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Judicial Watch, Inc v. Social Security Admin

August 1, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth, Chief Judge



Is an employer a taxpayer? That deceptively simple question is the conundrum before the Court today. Plaintiff Judicial Watch, Inc. ("JW") is suing the Social Security Administration ("SSA"), requesting a list of the names and addresses of employers who received the most "no-match" letters during a five-year time period. A "no-match" letter occurs when the SSA detects a mismatch between an employee's name and social security number. The SSA refuses to divulge this information, citing Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") Exemption 3 as the basis for its refusal. The case is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Having reviewed the motions, the oppositions, the replies, the entire record in the case, and the applicable law at length, the Court grants the SSA's motion for summary judgment and denies JW's cross-motion for summary judgment for the reasons that follow.


A. Statutory Framework

FOIA allows the public to gain access to records from a federal administrative agency, Valencia-Lucena v. U.S. Coast Guard, 180 F.3d 321, 325 (D.C. Cir. 1999), and represents a strong Congressional commitment to transparency in government through the disclosure of government information. Dep't of the Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352 (1976). FOIA strikes a balance between "ensur[ing] an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society," and "legitimate governmental and private interests [that] could be harmed by [the] release of certain types of information." Critical Mass Energy Project v. Nuclear Regulatory Comm'n, 975 F.2d 871, 872 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

Although FOIA embodies a policy of disclosure, full disclosure cannot always be achieved. 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1)--(9) (2006). There are nine exemptions that allow an agency to withhold all or parts of a document. Id. While these exemptions allow agencies to withhold information, FOIA requires that "any reasonably segregable portion of a record shall be provided to any person requesting such record after deletion of the portions which are exempt under this subsection." 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1). FOIA Exemption 3 is in play in this case-it allows an agency to withhold documents that have been specifically exempted from disclosure by another statute, "provided that such statute (A) requires that the matters be withheld from the public in such a manner as to leave no discretion on the issue, or (B) establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types of matters to be withheld." 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(3).

The relevant statute at issue here is 26 U.S.C. § 6103, which grants an agency the authority to withhold a document in its entirety simply because it pertains to a confidential tax return or "return information." 26 U.S.C. § 6103(a). The Supreme Court and the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals have held that § 6103 qualifies as a FOIA Exemption 3 statute. See Church of Scientology of Cal. v. IRS, 484 U.S. 9, 11 (1987) ("If § 6103 forbids the disclosure of material, it may not be produced in response to a request under FOIA"); see also Tax Analysts v. IRS, 117 F.3d 607, 611 (D.C. Cir. 1997) ("That § 6103 is the sort of nondisclosure statute contemplated by FOIA Exemption 3 is beyond dispute").

Section 6103(b) excludes from the category of return information "data in a form which cannot be associated with, or otherwise identify, directly or indirectly, a particular taxpayer." 26 U.S.C. § 6103(b)(2).Known as the Haskell Amendment, this provision allows the IRS to "release for research purposes statistical studies and compilations of data, such as the tax model, which do not identify individual taxpayers." Church of Scientology, 484 U.S. at 16. In Church of Scientology, the Supreme Court clarified that the Haskell Amendment only applies to information that has been "reformulated" into "a statistical study or some other composite product." Id. at 13--18. Thus, the Haskell Amendment does not apply to information that an agency simply transfers from one document to another. Id. at 13.

B. Factual and Procedural History

On June 6, 2006, JW submitted a FOIA request to the SSA for a list of the top fifty or top one hundred U.S. employers who received "the highest number of Social Security number mismatches." Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. 3, Apr. 18, 2007, ECF No. 9 ("Def.'s Mot."). JW sought these records for a five-year time period beginning on January 1, 2001 and extending to 2006. Liptz Declaration 4, Ex. B to Def.'s Mot., Apr. 18, 2007, ECF No. 9-2 ("Liptz Decl."). An employer receives a "no-match" letter from the SSA when a mismatch occurs between an employee's name and the social security number on her filed W-2 form. Def.'s Mot. 3; Liptz Decl. 2. The SSA determines which employers will receive "no-match" letters using the W-2 forms that employers file.*fn1 Def.'s Mot. 4.

The SSA denied JW's FOIA request by a letter dated June 29, 2006, explaining that "no-match" letters are considered tax return information and are exempt from disclosure. Id. at 6. Willie J. Polk, the SSA Freedom of Information Officer assigned to handle JW's request, determined that 26 U.S.C. § 6103 prohibited the disclosure of such a list because the SSA generated this list from tax returns filed with the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS").*fn2 Id. Polk included instructions detailing the procedure for an administrative appeal if JW did not agree with the SSA's assessment of its FOIA request. Letter from SSA to JW 13, Ex. A to Def.'s Mot., Apr. 18, 2007, ECF No. 9-1 (incorporated as Exhibit 2 to Exhibit A) ("SSA Response 1"). JW administratively appealed the SSA's decision, by a letter dated August 2, 2006. Def.'s Mot.

4. The SSA again denied JW's request on October 16, 2006, citing 26 U.S.C. § 6103 as the basis for its refusal. Id. at 5. The letter explained that "any information on the tax return, including whether or not a tax return was even filed, is considered . . . tax return information." Social Security Letter 1, Ex. A to Def.'s Mot., Apr. 18, 2007, ECF No. 9-1 (incorporated as Exhibit 4 to Exhibit A) ("SSA Response 2"). The letter concluded by acknowledging that JW could seek review of the SSA's decision in district court. Id.

Seeking that review, JW filed a civil action in this Court on November 29, 2006. The SSA filed a motion for summary judgment, Def.'s Mot. 1, arguing that regardless of any arguments to the contrary, an employer list qualifies as "return information." Id. at 6--10. In response, JW filed an opposition to the SSA's motion and cross-moved for summary judgment. Pl.'s Cross-Mot. Summ. J. & Opp'n Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. 1, May 8, 2007, ECF No. 12 ("Pl.'s Cross-Mot."). JW relied on the faulty assumption that employers are not taxpayers to present its main argument: that an employer list qualifies as a "statistical compilation of data," precluding it from the definition of "return information." *fn3 Id. at 4--14. The Court will resolve this matter by addressing the principal issue, as resolution of JW's ...

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