Middle E. Forum v. Treasury, No. 17-2010, 2018 WL 3243978 (D.D.C. July 3, 2018) (Bates, J.)
Re: Request for records seeking any communications between the IRS Office of Criminal Investigation and other government agencies relating to a third party
Disposition: Denying defendant's motion to dismiss as to the claim for injunctive relief; granting defendant's motion to dismiss as to the claim for a declaratory judgment
- Procedural Requirements, Proper FOIA Requests: "The IRS claims that [plaintiff] failed to provide [third-party taxpayer] authorization, which rendered its request imperfect and failed to trigger the IRS's FOIA obligation." The court finds that, "an agency responding to a FOIA request has an 'obligation under the law of this circuit "to construe a FOIA request liberally."'" "The responding agency also must conduct a search 'that is "reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents."'" "Even if the IRS was justified in rejecting [plaintiff]'s initial FOIA request as imperfect, [plaintiff]'s response (whether it constituted an appeal or a renewed request) clarified that the request was for any information not protected by statute." "A 'liberal interpretation' of plaintiff's request indicates that plaintiff was seeking only non-'return information' and that no third-party authorization was therefore required." The court finds that, "the IRS in the present case submitted a single affidavit to support its claim that [plaintiff]'s request seeks return information . . . [and] [t]his affidavit is based only on an examination of [plaintiff]'s request and the IRS's initial response." "Without a more detailed explanation of the IRS's process in determining that all information responsive to [plaintiff]'s request would be protected information, this affidavit is insufficient to support the IRS's motion."
- Procedural Requirements, Reasonable Description: "The IRS also asserts that [plaintiff]'s request was imperfect because it did not 'reasonably describe' the records sought." The court finds that, "[a]lthough the IRS's FOIA regulations require 'no specific formula . . . the requirement shall generally be satisfied if the requester gives the name, . . . subject matter, location, and years at issue, of the requested records.'" "IRS claims that [plaintiff]'s request was not reasonably specific because it did not include [a] taxpayer identification number or location, or the system of records to be searched." "IRS regulations require that FOIA requests 'describe the records in reasonably sufficient detail to enable . . . employees who are familiar with the subject matter of the request to locate the records without placing an unreasonable burden upon the IRS.'" "The 'linchpin inquiry is whether the agency is able to determine precisely what records are being requested.'" The court finds that, "the IRS never requested additional information beyond the authorization form, and its immediate identification of 'all of the information . . . requested' as 'return information' indicates that the request sufficiently identified the records [plaintiff] sought."
- Litigation Considerations, Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies: The court finds that, "[w]ithout a perfected request, an agency has no duty to respond to FOIA requests, and the requester fails to exhaust the administrative process . . . [b]ut 'the unavailability of an administrative appeal [does] not preclude a requester from seeking judicial review of an agency's decision that a request is improper,' because 'when an agency makes a conscious choice not to provide a party with administrative process, the agency constructively waives the requirement of administrative exhaustion.'" "Because [plaintiff] disputes that the information it sought in the request was protected return information, it had 'no choice but to refuse to provide the consent and appeal the IRS's determination.'"