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Byers v. United States Tax Court

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 30, 2016

RONALD E. BYERS, Plaintiff,



         Granting Defendant's Motion to Dismiss


         Plaintiff Ronald E. Byers, proceeding pro se, brings this action against the United States Tax Court ("Tax Court" or "Defendant") pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552. Relying predominately on the D.C. Circuit's recent decision in Kuretski v. Commissioner, 755 F.3d 929 (D.C. Cir. 2014), cert, denied, 135 S.Ct. 2309 (2015), Mr. Byers argues that, for the purposes of FOIA, the Tax Court is an agency of the federal government's Executive Branch. See generally Compl., ECF No. 1. Thus, Mr. Byers asks this Court to order the Tax Court to turn over a wide range of records identified in his FOIA request. The Tax Court moves to dismiss the Complaint. Courts of the United States are specifically exempted from FOIA, and the Tax Court argues that Mr. Byers's Complaint should be dismissed because the Tax Court is a court, not an agency. The resolution of the Tax Court's motion to dismiss turns on a single legal question: Is the Tax Court a court or an agency for the purposes of FOIA?

         The Tax Court's motion to dismiss is ripe and ready for decision. See generally Def's Mot. Dismiss, ECF No.5; Pl.'s Obj. Def's Mot. Dismiss ("Pl.'s Opp'n"), ECF No. 9; Def's Reply Mem. Supp. Def's Mot. Dismiss ("Def's Reply"), ECF No. 11; see also infra note 3 (addressing Mr. Byers's initial intention to file a supplemental brief). First, the Court rejects Mr. Byers's argument that the term "courts of the United States" encompasses only the Judicial Branch, and nothing more. Next, the Court finds that Mr. Byers's reliance on Kuretski is misplaced. Although the D.C. Circuit held that the Tax Court is a part of the Executive Branch for the purposes of constitutional separation of powers, that outcome does not determine whether the Tax Court is subject to FOIA. Instead, a number of factors, including congressional intent, Supreme Court interpretation, and the function of the Tax Court, all suggest that the Tax Court is best understood as a court, not an agency, for the purposes of FOIA. Thus, the Court will grant the Tax Court's motion, and dismiss Mr. Byers's Complaint.


         A. The Freedom of Information Act

         Congress enacted FOIA so that citizens could discover "what their government is up to." Dep't of Justice v. Reporters Comm. for Freedom of the Press, 489 U.S. 749, 773 (1989) (quoting EPA v. Mink, 410 U.S. 73, 105 (1973)). Congress intended for the statute "to pierce the veil of administrative secrecy and to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny." Dep 't of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361 (1976); see also Mink, 410 U.S. at 80. Among other provisions, FOIA requires "each agency" to respond to appropriate requests and "make the [requested] records promptly available to any person." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A); see also Milner v. Dep't of Navy, 562 U.S. 562, 565 (2011) ("FOIA thus mandates that an agency disclose records on request, unless they fall within one of nine exemptions."). To define the term "agency, " FOIA relies on the existing definition found in the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"). See 5 U.S.C. § 552(f)(1) (citing id. § 551(1)). The APA states that "'agency' means each authority of the Government of the United States . . . but does not include ... the courts of the United States." Id. § 551(1)(B).

         B. The United States Tax Court

         Congress has made periodic changes to the name and nature of what is now the United States Tax Court. Congress created the original precursor to the Tax Court in 1924. See Kuretski, 755 F.3d at 933 (first citing Harold Dubroff, The United States Tax Court: An Historical Analysis, 40 Alb. L. Rev. 7, 64-66 (1975); and then citing John Kelley Co. v. Comm 'r, 326 U.S. 521, 527-28 (1946)). That entity, known as the Board of Tax Appeals (the "Board"), was created as "an independent agency in the executive branch of the Government." Revenue Act of 1924, Pub. L. No. 68-175, § 900(a), (k), 43 Stat. 253, 336, 338 (1924). Two years later, Congress amended the President's authority to remove members of the Board-guaranteeing the members a public hearing before they could be removed-and made the Board's decisions reviewable by the United States Courts of Appeals. See Revenue Act of 1926, Pub. L. No. 69-20, §§ 1000-01, 44 Stat. 9, 105-06, 109-10 (1926).

         Congress changed the name of the Board to the Tax Court of the United States in 1942 and stated that its members would be known as judges. See Revenue Act of 1942, Pub. L. No. 77-753, § 504(a), 56 Stat. 798, 957 (1942). Aside from this change, Congress did not upset the authority or status of the former Board. Id. § 504(b). For the purposes of this Court's analysis, the most important change came in 1969, when Congress next addressed the status of what is now the Tax Court. The Tax Reform Act of 1969 declared:

There is hereby established, under article I of the Constitution of the United States, a court of record to be known as the United States Tax Court. The members of the Tax Court shall be the chief judge and the judges of the Tax Court.

Tax Reform Act of 1969, Pub. L. No. 91-172, § 951, 83 Stat. 487, 730 (1969) (codified at 26 U.S.C. § 7441). The Senate Report accompanying the 1969 Act stated that, because "the Tax Court has only judicial duties, the committee believes it is anomalous to continue to classify it with quasi-judicial executive agencies that have rulemaking and investigatory functions." S. Rep. No. 91-552 (1969), reprinted in 1969 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2027, 2341.

         The D.C. Circuit recounted the history of the Tax Court in Kuretski. 755 F.3d at 933. In that case, the court considered a challenge to the constitutionality of the Tax Court, based on the theory that the President's power to remove Tax Court judges, see 26 U.S.C. § 7443(f), violates the separation of powers guaranteed by the Constitution. Kuretski, 755 F.3d at 939. The court concluded, however, that the Tax Court is a part of the Executive Branch, meaning that "removal of a Tax Court judge . . . would constitute an intra-not inter-branch removal." Id. at 932. In response to Kuretski, Congress passed a brief "clarification" that states in full, "The Tax Court is not an agency of, and shall be independent of, the executive branch of the Government." Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, Pub. L. No. 114-113, § 441, 129 Stat. 2242, 3126 (2015) (codified at 26 U.S.C. § 7441).[1]

         C. Factual Background

         Mr. Byers initially submitted his FOIA request to the Tax Court in March 2015. See Compl. ¶¶ 19-21; Compl. Ex. A ("Pl.'s FOIA Request") at 16-21, ECF No. I.[2] Mr. Byers requested "24 categories of records" related to the Tax Court's internal practices and procedures. Compl. ¶ 20; see also Pl.'s FOIA Request at 18-20. In his request, Mr. Byers argues that the Tax Court is subject to FOIA because it "exercises Executive authority as part of the Executive Branch." Pl.'s FOIA Request at 16 (quoting Kuretski, 755 F.3d at 932).

         In a letter responding to Mr. Byers's request, the Tax Court refused to turn over any records and stated that "the Tax Court is not an 'agency' subject to FOIA." Compl. Ex. B at 23, ECF No. 1; see also Compl. ¶¶ 22-23. Mr. Byers sent another letter to the Tax Court that appealed the denial of his FOIA request. See Compl. Ex. C at 24-28, ECF No. 1; see also Compl. ¶¶ 24-25. In a brief response, the Tax Court denied Mr. Byers's appeal for the same reasons it enumerated in its prior letter. See Compl. Ex. D at 30, ECF No. 1; see also Compl. ¶ 27.

         Mr. Byers brought this lawsuit on September 29, 2015. See Compl. at 1. Mr. Byers alleges that the Tax Court is a federal agency subject to FOIA that "has unlawfully withheld from Mr. Byers each of its records that he has duly requested." Compl. ¶ 35. Mr. Byers asks this Court to conclude that FOIA applies to the Tax Court, to order the Tax Court to comply with his FOIA request, and to award him costs incurred in this litigation. See Compl. ¶ 37. The Tax Court moves to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim, arguing that "[a]ll indications are that the Tax Court is properly considered a court of the United States, " and is thus exempt from FOIA. Def.'s Mem. Supp. Def.'s Mot. Dismiss ("Def.'s Mem.") at 1, ECF No. 5-1. Relying primarily on Kuretski, Mr. Byers maintains that that Tax Court "is an Executive Branch 'agency' that must disclose its records to the American public under the Freedom of Information Act." Pl.'s Opp'n at 1; see also Pl.'s (Initial) Mem. P. & A. Supp. Pl.'s Objection Def.'s Mot. Dismiss ("Pl.'s Mem.") at 1-5, ECF No. 9.[3]


         Apro se complaint is held to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (per curiam) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). But even pro se litigants "must comply with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure." Idrogo v. Foxx, 990 F.Supp.2d 5, 6 (D.D.C. 2013) (citing Jarrell v. Tisch, 656 F.Supp. 237, 239 (D.D.C. 1987)). The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require a complaint to contain "a short and plain statement of the claim" to give the defendant fair notice of the claim and the grounds upon which it rests. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2); accord Erickson, 551 U.S. at 93. A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) does not test a plaintiffs ultimate likelihood of success on the merits; rather, it tests whether a plaintiff has properly stated a claim. See Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974), abrogated on other grounds by Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982). A court considering such a motion presumes that the complaint's factual allegations are true and construes them liberally in the plaintiffs favor. See, e.g., United States v. Philip Morris, Inc., 116 F.Supp.2d 131, 135 (D.D.C. 2000).

         Nevertheless, "[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting BellAtl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). This means that a plaintiffs factual allegations "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56 (citations omitted). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, " are therefore insufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. A court need not accept a plaintiffs legal conclusions as true, nor must a court presume the veracity of the legal conclusions that are couched as factual allegations. See id.; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         A court cannot consider matters outside the pleadings in deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, but it may consider "documents attached as exhibits or incorporated by reference in the complaint." Ward v. B.C. Dep 't of Youth Rehab. Servs.,768 F.Supp.2d 117, 119 (D.D.C. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Gustave-Schmidt v. Chao,226 F.Supp.2d 191, 196 (D.D.C. 2002)). Further, a pro se plaintiffs pleadings must be "considered in toto" to determine whether they "set out allegations sufficient to survive dismissal." Brown v. Whole Foods Mkt. Grp., Inc.,789 F.3d 146, 151 (D.C. Cir. 2015) ...

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