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ZALE CORP. v. UNITED STATES IRS

December 14, 1979

Zale Corporation, Plaintiff
v.
The United States Internal Revenue Service, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: GESELL

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This is another Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") *fn1" suit arising out of an effort to inspect government documents relating to an on-going law enforcement investigation. In this instance, FOIA's preference for the public disclosure of governmental information must be reconciled with a necessity for confidentiality in federal tax administration recognized in the Tax Reform Act of 1976. *fn2"

 Zale Corporation, a large Dallas-based retailer with over 1,300 wholly-owned subsidiaries, is under intensive investigation by the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS") for possible criminal and civil violations of the income tax laws. Not content to await the filing of formal charges, if any, and the subsequent opportunity to be fully apprised of the issues, Zale's knowledgeable tax counsel have proceeded to make an elaborate series of FOIA demands on IRS in an effort to obtain access to the Service's investigative materials, computations, witness statements, and theories. These tactics have delayed aspects of the investigation and caused considerable expenditure of time and effort by IRS personnel involved in the investigation of Zale's returns. *fn3"

 The FOIA requests there were four covered more than 500,000 pages of documents and 350,000 computer cards. *fn4" Following 15 months of documentary analysis and processing by IRS and protracted negotiations between the parties, 55,000 pages of documents were released and many requests were abandoned. *fn5" At this juncture some 4,000 pages of tax return data organized under nine categories remain in dispute. About one-half of the dispute concerns Zale's request for the IRS Special Agents' Report itself. This enormously detailed document is at the core of the Service's major tax enforcement effort that may well involve civil deficiencies in excess of $ 100,000,000 and as many as 1,000 separate notices of deficiency, as well as possible criminal charges now being examined by a grand jury.

 The parties have cross-moved for summary judgment. After reviewing the briefs and supporting affidavits, and conducting an In camera examination of some documents selected at random from the total package submitted by the IRS, the Court finds that the matter is ripe for decision.

 Both Zale and the Service have approached this case as a pure FOIA action, apparently in the belief that the sole issue for decision is whether or not the contested documents are protected under exemptions 3 *fn6" or 7(A) *fn7" of that Act, 5 U.S.C.

 §§ 552(b)(3), (b)(7)(A) (1976). The Court's analysis, however, raises an important consideration of statutory interpretation that must first be resolved, namely the meaning and effect of section 6103(e)(6) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954, as amended. This section reads as follows:

 
(e) Disclosure to persons having material interest. . . .
 
(6) Return Information ( *fn8" ) Return information with respect to any taxpayer may be open to inspection by or disclosure to any person authorized by this subsection ( *fn9" ) to inspect any return of such taxpayer If the Secretary determines that such disclosure would not seriously impair Federal tax administration. 26 U.S.C. § 6103(e)(6). (Emphasis added.)
 
The Court must determine whether section 6103(e)(6) was intended by Congress to be the sole standard governing the disclosure or non-disclosure of tax return information or whether it is only of significance here to the extent it may be said to provide support for a claim of exception under exemption 3 of FOIA. This question must be answered at the outset since, among other things, it affects the standard by which IRS's refusal to disclose documents must be reviewed in this Court.
 
The same Congress that amended exemption 3 by narrowing its scope *fn10" later enacted § 6103(e)(6) as part of the Tax Reform Act. Indeed the tax legislation was enacted three weeks after approval of the FOIA changes. Under accepted principles of statutory interpretation, courts have an obligation to construe statutes harmoniously where it is reasonable to do so. Morton v. Mancari, 417 U.S. 535, 550-51, 94 S. Ct. 2474, 41 L. Ed. 2d 290 (1972). See generally, Sutherland, Statutes and Statutory Construction § 53.01 (4th ed., C.D. Sands, 1972). This obligation is particularly compelling when a specific measure is enacted subsequent to a provision of general application. Absent a clear indication to the contrary, the specific legislation will not be controlled or modified by the more general, See Bulova Watch Co. v. United States, 365 U.S. 753, 758, 81 S. Ct. 864, 6 L. Ed. 2d 72 (1951); Castaneda-Gonzalez v. INS, 183 U.S.App.D.C. 396, 564 F.2d 417, 423 (D.C. Cir. 1977); nor will the later provision be nullified in light of the earlier, See Araya v. McLelland, 525 F.2d 1194, 1196 (5th Cir. 1976); International Union of Elec., Radio & Mach. Workers v. NLRB, 110 U.S.App.D.C. 91, 289 F.2d 757, 761 (D.C. Cir. 1960). When the statutes are considered and acted upon by the same Congress, the Court's duty to reconcile the two becomes virtually irresistible. See generally United States v. American Bldg. Maint. Indus., 422 U.S. 271, 277, 95 S. Ct. 2150, 45 L. Ed. 2d 177 (1975); United States v. One Bally Bounty In-Line Bingo-Type, Multiple Coin, Multiple Free-Play Pinball Machine, 261 F. Supp. 187, 191 (D.Md.1966).
 
In the instant case, Congress enacted the Tax Reform Act and its specifically crafted disclosure provision closely following its amendment to the general disclosure legislation of FOIA. Section 6103 propounds a comprehensive scheme for releasing information to discrete, identified requesting parties, including particular government officials, presidential designees, representatives of the taxpayer, and others with a material interest. *fn11" It represents Congress' effort to strike a proper balance between a citizen's reasonable expectation of privacy, with attendant consequences for the continued vitality of our voluntary tax assessment system, and the government's need for return information in implementing effective tax administration. See S.Rep. No. 938, Part I, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. 317-18, Reprinted in (1976) U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News, 3439, 3747. There is no indication from the statutory language that Congress was in any way concerned with promoting or protecting public disclosure of tax return data.
 
The legislative proclamation of a rule of confidentiality with limited statutory exceptions constitutes a shift in emphasis from then existing law. Formerly the statute had identified tax returns as "public records"; their inspection was governed and restricted by a network of regulations and executive orders. See S.Rep. No. 938, Part I, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. 318, Reprinted in (1976) U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News, 3439, 3747; H.R.Rep. No. 1515, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. (Conf. Report) 475, Reprinted in (1976) U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News, 4118, 4180. At the same time, the secrecy of tax returns and related information has long been favored in practice, and it is not surprising that Congress would seek to carve out a special protection for this unique and highly sensitive type of information. This express purpose stands in sharp contrast to FOIA's stated preference for disclosure to the general public.
 
In addition, the structure of section 6103 is replete with elaborate detail, identifying the discrete groups to whom disclosure of certain specified types of information is permissible. In this respect it differs markedly from the structure of FOIA, which calls for the release of information to the public at large with no showing of need required. Despite ample indication in the legislative history that Congress was aware of FOIA while it labored over the tax reform legislation, *fn12" there is no evidence of an intention to allow that Act to negate, supersede, or otherwise frustrate the clear purpose and structure of § 6103. For a court to decide that the generalized strictures of FOIA take precedence over this subsequently enacted, particularized ...

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