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Satterlee v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue Service

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southern Division

July 24, 2019

RONALD LEROY SATTERLEE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE, INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE, FREEDOM OF INFORMATION REQUEST, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY, Defendants.

          ORDER

          ROSEANN A. KETCHMARK, JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendant U.S. Department of the Treasury, Bureau of the Fiscal Service (“Defendant Fiscal Service”)'s Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction, or in the alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment (“the Motion”). (Doc. 29.) The Motion is fully briefed. (Docs. 30, 32, 33.) After careful consideration and for the reasons below, the Motion is GRANTED.

         Background

          Plaintiff Ronald Satterlee (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) and the Privacy Act. The FOIA confers jurisdiction to district courts to enjoin an agency from withholding agency records and to order the release of agency records that are improperly withheld. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B). The Privacy Act establishes a procedure for fair information practices of records concerning individuals maintained by federal agencies. 5 U.S.C. § 552(a). On, November 24, 2017, Plaintiff submitted a FOIA and Privacy Act request, which Defendant Fiscal Service interpreted as a request for all records relating to any debts listed for him under his name and/or Social Security Number. (Docs. 1, 30.) Plaintiff alleges these records were not provided to him. (Doc. 1.)

         Legal Standard

         Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment 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.” “As to materiality, the substantive law will identify which facts are material.” 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.” Id. “[A] dispute about a material fact is ‘genuine,' . . . if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. “In considering a motion for summary judgment, the court does not weigh the evidence, make credibility determinations, or attempt to discern the truth of any factual issue.” Morris v. City of Chillicothe, 512 F.3d 1013, 1018 (8th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). “Once the movant fulfills its responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion, identifying the portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, the nonmovant must respond by submitting evidentiary materials that set out specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Hess v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 898 F.3d 852, 857 (8th Cir. 2018) (quotation marks and citation omitted).

         Summary judgment is available in a FOIA action where an agency demonstrates that it has fully discharged its obligations under the FOIA. Missouri Coal for Env't Found. v. Army Corps of Eng'rs, 542 F.3d 1204, 1209 (8th Cir. 2008). An agency meets the burden for summary judgment when the agency proves “that each document that falls within the class requested either has been produced, is unidentifiable, or is wholly exempt from the Acts' inspection requirements.” Miller v. Dep't of States, 779 F.2d 1378, 1383 (8th Cir. 1985). “[T] burden remains on the government to demonstrate that it has thoroughly searched for the requested documents where they might reasonably be found . . . once the agency has shown by convincing evidence that its search was reasonable, i.e., that it was especially geared to recover the documents requested, then the burden is on the requester to rebut that evidence by a showing that the search was not in fact in good faith.” Id.

         Discussion

         Defendant Fiscal Service argues summary judgment is proper because it completed a reasonable search for the records Plaintiff requested, and after completing the search, Defendant Fiscal Service released all records to Plaintiff that were responsive to his requests. Plaintiff argues Defendant Fiscal Service did not perform a competent search because the search did not uncover what Plaintiff argues are known and identifiable documents. Plaintiff also argues the Motion is premature.

         A. Reasonableness of the Search

         When an FOIA request is made, an agency must establish that it executed a search that was “reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant records.” Steinberg v. DOJ, 23 F.3d 548, 551 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (quoting Weisberg v. DOJ, 745 F.2d 1476, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1984)). The adequacy of a search depends if the search is reasonable. DelVecchio, 360 Fed.Appx. at 108. See also Miller, 779 F.2d at 1382-83 (“[t]he adequacy of an agency's search for requested documents is judged by a standard of reasonableness . . . the search need only be reasonable; it does not have to be exhaustive”). To prove the adequacy of a search, an agency may rely on reasonably detailed, non-conclusory affidavits or declarations submitted in good faith. Pollack v. Bureau of Prisons, 879 F.2d 406, 409 (8th Cir. 1989).

         Here, Defendant Fiscal Service submitted a detailed, non-conclusory declaration of Thomas Kobielus, a Management and Program Analysist and Senior Privacy Analyst employed by Defendant Fiscal Service. (Doc. 30-1.) Mr. Kobielus' declaration describes the search for records responsive to Plaintiff's request. The declaration specifically describes how the search was conducted to produce all responsive documents. Mr. Kobielus searched the IDMS and Treasury Offset Program systems for records responsive to Plaintiff's request. The declaration indicates these were the proper systems to search because they included data, reports, Notice of Levy Letters, and other documents related to the Federal Payment Levy Program. The search produced twenty-nine documents or records that may be responsive to Plaintiff's request. The Court finds the search was reasonable.

         At this time, the burden shifts to Plaintiff to rebut the agency's evidence by showing the search was not reasonable or was performed in bad faith. Plaintiff has not provided any evidence to rebut Defendant Fiscal Service's evidence; therefore, there is no genuine issue of material fact as to the reasonableness and responsiveness of the search. See Miller, 779 F.2d at 1383 (“once the agency has shown by convincing evidence that the search was reasonable . . . then the burden is on the requester to rebut that evidence by showing that the search was not in fact in good faith”); Amsinger v. IRS, No. 4:08-CV-1085-AGF, 2009 WL 911831, at *2 (E.D. Mo. Apr. 1, 2009) (“[o]nce the agency meets its burden of proving that its search was reasonable, the burden shifts to the requester to rebut the agency's evidence”).

         B. ...


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