United States District Court, District of Columbia
WILLIAM E. POWELL, Plaintiff,
INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE, Defendant. Entity/Individual Transcript Request
E. BOASBERG United States District Judge.
Benjamin Franklin may have believed that "in this world
nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,
" this case demonstrates that the adage does not apply
to tax records. Over the years, pro se
Plaintiff William Powell has tried a variety of means to get
Defendant Internal Revenue Service to turn over tax records
related to his grandfather, his father, himself, and his
family's printing business. His limited success in this
venture has spurred this lawsuit. Now, in his Amended
Complaint, he asserts a basket of claims against the agency,
predominantly asking that it be ordered to conduct a search
for additional records, produce an index of what it finds,
and turn over the documents. The IRS counters in two separate
Motions that the suit should be dismissed or, alternatively,
that summary judgment is warranted. As the Court concurs only
in part, it will grant the Motions as to a few claims.
this Opinion largely deals with Defendant's Motion to
Dismiss, the facts presented are taken from Powell's
Amended Complaint and assumed to be true. Sparrow v.
United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir.
2000) (providing standard). In its initial background
section, though, the Court must rely on descriptions provided
by the Internal Revenue Manual to figure out what records are
actually at issue. This is because Plaintiff often uses
acronyms in his pleadings to identify what he is seeking
without explaining what these terms mean.
the subsequent factual and procedural sections, by contrast,
the Court relies heavily on the exhibits that he has attached
to his Amended Complaint, as well as his briefs. These
pleadings helpfully fill in missing details or clarify
confusing statements found in the Amended Complaint. See
Brown v. Whole Foods Market Gr., Inc., 789 F.3d 146, 152
(DC. Cir. 2015) (holding district court must consider all
prose litigant's allegations when considering
motion to dismiss, including those found in plaintiffs
prayer for relief, Powell seeks a number of tax records that
the IRS maintains in different computing systems.
Distinguishing among them is critical to determining whether,
as Defendant contends, he has failed to submit any proper
request for these documents. The Court thus offers this brief
primer on the IRS record system, along with the caveat that
acronyms-challenged readers may find this section heavy
center of this litigation are records that can be retrieved
through the IRS's Integrated Data Retrieval System. As
its name implies, the IDRS can search more than one record
system maintained by the agency. Hysell v. Internal
Revenue Serv., 36 F.Supp.3d 58, 61 (D.D.C. 2014). The
command code that an IRS employee enters into an IDRS
terminal "determines which database [it] searches and
the data [it] retrieves." Id. These results
then appear "in a computer-created record referred to as
a 'transcript' viewable either on a computer screen
or in hard copy form." Id.
these searchable databases is known as the Master-File
system. Data is entered into the Master-File system
"when[ever] the IRS receives a return from a taxpayer,
makes a tax assessment, receives a payment, makes a refund,
or takes other actions related to a taxpayer."
Id. at 60 (internal quotation omitted). A
master-file transcript thus offers a trove of tax information
because it acts as "the official repository of all
taxpayer data extracted from magnetic tape records, paper and
electronic tax returns, payments, and related
documents." ECF No. 31-2 (Declaration of Joy E. Gerdy
Zogby), ¶ 9 (quoting Internal Revenue Manual 220.127.116.11).
Depending on the specific type of data entered, this
information "is stored in a record as either an
'account' or a'tax module.'"
Hysell, 36 F.Supp.3d at 60.
command code of "MFTRA is used to request [this]
taxpayer information in the form of hardcopy
transcripts" from the IDRS. See IRM 18.104.22.168.
If an IRS employee uses the command code of MFTRA
"complete" for a particular tax-identification
number (TIN), the computer will produce a complete
master-file transcript for that taxpayer - i.e.,
"a transcript containing all entity and tax module data
associated with th[at] TIN." Zogby Decl., ¶ 11
(quoting IRM 22.214.171.124). By definition, then, this
MFTRA-complete transcript contains data from any past years
relevant to that taxpayer. Id. When conducting an
IDRS master-file search, though, the IRS employee may instead
enter a more limited MFTRA "specific" query.
See IRM 2.3.32-2. Unlike a MFTRA
"complete" command, this MFTRA "specific"
search may be used to retrieve tax returns that include only
a particular type of tax module. Id.
of the scope of the request, a Master File transcript for
businesses is abbreviated as a "BMF" and
"contains information about taxpayers filing business
returns and documents related to that business." Zogby
Decl., ¶ 8 (quoting IRM 126.96.36.199). Likewise, for
individuals, the same sort of individual master-file
transcript is called an "IMF." Id. In
other words, the IDRS can be used to produced IMF-specific,
IMF-complete, BMF-specific, and BMF-complete transcripts,
depending on what command is initially entered.
rare, it sometimes happens that "certain types of tax
assessments cannot be implemented by [this] Master File
processing" system. See Zogby Decl., ¶ 18 (quoting
IRM 188.8.131.52). In such a circumstance, the assessments are
housed instead on the IRS's "non-master file"
system, which is also accessible through the Integrated Data
Retrieval System. Id., ¶ 19. The results of such a
search are known as NMF transcripts, and IRS employees
retrieve them using command codes specific to the year they
were filed. Id.
as relevant here, the IDRS can also be used to retrieve
Taxpayer Information Files for certain taxpayers.
See IRM 184.108.40.206.2. A TIF "includes information
regarding active taxpayer accounts, meaning that the
taxpayer's liability for that year has not been resolved
or was recently resolved." Hysell, 36 F.Supp.3d
at 61 (internal quotations omitted). To retrieve this file, a
command code of TXMOD(A) entered into the IDRS can be used to
display most of the tax-module information that a TIF
contains. See IRM 220.127.116.11.
to the facts of this case, Plaintiff is the son of William A.
Powell, a metallurgist who inherited a successful
thirty-year-old printing business in Detroit, Mchigan, after
the sudden death of his own father, Andrew, in 1987.
See ECF No. 26 (Amended Complaint) at 2. Two years
later, on December 11, 1989, the elder William Powell
incorporated that business in Mchigan as the Powell Printing
Company. Id. at 2-3. He also executed a trust
involving the business around this time. Id.
years later, in March 1992, he passed away, and a probate
estate was opened for him in the Wayne County (Mchigan)
Probate Court. LI; see also Id. at 7 n.3
(date of death). Plaintiff was named as a "nominee"
in that matter, but it seems that he did not find out about
this proceeding until 2011. Id. at 3. At that time,
Powell reviewed the case docket and noticed that no proof of
service had been filed as to the listed beneficiaries.
since been on a mission to uncover financial records related
to Powell Printing Company, his father (William A. Powell),
his grandfather (Andrew Powell), and certain trusts that
these two men setup, at least in part because he believes
that there may have been some malfeasance by the trustees in
the disbursement of his family's assets. See,
e.g., ECF No. 26-28 (July 5, 2016, RAIVS Request)
(explaining "this requested information is needed to
help me determine whether to bring action against the
trustees for breach of their fiduciary duty"). To this
end, he has filed approximately 89 Freedom of Information Act
requests with Defendant and challenged the adequacy of the
agency's response to at least some of these inquiries
three separate times in federal court in the Eastern District
of Michigan. See Powell v. IRS, No. 15-11033, 2016
WL 7473446 (E.D. Mich. Dec. 29, 2016); Powell v.
IRS, No. 15-11616, 2016 WL 5539777 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 30,
2016); Powell v. IRS, No. 14-12626, 2015 WL 4617182
(E.D. Mich. July 31, 2015); ECF No. 34-2 (Declaration of
William J. White), ¶ 3 (explaining Powell has made 89
case fortunately has a more limited scope. At issue here is a
series of requests for records that Powell made between June
and July 2016. First, on June 15, he submitted a general FOIA
request to Defendant, in which he predominantly sought: 1)
master-file transcripts for his relatives, their trusts, and
the printing business from 1989 through 1992, and 2) TXMOD(A)
transcripts for the same entities and time period.
See Am. Compl. at 6-8.
has since responded in ways that he believes were either
incomplete or incorrect. Id. In particular, after
his initial request, the Service sent him two letters in late
June 2016, explaining that it could not process his requests
for either of the tax-return transcripts that he sought
because those records were exempt from its FOIA-processing
requirements. Id. at 10. These letters included
instructions, however, on the multiple paths he needed to
pursue to obtain these records. See ECF No. 26-21 (IRS Letter
on June 20, 2016); ECF No. 26-9 (IRS Letter on June 22,
2016). They also warned that he had no choice but to pursue
these alternative avenues as his FOIA request would not
otherwise be processed. Id.
accordingly, followed several of these leads. First, he again
submitted two separate requests for these master
files, but unfortunately this time to the addresses listed in
the IRS letters for non-master-file requests. See
Am. Compl. at 9; June 20, 2016, IRS Letter at 2; ECF No.
26-10 (June 20 & 24 Requests). More specifically, he sent
one such letter for the transcripts for himself and his
relatives to the address listed for individuals'
non-master-file transcripts and, in addition, sent off the
same for the Powell Printing Company to the IRS location
listed for business non-master-file transcripts.
See Am. Compl. at 9; June 20, 2016, IRS Letter at 2;
ECF No. 26-10 (June 20 & 24 Requests). He also included
in these mailings several documents to verify ...