132 F.3d 1463 (D.C. Cir. 1998), 97-5010, Lehrfeld v. Richardson

Docket Nº:97-5010.
Citation:132 F.3d 1463
Party Name:98-529, William J. LEHRFELD, Appellant, v. Margaret M. RICHARDSON, Commissioner of Internal Revenue, et al., Appellees.
Case Date:January 20, 1998
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

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132 F.3d 1463 (D.C. Cir. 1998)


William J. LEHRFELD, Appellant,


Margaret M. RICHARDSON, Commissioner of Internal Revenue, et

al., Appellees.

No. 97-5010.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

January 20, 1998

Argued Oct. 24, 1997.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. (No. 94cv00238).

Bruce L. Stern argued the cause for appellant, with whom Amber H.C. Wong and William J. Lehrfeld were on the briefs.

Thomas J. Sawyer, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, argued the cause for appellees, with whom Mary Lou Leary, U.S. Attorney, Loretta C. Argrett, Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice, and Jonathan S. Cohen, Attorney, were on the brief.

Before: GINSBURG, ROGERS, and TATEL, Circuit Judges.

GINSBURG, Circuit Judge:

The appellant William Lehrfeld asked the Internal Revenue Service for access to documents the IRS had received from Members of Congress or other officials in support of the application of the South Africa Free Elections Fund for tax-exempt status. When the IRS refused that request, Lehrfeld sued to compel disclosure. The district court granted summary judgment for the IRS on the ground that the material sought was "return information" protected from disclosure under § 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code and not subject to disclosure under § 6104. We affirm.


As a general rule, the IRS may not disclose tax returns and return information to the public. I.R.C. § 6103(a). The Congress has defined "return information" broadly to include any data

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received by, recorded by, prepared by, furnished to, or collected by the Secretary with respect to a return or with respect to the determination of the existence, or possible existence, of liability (or the amount thereof) of any person under this title for any tax, penalty, interest, fine, forfeiture, or other imposition, or offense.

I.R.C. § 6103(b)(2)(A). The Congress has also provided a limited exception to the general rule of confidentiality with respect to applications for tax-exempt status:

If an organization described in section 501(c) or (d) is exempt from taxation under section 501(a) for any taxable year, the application filed by the organization with respect to which the Secretary made his determination that such organization was entitled to exemption under section 501(a), together with any papers submitted in support of such application, and any letter or other document issued by the Internal Revenue Service with respect to such application shall be open to public inspection.

I.R.C. § 6104(a)(1)(A) (emphasis added). The Treasury regulation interpreting this section takes the words "any papers submitted in support of such application" to mean "any statement or document ... that is submitted by an organization in support of its application." 26 C.F.R. § 301.6104(a)-1(e). In other words, papers submitted by anyone other than the applicant itself in support of its application for tax-exempt status need not be disclosed.

A person seeking information from the IRS may rely not only upon § 6104 but also upon the Freedom of Information Act, which generally requires that an agency release records in response to a request that "reasonably describes such records" and "is made in accordance with published rules stating the ... procedures to be followed." 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3). Of the enumerated exceptions to that general rule of disclosure, only Exemption 3 is relevant here: an agency need not disclose records

specifically exempted from disclosure by statute ... provided that such statute (A) requires that the matters be withheld from the public in such manner as to leave no discretion on the issue, or (B) establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types of matters to be withheld.

5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(3).

William Lehrfeld, an attorney specializing in the area of tax-exempt organizations, read in the trade publication Tax Notes that the South Africa Free Elections Fund (SAFE) had been granted tax-exempt status under § 501(c)(3) of the Code. Lehrfeld believed that SAFE's voter registration and education efforts in South Africa, which were expected to benefit Nelson Mandela's...

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