the tax issue before it.
Specifically, the defendant must edit from the documents and release to the plaintiff the following segments:
Document No. Segregable Portion
3 Part entitled "The Operation of the
1970 and 1971 Acts" on pages 2-5.
4 Part entitled "The Operation of the
1970 and 1971 Acts" on pages 2-6.
5 Part entitled "The Operation of the
1970 and 1971 Acts" on pages 2-8.
8 Part entitled "The Operation of the
1969, 1970, and 1971 Acts" on pages
2-9 (excluding footnote 1).
9 From page 1, 2d paragraph to page
7, 1st full paragraph.
11 From page 1, 2d paragraph to page
7, 1st full paragraph.
13 From page 1, 2d paragraph to page
7, 1st full paragraph.
14 From page 1, 2d paragraph to page
7, 1st full paragraph.
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