United States District Court, S.D. California
ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY
JUDGMENT WITHOUT PREJUDICE, [ECF NO. 28]
Ted Moskowitz, Chief Judge United States District Judge.
United States Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”)
has filed a motion for summary judgment as to Plaintiff's
claims under the Freedom of Information Act
(“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552, et seq. (ECF No.
28.) For the reasons discussed below, the IRS's motion
will be denied without prejudice.
one of five actions filed by related entities against the
Each case is based on the claim that the IRS failed to comply
with its obligations under 5 U.S.C. § 552 to respond to
FOIA requests submitted by the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs contend
they submitted their requests after the IRS filed a series of
liens against them between 2011 and 2013 holding them liable
for payroll tax liabilities of other corporations under alter
ego and/or successor liability theories.
Smart-Tek Services, Inc. (“Plaintiff”) alleges it
sent a written FOIA request to the IRS on May 12, 2014.
Compl. (ECF No. 1) ¶ 10. Under 5 U.S.C. §
552(a)(6)(A)(i), an agency has 20 business days following
receipt of a FOIA request to determine whether to comply with
the request and must “immediately” notify the
requester of its determination. 5 U.S.C. §
552(a)(6)(A)(i). On June 6, 2014, the IRS sent a response to
Plaintiff in which it acknowledged receipt of the request but
“failed to make any determination about the
request.” Compl. ¶ 11. On February 27, 2015,
having received no further response from the IRS, Plaintiff
initiated this action.
October 7, 2016, the IRS filed the instant motion. It
indicates it has now completed its search for records and
released 1, 743 pages in full, and 10 pages in part, of
non-exempt documents responsive to Plaintiff's FOIA
request. It seeks summary judgment on the ground that it has
fully discharged its obligations under 5 U.S.C. § 552.
Plaintiff opposes the motion. (ECF No. 33.)
FOIA Summary Judgment Standard
judgment is appropriate if the evidence, when viewed in the
light most favorable to the non-moving party, demonstrates
“there is no genuine dispute as to any material
fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Celotex Corp. v.
Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party
bears the initial burden of showing there is no material
factual dispute and he or she is entitled to prevail as a
matter of law. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. If the
moving party meets its burden, the nonmoving party must go
beyond the pleadings and identify specific facts which show a
genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324.
courts are directed to conduct a de novo review of
the adequacy of an agency's response to a FOIA request. 5
U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B); U.S. Dep't of Justice v.
Reporters Comm. for Freedom of Press, 489 U.S. 749, 755
(1989). Because FOIA cases rarely involve material factual
disputes, they “are typically and appropriately decided
on motions for summary judgment.” Defenders of
Wildlife v. U.S. Border Patrol, 623 F.Supp.2d 83, 97
(D.D.C. 2009); see Shannahan v. Internal Revenue
Serv., 637 F.Supp.2d 902, 912 (W.D. Wash. 2009). Courts
“follow a two-step inquiry when presented with a motion
for summary judgment in a FOIA case.”
Shannahan, 637 F.Supp.2d at 912.
the district court must determine whether the agency has
established that it fully discharged its obligation under
FOIA to conduct an adequate search for responsive records.
Zemansky v. U.S. Envtl. Prot. Agency, 767 F.2d 569,
571 (9th Cir. 1985). To meet this burden, the agency must:
demonstrate that it has conducted a “search reasonably
calculated to uncover all relevant documents.” Further,
the issue to be resolved is not whether there might exist any
other documents possibly responsive to the request, but
rather whether the search for those documents was adequate.
The adequacy of the search, in turn, is judged by a standard
of reasonableness and depends, not surprisingly, upon the
facts of each case. In demonstrating the adequacy of the
search, the agency may rely upon reasonably detailed,
nonconclusory affidavits submitted in good faith.
Id. (quoting Weisberg v. U.S. Dep't of
Justice (“Weisberg II”), 745 F.2d 1476, 1485
(D.C. Cir. 1984)).
agency satisfies its initial burden, the court proceeds to
the second step and considers “‘whether the
agency has proven that the information that it did not
disclose falls within one of nine FOIA
exemptions.'” Shannahan, 637 F.Supp.2d at
912 (quoting Los Angeles Times Commc'ns, LLC v.
Dep't of the Army, 442 F.Supp.2d 880, 894 (C.D. Cal.
2006)). Agencies seeking to withhold documents pursuant to a
FOIA exemption “have been required to supply the
opposing party and the court with a ‘Vaughn
index, ' identifying each document withheld, the
statutory exemption claimed, and a particularized explanation
of how disclosure of the particular document would damage the
interest protected by the claimed exemption.”
Wiener v. Fed. Bureau of Investigation, 943 F.2d
972, 977 (9th Cir. 1991); see Vaughn v. Rosen, 484
F.2d 820, 823-25 (D.C. Cir. 1973). “The purpose of a
Vaughn index ‘is … to ...