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Satterlee v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue Service

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

August 27, 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 GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS

          ROSEANN A. KETCHMARK, JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DATED

         Before the Court is Defendants the Internal Revenue Service (the “Service”) and the Department of the Treasury's (the “Treasury”) Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) (“the Motion”). (Doc. 10.) The Motion is fully briefed.[1] (Docs. 10, 16, 17, 19, 24, 27.) After careful consideration, the Motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         Background

         Plaintiff Ronald Satterlee (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) and the Privacy Act. FOIA confers jurisdiction on district courts to enjoin an agency from withholding agency records and to order the release of any agency records 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). Plaintiff alleges he sent a FOIA request to Defendant Service and Defendant Treasury and did not receive the records requested. (Doc. 1.)

         In his Complaint, Plaintiff identifies four separate correspondences with Defendants, dated as follows: November 24, 2017; December 29, 2017; June 12, 2018; and September 4, 2018. In particular, Plaintiff alleges he sent a request to the Treasury on November 24, 2017, and subsequent appeal on December 29, 2017. (Doc. 1). However, this Court granted Defendant Treasury's motion for summary judgment regarding those requests. (Doc. 34). Even though the November 24, 2017 request appears substantially similar to the June 12, 2018 request now before the Court, the June 12, 2018 request was not mentioned or argued in Treasury's motion for summary judgment. Thus, before the Court now are Defendants' motion to dismiss regarding the September 4, 2018, Service request, and the June 12, 2018, Treasury request.

- Internal Revenue Service Request: Plaintiff alleges that on September 4, 2018, he sent a FOIA and Privacy Request to the “Internal Revenue Service, Federal Payment Levy Program” (the “Service Request”). (Doc. 1-6.) In the Service Request, Plaintiff sought records sent from the Treasury to the Bureau of Fiscal Service concerning his debts. (Id.) Plaintiff sought copies of any demands for payment, and proof that the alleged debt “involves only ‘non tax' claims.” (Id.) The Service argues that it has no record of receiving this request. (Doc. 10-2.)
- Department of Treasury Request: Plaintiff alleges that on June 12, 2018, he sent a FOIA request to the “U.S. Secretary of the Treasury” (the “Treasury Request”). (Doc. 1-5.) In the Treasury request, Plaintiff sought “[a]ll forms, writings, and associated information forwarded, shared, sent to Bureau of Fiscal Service from IRS concerning ‘Type of Debt' ‘Tax Levy'” and “[a]ll allegations made, proofs and sworn statements submitted . . . .” (Doc. 1-5.) Treasury argues it has no record of receiving this request. (Doc. 10-2.)

         Legal Standard

         “A Rule 12(b)(1) motion challenges the federal court's subject matter jurisdiction over a cause of action.” Knox v. St. Louis City Sch. Dist., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 209123, at *2 (E.D. Mo. Dec. 12, 2018). “Subject matter jurisdiction is the power of a federal court to decide the claim before it. Id. (citing Lightfoot v. Cendant Mortg. Corp., 137 S.Ct. 553, 562 (2017)). “Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of America, 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). Federal courts retain the power to hear cases only if authorized to do so by both the Constitution and by statute. Id. “Generally speaking, a federal court's subject-matter jurisdiction over a case must be based on either [a] federal question . . . or diversity.” Miller v. Clark, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 196713, at *1 (W.D. Mo. June 14, 2013). If a federal court lacks jurisdiction over the subject matter of a case, the court must dismiss the action. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3).

         Circuits are split on the question of whether a failure to exhaust administrative remedies constitutes a true jurisdictional bar to FOIA claims or merely provides prudential grounds for declining to exercise jurisdiction.” Widtfeldt v. United States, 2013 WL 2149100, at *3 (D. Neb. May 16, 2013). “While the Eighth Circuit has not squarely addressed this question, courts in the Eighth Circuit have concluded that a plaintiff's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies under FOIA deprives this Court of subject matter jurisdiction over the complaint.” Id. at 4. “The agency's obligation to process a request for records is predicated on the agency's receipt of a request which reasonably describes the records sought and is made in accordance with published rules stating the time, place, fees, and procedures to be followed.” Giaimo, 1996 WL 249362, at *2 (E.D. Mo. 1996) (citing 5 U.S.C. §552(a)(6)(A))(citing 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)). Under FOIA, “federal jurisdiction is dependent on a showing that an agency has (1) improperly (2) withheld (3) agency records.” Kissinger v. Reporters Comm. For Freedom of Press, 445 U.S. 136, 150 (1980). “Unless each of these criteria is met, a district court lacks jurisdiction to devise remedies to force an agency to comply with the FOIA's disclosure requirements.” DOJ v. Tax Analysts, 492 U.S. 136, 142 (1989).

         Discussion

         Defendants argue dismissal is proper because: (1) the Commissioner of Internal Revenue is not a proper defendant in a FOIA action and should be dismissed; and (2) Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before filing suit because neither the Service nor the Treasury have a record of receiving his FOIA request.

         A. Defendant Commissioner of Internal Revenue Service

         Defendants argue the Commissioner of Internal Revenue Service is not a proper defendant in this case because he is not an agency. FOIA applies to federal government agencies. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a). The Internal Revenue Service is the only proper party to a FOIA and Privacy Action. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B) (providing that district courts have jurisdiction to “enjoin the agency from withholding agency records”). “FOIA incorporates the definition of ‘agency' found under the Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”).” ACLU of Mich. v. FBI, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 141383, at *7 (E.D. Mi. Sept. 30, 2012). “Under the APA, an ‘agency' is defined as ‘each authority of the Government of the United States, whether or not it is within or subject to review by another agency.” ...


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