United States District Court, District of Columbia
MARGARET B. KWOKA, Plaintiff,
INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE, Defendant.
L. FRIEDRICH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Margaret Kwoka studies the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
and how the government administers it. She asked the Internal
Revenue Service (IRS) for nine categories of records relating
to FOIA requests the IRS received during fiscal year 2015,
including some requesters' names and all requesters'
organizational affiliations. The IRS invoked FOIA exemptions
3 and 6 and withheld that information, and before the Court
are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For
the reasons that follow, the Court will grant in part and
deny in part both motions.
is a law professor whose research focuses on government
secrecy and agencies' administration of FOIA. Kwoka Decl.
¶ 1, Dkt. 10-1. On January 11, 2017, she submitted a
FOIA request to the IRS asking for “records reflecting
a list or log of FOIA requests received in Fiscal Year
2015.” FOIA Request, Dkt. 9-2 Ex. 1. She specified a
list of nine categories of information, including
“[t]he name of the requester for any
third-party request (for first-party requests I accept this
will be redacted)” and “[t]he organizational
affiliation of the requester, if there is one.”
its Automated Freedom of Information Act (AFOIA) system, the
IRS provided some of the information Kwoka sought on March 8,
2017. Def.'s Statement of Facts & Pl.'s Response
¶¶ 9, 12, Dkt. 10. That information did not include
the names or organizational affiliations of requesters.
Id. Kwoka filed an administrative appeal and argued
that the IRS improperly withheld those two categories of
information. Id. ¶ 17. On April 11, 2017, the
appeals office of the IRS found that the IRS had properly
invoked exemptions 3 and 6 in withholding the names and
organizational affiliations of requesters. Id.
¶ 18. Kwoka sued on June 14, 2017, id. ¶
19, and in September and October of 2017, the parties
cross-moved for summary judgment, Dkts. 9, 10.
of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure mandates that
“[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant
shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material
fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of
law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In FOIA litigation, when a
federal agency moves for summary judgment, all facts and
inferences must be viewed in the light most favorable to the
requester, and the agency bears the burden of showing that it
complied with FOIA. Chambers v. U.S. Dep't of
Interior, 568 F.3d 998, 1003 (D.C. Cir. 2009). To
prevail under Rule 56, a federal agency “must prove
that each document that falls within the class requested
either has been produced, is unidentifiable, or is wholly
exempt from [FOIA's] inspection requirements.”
Perry v. Block, 684 F.2d 121, 126 (D.C. Cir. 1982)
(per curiam) (quoting Nat'l Cable Television
Ass'n, Inc. v. F.C.C., 479 F.2d 183, 186 (D.C. Cir.
1973)). The agency must explain in reasonable detail why an
exemption applies to any withheld records. See Judicial
Watch, Inc. v. Food & Drug Admin., 449 F.3d 141, 147
(D.C. Cir. 2006). “[T]he vast majority of FOIA cases
can be resolved on summary judgment . . . .”
Brayton v. Office of the U.S. Trade Representative,
641 F.3d 521, 527 (D.C. Cir. 2011).
the IRS has invoked FOIA exemptions 3 and 6 to withhold the
names and organizational affiliations of past FOIA
requesters. Exemption 3 allows an agency to withhold matters
that are “specifically exempted from disclosure by
statute” under certain conditions, 5 U.S.C. §
552(b)(3), and the IRS points to another statute prohibiting
disclosure of “any return or return information,
” 26 U.S.C. § 6103(a). “Return
information” is broadly defined to include “a
taxpayer's identity” and “whether the
taxpayer's return was, is being, or will be examined or
subject to other investigation or processing.”
Id. § 6103(b)(2). “Taxpayer” is
also broadly defined to include corporations, trusts,
estates, partnerships, and associations. See 26
U.S.C. § 7701(a)(1); id. § 7701(a)(14).
Exemption 6 allows an agency to withhold “personnel and
medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would
constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal
privacy.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6). The IRS bears the
burden of establishing that disclosure of the records is
protected under exemptions 3 and 6. See U.S. Dep't of
State v. Ray, 502 U.S. 164, 173 (1991).
argues that it need not reveal the names or organizational
affiliations of FOIA requesters because doing so could
“reveal protected tax information about the requester
including, but not limited to[, ] the identity of a
taxpayer.” Def.'s Mot. at 10, Dkt. 9. The IRS
maintains a publicly accessible FOIA log that lists FOIA
request numbers and other information, including a
“request detail” column that lists the topic of
the request. The IRS argues that if Kwoka were to
receive the names and organizational affiliations of
requesters, she could cross-reference that information with
the online log and deduce the identities of the taxpayers.
Def.'s Mot. at 10-12; Def.'s Reply at 3-6, Dkt. 14.
IRS's conclusion does not follow from its premises. Even
armed with the information she requests and the publicly
accessible FOIA log, in most cases Kwoka could not know with
any certainty the identity of particular taxpayers. Neither
the log nor the information Kwoka requests generally reveals
the target of a FOIA request-i.e., the person whose
tax records the requester is seeking. Thus, for third-party
requests in which a requester submits a request for someone
else's information, knowing the name and organizational
affiliation of the requester (from her own FOIA request) in
conjunction with the topic of the request (from the publicly
accessible log) would not reveal the identity of the
target of the request.
pushes back, arguing that “there are many situations in
which the disclosure of the identities of FOIA requesters . .
., combined with the [topics] of their requests, could
disclose [protected information].” Def.'s Reply at
4. For example, when “a corporate shareholder who is
aware that a company is under examination by the IRS 
submit[s] a FOIA request for the corporation's
examination files, ” id. at 4, the IRS argues,
“[a] quick search of the internet would [be] enough to
connect the corporate shareholder with the corporation whose
examination files he has requested, and to reveal that the
corporation is under examination by the IRS, ”
id. at 5.
again, that conclusion does not follow. In the IRS's
hypothetical, the “corporate shareholder”
might be requesting information about the
corporation, but he might also be requesting information
about any number of other organizations (or
individuals). And importantly, Kwoka would have no way
of knowing. The same is true of the IRS's other
example-“the request for records of an estate return or
examination of an estate return by the relative of a deceased
taxpayer.” Id. Here again, Kwoka would have no
way of knowing whether the requester was indeed asking ...