This is the fourth article in the Freedom Of Information Act Requests (FOIAs) and Government Data Practices Act Requests (GDPAs) series. This series is intended to provide taxpayers and practitioners with answers to the most commonly asked questions relating to the use of FOIAs and GDPAs. The use of FOIAs and GDPAs allow taxpayers and practitioners to recover information from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Minnesota Department of Revenue (MDR) and use that information to resolve their case.
The focus of this article is on the requirements for the IRS’s response to a FOIA request and reasons it may deny access to information.
The IRS has 20 days (excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and legal public holidays), after it receives the FOIA request, to determine whether to comply with the request under the FOIA. That deadline can be extended, an additional 10 days, if the IRS can demonstrate that there are exceptional circumstances. Some of these circumstances include:
1. Collecting records from field locations;
2. Reviewing large numbers of records;
3. Consulting with other agencies;
4. Consulting with business submitters;
5. The amount of material withheld;
6. The resources devoted to review; or,
7. The number of requests for records by courts or administrative tribunals.
Technically, a delay that results from a predictable IRS workload of requests is not an unusual circumstance justifying an extension. Though, in some instances, this sort of delay is no uncommon.
The taxpayer may be required to pay fees to cover some or all of the costs of processing their FOIA request. Those fees can be related to copying documents, searching for documents, or reviewing documents (thought this last reason only applies to commercial requesters).
The IRS may withhold an IRS record that falls under one of the FOIA’s nine statutory exemptions or by one of three exclusions. The exemptions protect against the disclosure of information that would harm:
i. National security;
ii. The privacy of individuals;
iii. The proprietary interests of business;
iv. The functioning of the government; and,
v. Other important recognized interests.
An entire record is not necessarily exempt when a record contains some information that qualifies as exempt. Any portion that can be reasonably segregated must be provided to a requester after exempt portions are deleted. The IRS must identify the location of deletions in the released portion of the record and, where technologically feasible, show the deletion at the place on the record where the deletion was made, unless including that indication would harm an interest protected by an exemption.
If the taxpayer believes that records were improperly withheld because of the exclusions, then the taxpayer can seek judicial review by filing suit in Federal District Court. The basics for disputing the IRS’s determination will be the topic of our next blog article in this series.