United States District Court, District of Columbia
E. BOASBERG, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
many Americans, Plaintiff Electronic Privacy Information
Center wants to see President Donald J. Trump's personal
income-tax returns. To that end, it has sent Defendant
Internal Revenue Service two Freedom of Information Act
requests, seeking “all of Donald J. Trump's
individual income tax returns for tax years 2010 forward, and
other indications of financial relations with the Russian
government or Russian businesses.” Each time, the IRS
responded that the request was incomplete - and therefore
could not be processed - absent President Trump's consent
to release his tax information. EPIC thus brought the present
lawsuit to compel disclosure.
seeking dismissal, the IRS argues that EPIC cannot initiate a
FOIA suit without perfecting its initial request. EPIC
retorts that an exception to the consent prerequisite exists
via Congress's Joint Committee on Taxation, which may
approve disclosure. Yet, the Committee has not acted, and the
IRS has no obligation to request that body to do so. As a
result, until President Trump or Congress authorizes release
of the tax returns, EPIC (and the rest of the American
public) will remain in the dark. The Court, powerless to
offer relief, will thus grant the Motion and dismiss the
a non-profit organization focused on issues relating to
privacy and civil liberties and dedicated to the oversight of
government activities. See ECF No. 1 (Complaint),
¶ 7. It is, in this case, interested in President
Trump's personal income-tax returns. As Plaintiff puts
it, “In the history of the United States, there has
never been greater interest in the public release of an
individual's tax records than those of Donald J.
Trump.” Id., ¶ 9.
first requested this information from the IRS on February 16,
2017. See ECF 14-2 (Declaration of Michael C.
Young), Exh. A (First FOIA Request). The organization's
letter sought “all of Donald J. Trump's individual
income tax returns for tax years 2010 forward, and any other
indications of financial relations with the Russian
government or Russian businesses.” Id. at 1.
In support of its request, EPIC cited an ongoing
“Congressional investigation and widespread public
interest, ” a “long-standing tradition of U.S.
Presidents” releasing returns, and concern over the
President's possible “financial dealings with a
foreign adversary.” Id. at 1-2.
responded two weeks later, on March 2, 2017. See
Young Decl., Exh. B (First FOIA Response). It wrote that the
Internal Revenue Code prohibited release of a third
party's return information unless EPIC established in its
request that it had the taxpayer's consent. Id.
at 1 (citing I.R.C. § 6103; Treas. Reg. §
601.702(c)(4)-(5)). “Without such authorization,
” the IRS wrote, “the request is incomplete and
cannot be processed.” Id. The agency proceeded
to close EPIC's request. Id.
March 29, EPIC replied with another letter, this time both
appealing the initial IRS response and renewing its request
for disclosure. See Young Decl., Exh. C (Second FOIA
Request). The second request sought substantially the same
information: “Donald J. Trump's tax returns for tax
years 2010 forward and any other indications of financial
relations with the Russian government or Russian
businesses.” Id. at 1. EPIC further alleged,
this second time, that it had a right to those documents
under § 6103(k)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Id. at 1-8. The Court will delve into that section
later, but briefly notes here that it allows the Secretary of
the Treasury Department (which the IRS is part of), in
certain situations, to disclose tax information to correct a
public “misstatement of fact” regarding a
taxpayer's return information if Congress's Joint
Committee on Taxation has given permission.
alleged that Trump had indeed made several misstatements to
the public. Specifically, he had insisted on Twitter (and, in
For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia.
Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE
NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!
@realDonaldTrump, Twitter (July 26, 2016, 3:50 PM);
id. (Jan. 11, 2017, 4:31 AM). Believing these
assertions to be “directly contradicted” by
investigative reporting and a statement by a member of his
immediate family, EPIC argued that § 6103(k)(3) gave the
IRS “legal authority to make the tax records available
in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.”
Second FOIA Request at 4-5, 7 (misattributing statement by
Donald Trump Jr. to son-in-law and White House advisor Jared
April 4, after a few days passed, one of EPIC's attorneys
and the IRS disclosure manager participated in a telephone
call regarding this request. See Compl., ¶ 45;
see also ECF No. 15-1 (Declaration of John
Davisson), ¶ 5. On that call the Service told the
organization that “we're not going to do a
(k)(3)” and that “we're not exercising
(k)(3)” - referring to the § 6103(k)(3)
misstatement-of-fact provision. See Compl, ¶
46; see also Davisson Decl., ¶ 7.
days later, on April 6, the agency followed up with a written
response. See Young Decl., Exh. D (Second FOIA
Response). Its letter first informed EPIC that “the
Service will not consider an appeal of an incomplete FOIA
request that cannot be processed.” Id. at 1.
The missive then stated that “§ 6103(k) does not
afford any rights to requesters under the FOIA to the
disclosure of tax returns or return information of third
parties.” Id. Because EPIC still had not
obtained President Trump's authorization to view his tax
information, the IRS again closed the request as incomplete.
Id. at 2. The Service added that “any future
requests regarding this subject matter will not be
subsequently filed this lawsuit. Its Complaint states several
causes of action: three FOIA counts alleging that the IRS
failed to respond substantively by the statutory deadline,
failed to take reasonable steps to release information, and
unlawfully withheld agency records; and two APA counts
asserting that the Service unlawfully closed the FOIA
requests and failed to seek § 6103(k)(3) authorization
from the Joint Committee on Taxation to release the
tax-return information. See Compl., ¶¶
54-75. Plaintiff thus requests as relief the disclosure of
all responsive, non-exempt tax records. Id.,
Requested Relief, ¶¶ A-H.
Motion to Dismiss these claims is now ripe.
Defendant's reasons for dismissal properly fall under
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court sets
forth that legal standard. Rule 12(b)(6) permits a Court to
dismiss any count of a complaint that fails “to state a
claim upon which relief can be granted.” In evaluating
the motion, the Court must likewise “treat the
complaint's factual allegations as true and must grant
plaintiff ‘the benefit of all inferences that can be
derived from the facts alleged.'” Sparrow v.
United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir.
2000) (quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d
605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979)) (citation omitted). The Court need
not accept as true, however, “a legal conclusion
couched as a factual allegation” or an inference
unsupported by facts set forth in the Complaint. Trudeau
v. FTC, 456 F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting
Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)).
pleading standard is “not meant to impose a great
burden upon a plaintiff, ” Dura Pharm., Inc. v.
Broudo, 544 U.S. 336, 347 (2005), as a count will
survive so long as there is a “‘reasonably
founded hope that the [discovery] process will reveal
relevant evidence' to support the claim.” Bell
Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 563 n.8 (2007)
(quoting Dura Pharm., 544 U.S. at 347). While
“detailed factual allegations” are not necessary
to withstand a dismissal motion, id. at 555, the
Complaint still “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
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). In other words, a
plaintiff must put forth “factual content that allows
the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant
is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. A
complaint may survive even if “‘recovery is very
remote and unlikely'” or the veracity of the claims
are “doubtful in fact” if the factual matter
alleged in the complaint is “enough to raise a right to
relief above the speculative level.” Twombly,
550 U.S. at 555-56 (quoting Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416
U.S. 232, 236 (1974)).