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Kwoka v. Internal Revenue Service

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 28, 2018




         Professor 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Kwoka 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.” Id.

         Using 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.


         Rule 56 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).

         Here, 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).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Exemption 3

         The IRS 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.[1] 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.

         But the 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.

         The IRS 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.

         But 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).[2] 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 ...

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