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Federal judge tosses FOIA complaint against IRS


By Scott Holland | May 31, 2019


KANSAS CITY – A federal judge has dismissed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) complaint against the Internal Revenue Service.

In an opinion issued May 23, Judge Roseann Ketchmark of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri dismissed the case citing lack of subject matter jurisdiction and because two defendants cannot be sued under the FOIA because they are not agencies.

Ronald Satterlee filed his first FOIA request with the IRS on June 19, 2017, seeking “original copies of the ‘original liens’” for all tax years from 1998 through 2011, excepting 2005, the ruling states. Three requests followed — one the next day, then another in August 2017 and August 2018. The IRS denied his June 19 request, saying the “‘original’ lien is a concept, not a "paper document” and that it could not find documents relating to the plaintiff's request, the ruling states. Three more requests also were denied by the IRS or the agency was unable to fill them, and the IRS stated it had no record of the plaintiff's Aug. 13, 2018, request.

Satterlee filed a pro se federal complaint against the IRS, the commissioner of IRS and the disclosure officer challenging the denials. The IRS moved to dismiss Satterlee’s complaint for a lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Ketchmark said she considered that motion as well as Satterlee’s two opposition motions.

The IRS argued Satterlee’s lawsuit was inappropriate because he failed to exhaust the other remedies available by declining to use the administrative appeal process. It also said Satterlee improperly listed as defendants “Commissioner of Internal Revenue” and “Disclosure Officer” and argued federal court is the wrong venue for the August 2017 request because it sought an answer to a question, not agency records.

Ketchmark agreed with the IRS that under the Administrative Procedures Act, the only possible defendant in an FOIA action against a federal agency is the agency itself, and dismissed the commissioner and disclosure officer from the complaint.

“Courts have determined that the failure to exhaust administrative remedies is grounds for dismissal of a FOIA claim,” Ketchmark wrote, pointing to a 2008 Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals opinion in Holmes v. Chao, as well as other decisions holding that a plaintiff’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies effectively deprives a federal court of subject matter jurisdiction.

Ketchmark said there is no record Satterlee appealed the June 19 and June 20, 2017, FOIA denials, and said the IRS doesn’t have a record of receiving the request he allegedly filed on Aug. 13, 2018, and an agency’s obligation to process a FOIA request is contingent upon it formally receiving the petition.

Turning to the Aug. 28, 2017, request, Ketchmark noted Satterlee asked Disclosure Manager Ronal Mele to “confirm and make responsive statement (sic) that there has been no IRS notice and demand made for or during years 1998-2004 and 2006-2011,” and wrote that request “does not seek agency records; it seeks an answer or response to a statement.”

Ketchmark pointed to a 1996 opinion in Washington, D.C., federal court in Frank v. Department of Justice, saying the FOIA “neither requires an agency to answer questions disguised as a FOIA request, or to create documents or opinions in responses to an individual’s request for information,” nor does it compel an agency “to dig out all the information that might exist, in whatever form or place it might be found, and to create a document that answers plaintiff’s questions.”

In addition to dismissing the complaint, Ketchmark also denied Satterlee’s request for expedited proceedings as well as his request to be compensated for court costs.

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