SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The Freedom of Information Act trumps an Internal Revenue Service policy for handling data requests, a federal judge ruled.
Public.Resource.org, a nonprofit dedicated to improving access to government records, sued the IRS a year ago after the agency denied its request for records. U.S. District Judge William Orrick denied the IRS’ motion to dismiss on June 20.
Public.Resource’s (PRO) projects include making more than 6,000 government videos available to the public and posting a complete historical archive of U.S. Courts of Appeals opinions online.
In March 2013, the organization requested from the IRS Form 990 filings for nine tax-exempt organizations from 2011. Form 990 filings are filed publicly and are supposed to be available to the public. They include revenue and expense information, company assets and liabilities and executive compensation. PRO says it uses that information to keep an eye on nonprofits.
“The Form 990 is directly analogous to EDGAR filing required to be made by publicly traded corporations by the SEC,” according to PRO’s federal complaint. “In both cases, the information is collected by the government and is meant to be released as a way of making our markets more efficient and more transparent.”
The IRS refused PRO’s request for files in modernized e-file format or “any other machine-readable format,” according to the complaint.
The IRS claimed the requested files fall under section 6104 of the Internal Revenue Code, the IRS’s statute for 990 filings, which dictates the “means” by which the data is released.
PRO sued the IRS in June 2013, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief under the FOIA and the Administrative Procedures Act, claiming the IRS’s “means” are inadequate and that its internal code is superseded by the FOIA.
The IRS filed a motion to dismiss in September 2013 for failure to state a claim, arguing that the FOIA does not apply to section 6104.
Judge Orrick found that it was not the intent of Congress to allow IRS rules and procedures to supersede the FOIA.
“As the Supreme Court has held, ‘the clear legislative intent of FOIA is to assure public access to all governmental records whose disclosure would not significantly harm specific governmental interest,” Orrick ruled.
He found that “nothing in the text, structure, purpose or legislative history of either statute indicates that section 6104 should supersede FOIA.”
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