Is FOIA A Tool In Your Tool Belt? District Court Weighs In With Long Opinion On FOIA Obligations


The Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 (FOIA), is a federal law that allow for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the United States government. FOIA defines agency records that are subject to disclosure, outlines mandatory disclosure procedures and grants exemptions from disclosure. Many states similar laws governing the disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the state and its agencies. The theory is that the government should be open and transparent unless the government has a good reason to withhold the information sought. On March 31, 2015, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a long opinion in Sea Shepherd Conservation Society v. Internal Revenue Service, regarding the IRS’s response to Sea Shepherd’s FOIA request seeking information from the IRS about its investigation of Sea Shepherd.

Sea Shepherd is a non-profit organization that has vigorously opposed Japanese whaling operations; indeed the Ninth Circuit has described its controversial tactics as amounting to piracy. See Institute of Cetacean Research, et al. v. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, et al., 725 F.3d 940 (9th Cir. 2013). Sea Shepherd was recently made aware of the fact that the United States and Japanese governments had discussed its activities when two diplomatic, classified cables were uncovered and released by WikiLeaks. In January 2013, Sea Shepherd became the subject of an IRS investigation into its tax exempt status, which was concluded with no action in October 2014. Alarmed by these disclosures, Sea Shepherd made several FOIA requests to the IRS, whose response the group considered to be less than adequate. Finally, Sea Shepherd filed a lawsuit challenging the adequacy of the FOIA search, and the Court of Appeals agreed with Sea Shepherd, rejected the motion for summary judgment submitted by the IRS, and directed that a more vigorous search be conducted.