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Powell v. Internal Revenue Service

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 6, 2019




         Pro se Plaintiff William E. Powell's long pursuit of tax information about his family, their trusts and estates, and their printing business has spurred him to bring at least six suits against Defendant Internal Revenue Service - three in the Eastern District of Michigan and three here. In the instant case, Plaintiff alleges that the IRS's response, or lack thereof, to several records requests constitutes a violation of the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act. Only three claims remain after the Court's first summary-judgment Opinion, and the Government now moves for judgment on them. The Court accedes and will grant the Motion.

         I. Background

         The full history of this case is laid out in the Court's prior Opinion. See Powell v. IRS, 317 F.Supp.3d 266, 270-71 (D.D.C. 2018). As relevant here, Plaintiff's First Amended, Second Amended, and Supplemental Complaints alleged Privacy Act and FOIA violations relating to his requests for tax records pertaining to himself (William E. Powell), his father (William A. Powell), his grandfather (Andrew Powell), the family's printing company under two names (recently, the Powell Printing Company; formerly, the Andrew Powell Printing Company), his father's estate, his father's trust, and his grandfather's trust. Id. at 273-74 (listing requests in each Complaint by taxpayer).

         On July 5, 2018, this Court granted the IRS summary judgment as to all but two matters. First, it found that Plaintiff had sufficiently pleaded a request for the Powell Printing Company's 1989 tax records. Id. at 275. The second claim to survive was Powell's allegation that the IRS had not adequately searched for the original of his father's Form 706, which he seeks as a way of locating Plaintiff's own K-1 information, which may have been attached to the Form 706. Id. at 280-81. Upon Plaintiff's Motion for Reconsideration, the Court ordered that Powell was also entitled to receive the tax records he had requested for Andrew Powell as an individual, since he had “sufficiently established he is next of kin to his grandfather.” ECF No. 63 (Order Granting in Part and Denying in Part Plaintiff's Motion for Reconsideration) at 2.

         The IRS has now filed a Second Motion for Summary Judgment, asserting first that Powell is barred by claim preclusion as to the 1989 Powell Printing Company tax records and, second, that it has adequately searched for both the William A. Powell Estate's Form 706 and the requested individual tax records of Plaintiff's grandfather, Andrew Powell.

         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). Factual assertions in the moving party's affidavits or declarations may be accepted as true unless the opposing party submits his own affidavits, declarations, or documentary evidence to the contrary. Neal v. Kelly, 963 F.2d 453, 456-57 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

         “FOIA cases typically and appropriately are decided on motions for summary judgment.” Defenders of Wildlife v. U.S. Border Patrol, 623 F.Supp.2d 83, 87 (D.D.C. 2009); see Bigwood v. U.S. Agency for Int'l Dev., 484 F.Supp.2d 68, 73 (D.D.C. 2007). In FOIA cases, the agency bears the ultimate burden of proof to demonstrate the adequacy of its search and that it properly withheld any documents. See Defenders of Wildlife, 623 F.Supp.2d at 88, 91. The Court may grant summary judgment based solely on information provided in an agency's affidavits or declarations when they “describe the documents and the justifications for nondisclosure with reasonably specific detail, demonstrate that the information withheld logically falls within the claimed exemption, and are not controverted by either contrary evidence in the record nor by evidence of agency bad faith.” Military Audit Project v. Casey, 656 F.2d 724, 738 (D.C. Cir. 1981). 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)).

         III. Analysis

         As there are three separate sets of records at issue here, the Court looks at each in turn.

         A. Powell Printing Company 1989 Return

         The first surviving claim is one under the Privacy Act for the 1989 corporate tax return of the Powell Printing Company. See Powell, 317 F.Supp.3d at 275. Defendant now argues, as it did in its Answer, that this claim is barred by the doctrine of claim preclusion, its having been adjudicated by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Powell v. IRS, No. 14-12626, 2015 WL 5271943 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 9, 2015).

         “A subsequent lawsuit is barred by claim preclusion ‘if there has been prior litigation (1) involving the same claims or cause of action, (2) between the same parties or their privies, and (3) there has been a final, valid judgment on the merits, (4) by a court of competent jurisdiction.'” Nat. Res. Def. Council v. EPA, 513 F.3d 257, 260 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (quoting Smalls v. United States, 471 F.3d 186, 192 (D.C. Cir. 2006)). As to the first element, “[w]hether two cases implicate the same cause of action turns on whether they share the same ‘nucleus of facts.'” Drake v. FAA, 291 F.3d 59, 66 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (quoting Page v. United ...

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