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Business Tax

IRS Properly Withheld Employee Names, Cellphone Numbers Under FOIA

Thomson Reuters Tax & Accounting  

Thomson Reuters Tax & Accounting  

A federal district court determined that the IRS properly withheld the names and work cellphone numbers of IRS employees from its response to a researcher’s FOIA request. The court held that IRS employees have a privacy interest in protecting their names and their work cellphone numbers.

Background

Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the public has a right to access documents and records held by federal government agencies. (5 USC 552(a)) Federal agencies must comply with requests to make their records available to the public, unless such information is exempted under one of nine statutory exemptions. (5 USC 552(b))

FOIA exemption 6 permits an agency to withhold personnel and similar information the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. (5 USC 552(b)(6)) FOIA exemption 6 covers information specific to a certain individual that is related to that individual’s life, including the person’s name, address, place of birth, employment history, and telephone number. (Shapiro v. U.S. Dep’t of Justice, (DC Dist. Col. 2014) 34 F. Supp. 3d 89)

Courts have routinely held that employees in law enforcement and with national security functions have a substantial privacy interest in their names because disclosure could subject them to embarrassment or harassment in the conduct of their official duties and personal affairs. (Moore v. Bush, (DC Dist. Col. 2009) 601 F. Supp. 2d 6)

Facts

Grant F. Smith (Smith) was a pubic interest researcher. In 2012, Smith submitted a FOIA request seeking a list of every IRS employee, including their “first name, middle initial, last name, title, department, and phone number.” In response, the IRS provided Smith with various directories and a link to a publicly accessible website containing a searchable database.

Smith administratively appealed the IRS’s response because it did not provide the name of every IRS employee or provide phone numbers. The IRS denied Smith’s appeal, claiming it was allowed to withhold the requested information under FOIA exemption 6.

After Smith filed suit in federal district court seeking to force the IRS to respond to his FOIA request, the IRS produced an additional list of employees. However, the IRS redacted the names of

  1. Employees who participate in its “pseudonym program,” which permits certain IRS employees to use pseudonyms to protect their personal safety, and
  2. Employees who hold “sensitive” positions.

The IRS also redacted the business cell phone numbers for all IRS employees. The IRS withheld this information by claiming it was exempt from disclosure under FOIA exemption 6.

Requested information was exempt from FOIA

The district court determined that the IRS properly redacted the names of employees who are part of a pseudonym program to protect employees’ personal safety, and those who work in “sensitive” positions, because those employees, like the employees in Moore v Bush , have a substantial privacy interest in their names, which is protected by FOIA exemption 6.

Regarding the IRS employees’ work cellphone numbers, the court found that disclosing the numbers for these cellphones, which employees carry even when at home, could subject the employees to the type of harassment exemption 6 was designed to prevent and, therefore, the IRS employees maintained a privacy interest in protecting their work cell phone numbers. Thus, the IRS correctly applied exemption 6 when it redacted its employees’ work cellphone numbers from its FOIA response.

To continue your research on FOIA requests, see FTC 2d/FIN ¶T-10300.

 

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