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Kwoka v. IRS

In early 2017, Margaret Kwoka, an Associate Professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law whose research focuses on government secrecy and federal agencies’ administration of FOIA, requested records from the IRS reflecting specific data regarding FOIA requests received by the IRS in Fiscal Year 2015. The IRS provided some responsive records to Professor Kwoka but withheld the names of third-party FOIA requesters within those records under exemptions 3 and 6. Public Citizen represents Professor Kwoka in this suit arguing that neither exemption applies to the withheld information.

Both Professor Kwoka and the IRS filed motions for summary judgment. On September 28, 2018, the district court granted in part and denied in part summary judgment to Professor Kwoka. The court held neither exemption 3 nor exemption 6 justified the blanket withholding of the names of third-party requesters and the organizational affiliations of all requesters. The court’s opinion provided that the IRS should review the requested records and either produce them or justify individual redactions with sufficient detail to explain why either exemption was justified in that particular circumstance.

Following the court’s summary judgment decision, the IRS disclosed the vast majority of the requested information. The IRS’s productions following summary judgment are posted on this page.

Professor Kwoka moved for an award of attorney fees, which the court denied in a one-paragraph order. On appeal, the D.C. Circuit vacated the district court’s attorney fees decision and remanded. The court held that factors of the test for attorney fees that consider the commercial benefit to the requester and the nature of the requester’s interest in the records weighed in Professor Kwoka’s favor. On the fourth factor, which looks to whether the agency’s opposition to disclosure had a reasonable basis in law, the court held the IRS’s assertion of FOIA exemption 3 had been plainly unreasonable. The court of appeals remanded the case back to the district court for further consideration of whether the agency’s assertion of burden was reasonable, because the district court had not previously considered that aspect of the fourth factor and, if so, for weighing of the factors. After remand, we settled the amount of attorney fees with the IRS.