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Hinojosa v. Dep't of Treasury and Internal Revenue Service

October 11, 2006

RENE HINOJOSA AND DEANNA HINOJOSA, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DEP'T OF TREASURY AND INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiffs Rene H. and Deanna G. Hinojosa, proceeding pro se, filed this action against defendants the United States Department of Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS") under the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552 et. seq.,and the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. §§ 552a & 552a note. Plaintiffs assert that the IRS improperly refused to produce tax records that they had requested. Presently before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will deny plaintiffs' motion, grant in part and deny in part defendants' motion, and require defendants to reevaluate twenty-six of plaintiffs' FOIA requests in accordance with this Memorandum Opinion.

BACKGROUND

The relevant facts are not in dispute. Plaintiff Rene Hinojosa ("Hinojosa") filed a total of thirty-two FOIA requests with the IRS.*fn1 On May 4, 2005, the IRS received twenty-six of the FOIA requests, which were dated between February 1 and March 4, 2005. Rodriguez Decl. ¶7; Pl.'s Aff. at 1, Exh. 1-27. On May 12, 2005, the IRS sent Hinojosa a letter informing him that he had failed to establish his identity in accordance with agency guidelines, rendering his requests incomplete and precluding the IRS from honoring them. Def.'s Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. at 2; Rodriguez Decl. ¶10; Exh. 27. In response, Hinojosa submitted to the IRS a renewed request dated June 10, 2005, incorporating his prior requests by reference. Attached to this submission was a form bearing his signature, home address, and a copy of his Texas driver's license. Pl.'s Aff. at 2; Exh. 29. The IRS received the renewed request on June 23, 2005 and wrote back, notifying Hinojosa that his request was still imperfect because it lacked a commitment to pay processing fees. Pl.'s Aff. at 2; Exh. 30. Each one of Hinojosa's requests, including the June 10, 2005 submission, stated: "You have Requestor's promise to pay up to fifty ($50) dollars for all documents beyond those provided free. If the estimated cost exceeds fifty ($50) dollars, please notify Requestor in writing." Exh. 29 (emphasis omitted). The record reveals no further correspondence between Hinojosa and the IRS regarding these twenty-six requests.

Three more of Hinojosa's FOIA requests - - dated March 7, 2005 and March 10-11, 2005 - - were denied by the IRS in separate letters dated May 23, 2005, June 8, 2005, and May 13, 2005 respectively. The requests were denied because the IRS could not locate any responsive records. Pl.'s Aff. at 3-4; Rodriguez Decl. at 3; Exh. 42; Exh. 49; Exh. 51. The May 13 and May 23 letters informed Hinojosa of his right to an administrative appeal of this determination to the Co-Director of the Office of Information and Privacy at the U.S. Department of Justice, followed by judicial review of the final decision. Exh. 42; Exh. 51.

A third group of requests - - dated March 8-9, 2005 and March 13, 2005 - - were denied because the IRS determined that these documents were statutorily exempt from production. Pl.'s Aff. at 3-5. In separate letters both dated June 3, 2005, the IRS notified Hinojosa that the information he sought in his March 8 and March 13 requests was exempt from access pursuant to the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a(j)(2), and FOIA, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(E). Exh. 44, Exh. 54. The IRS refused to honor the March 9, 2005 request as well, asserting that the records requested were likewise exempt from release under the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a(j)(2). Exh. 46. All of the letters informed Hinojosa of his right to an administrative appeal of these determinations.

Plaintiffs did not pursue any administrative appeals, instead filing this suit in which they seek to compel the IRS to produce the requested documents. Pl. Mot. for Summ. J. at 3. In response, defendants argue that plaintiffs are not entitled to judicial review in this Court because they failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. at 3.

LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings and the evidence demonstrate that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The moving party may successfully support its motion by "informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, 'which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.'" Id. (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)).

In determining whether there exists a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to preclude summary judgment, the court must regard the non-movant's statements as true and accept all evidence and make all inferences in the non-movant's favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). A non-moving party, however, must establish more than the "mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of its position. Id. at 252. By pointing to the absence of evidence proffered by the non-moving party, a moving party may succeed on summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. "If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (internal citations omitted). Summary judgment is appropriate if the non-movant fails to offer "evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-movant]." Id. at 252.

In a FOIA case, the Court may award summary judgment solely on the basis of information provided by the department or agency in affidavits or declarations when the affidavits or declarations "describe the documents and the justifications for nondisclosure with reasonably specific detail, demonstrate that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption, and are not controverted by either contrary evidence in the record nor by evidence of agency bad faith." Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1973). Agency affidavits or declarations must be "relatively detailed and non-conclusory," and are accorded "a presumption of good faith, which cannot be rebutted by purely speculative claims about the existence and discoverability of other documents." SafeCard Services v. SEC, 926 F.2d 1197, 1200 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

B. FOIA Requests

Under FOIA, a requester must exhaust available administrative remedies before seeking judicial review of an agency determination in federal court. Wilbur v. Cent. Intelligence Agency, 355 F.3d 675, 677 (D.C. Cir. 2004); Stebbins v. Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co., 757 F.2d 364, 366 (D.C. Cir. 1985). Exhaustion is generally required so that "the agency has the opportunity to exercise its discretion and expertise on the matter and to make a factual record to support its decision." Wilbur, 355 F.3d at 677 (quoting Oglesby v. U.S. Dep't of Army, 920 F.2d 57, 61 (D.C. Cir 1990)). A requester has constructively exhausted his administrative remedies if the agency fails to respond to the request within twenty days of the receipt of the request. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(C)(i); 31 C.F.R. § 1.5(k). Although the exhaustion-of-remedies requirement is a prudential rather than a jurisdictional consideration, the FOIA administrative scheme favors barring judicial review. Hidalgo v. Fed. Bureau of Investigation, 344 F.3d 1256, 1258-59 (D.C. Cir. 2003); Flowers v. Internal Revenue Serv., 307 F. Supp. 2d 60, 66 (D.D.C. 2004). Compliance with both FOIA and agency requirements is necessary before an agency can release the requested documents. 5 U.S.C. ...


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