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Powell v. Internal Revenue Service

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 3, 2019

WILLIAM E. POWELL, Plaintiff,
v.
INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          James E. Boasberg United States District Judge.

         Pro se Plaintiff William E. Powell seeks additional information from the Internal Revenue Service concerning his grandfather, father, a printing business once owned by his family, and himself. In the winter of 2017 and the spring of 2018, Powell claims to have submitted several requests to the IRS under the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act. He then brought this action alleging that he got little response. Defendant now moves for summary judgment, arguing that it did not receive most of the requests, that it performed an adequate search for the request that did arrive, and that Powell has failed to exhaust the required administrative remedies before attempting to open the courthouse doors. Agreeing, the Court will grant the Motion.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff continues his efforts to uncover information held by the IRS regarding asset distribution following the death of his father, William A. Powell, in 1992. See Powell v. Internal Revenue Serv., 280 F.Supp.3d 155, 157 (D.D.C. 2017). He believes that financial records possessed by the Service may reveal evidence of impropriety in the dealings of trustees charged with administering his father's estate. See ECF No. 8 (Amend. Compl.), Exh. A (Dec. 11, 2017, Request) at 7. Powell is no stranger to the process of requesting information from agencies on this matter. Indeed, he has already brought multiple suits in both this Court and the Eastern District of Michigan, all requesting various records involving his family's business. See, e.g., Powell, 280 F.Supp.3d at 155; Powell v. Internal Revenue Serv., 2016 WL 7473446, at *1 (E.D. Mich. Dec. 29, 2016).

         This time around, Plaintiff claims to have requested a variety of tax records from the IRS under FOIA, 5 U.S.C. § 522(a), and the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a. Despite his efforts, he alleges that the Service has “not responded or sent any correspondence” to answer each request. See Amend. Compl. at 3. Powell then filed this suit on April 3, 2018. His Complaint alleges that Defendant failed to respond to the December 11, 2017, FOIA and Privacy Act requests; the February 20, 2018, FOIA and Privacy Act requests; one March 5, 2018, Privacy Act and two Return and Income Verification Services (RAIVS) requests; and a March 7, 2018, Privacy Act request. Id. at 3-4 & Exh. C.

         The IRS disagrees. It claims to have received only one Privacy Act request and to have no record of the other requests in its document-review system. See ECF No. 21 (Def. MSJ), Attach. 2 (Def. SUMF), ¶ 26. Additionally, it explains that it responded to that sole request by having an analyst, William White, search for records in Defendant's master database and mail five pages of these records to Powell. Id., ¶¶ 38-39. Believing its job accomplished in accordance with FOIA's requirements, Defendant moves for summary judgment.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment may be granted 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). A genuine issue of material fact is one that would change the outcome of the litigation. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986) (“Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.”). In the event of conflicting evidence on a material issue, the Court is to construe the conflicting evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Sample v. Bureau of Prisons, 466 F.3d 1086, 1087 (D.C. Cir. 2006).

         FOIA cases typically and appropriately are decided on motions for summary judgment. See Defenders of Wildlife v. Border Patrol, 623 F.Supp.2d 83, 87 (D.D.C. 2009); Bigwood v. U.S. Agency for Int'l De v., 484 F.Supp.2d 68, 73 (D.D.C. 2007). In such cases, the agency bears the ultimate burden of proof to show that it conducted an adequate search. See Steinberg v. Dep't of Justice, 23 F.3d 548, 551 (D.C. Cir. 1994). T o determine whether a search “us[ed] methods which can be reasonably expected to produce the information requested, ” a court may rely upon an agency's “affidavits or declarations that explain in reasonable detail and in a nonconclusory fashion the scope and method of the search.” Brown v. FBI, 675 F.Supp.2d 122, 125 (D.D.C. 2009) (quoting Oglesby v. Dep't of the Army, 920 F.3d 57, 68 (D.C. Cir. 1990)) (internal quotations omitted). Such affidavits or declarations are “accorded a presumption of good faith, which cannot be rebutted by ‘purely speculative claims about the existence and discoverability of other documents.'” SafeCard Servs., Inc. v. SEC, 926 F.2d 1197, 1200 (D.C. Cir. 1991) (quoting Ground Saucer Watch, Inc. v. CIA, 692 F.2d 770, 771 (D.C. Cir. 1981)). “At all times courts must bear in mind that FOIA mandates a ‘strong presumption in favor of disclosure.'” Nat'l Ass'n of Home Builders v. Norton, 309 F.3d 26, 32 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (quoting Dep't of State v. Ray, 502 U.S. 164, 173 (1991)).

         III. Analysis

         Defendant asks the Court to grant summary judgment both for the requests that it claims not to have received and for the one to which it responded. First, the Service argues that because it has “no record of having received” the December 11, the February 20, two of the three March 5, and the March 7 requests, Plaintiff “has failed to exhaust his administrative remedies” for these requests. See Def. MSJ at 5. Second, Defendant contends that it “performed an adequate search for the records sought in the March 5 request” that it did receive. Id. at 7. The Court addresses each argument in turn.

         A. Receipt of Records Requests

         The parties' disagreement hinges on a narrow issue: whether the IRS received the December 11, February 20, March 5 (RAIVS), and March 7 requests for tax documents. In a nutshell, Powell says he mailed or faxed all of them, and the Service says they never arrived. Plaintiff has filed exhibits displaying each request that he purported to send. See Amend. Compl., Exhs. A-D. The first set, a FOIA request and a Privacy Act request dated December 11, 2017, is addressed to Defendant's “Disclosure Scanning Operation” office in Atlanta. Id., Exh. A. Plaintiff has supplemented his proof with a declaration from his personal assistant, Adrienne Wright-Lawrence, indicating that she mailed the FOIA request to the IRS “Central Processing Unit” at the same address. See ECF No. 22 (Plaintiff's Opposition), Attach. 1 (Declaration of Adrienne Wright-Lawrence) at 1. She does not claim to have sent any other requests. A second letter, dated February 20, 2018, included an additional FOIA and Privacy Act request to the same mailing address. See Amend. Compl., Exh. B. Plaintiff also alleges that he faxed several requests: two RAIVS requests to the IRS “RAIVES [sic] TEAM” on March 5, 2018, and one Privacy Act request to the “Cincinnati Submission Processing Center” on March 7, 2018. Id., Exhs. C-D. Finally, Powell faxed a separate Privacy Act request to the fax number of the IRS Central Processing Unit Atlanta office on March 5, 2018, that the Service acknowledges receiving. Id., Exh. D.

         Defendant rejoins that the evidence provided by Powell is insufficient because he must prove not “that the requester sent a request [but] that the agency received the request.” ECF No. 27 (Def. Reply) at 6. On that point, the IRS has submitted a declaration from its analyst, William J. White, describing the procedures used to search for Powell's requests in the Automated Freedom of Information Act (AFOIA) database. See Def. MSJ, Attach. 9 (Declaration of William J. White), ¶ 10. According to White, “AFOIA captures scanned images and data for all Disclosure Office casework” -- including FOIA and Privacy Act requests -- and “is searchable by the requestor's name.” Id., ¶¶ 11, 13. When White conducted a search for the name “William Powell, ” he found many of Plaintiff's past requests, but “among the requests described in (or attached to) the Amended Complaint, AFOIA ...


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