This is the second 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. For previous articles in this series, please click here.
The focus of this article is on the background and scope for FOIAs and GDPAs.
The Freedom of Information Act (or 5 USC Section 522) established that records of the Executive Branch of the United States Government are accessible to the public. That Act explains which records must be made available for public inspection and which records (or portions of records) should or may be withheld from disclosure. It also provides administrative and judicial remedies for those who are denied access to records. Though, it is important to note, the IRS may withhold records pursuant to nine exemptions and three exclusions.
The Act applies to records either created or obtained by the IRS and under the IRS’s control at the time of the FOIA. State governments, municipal corporations, the courts, Congress and private citizens are not subject to the FOIA.
To request documents from the State of Minnesota, taxpayers must use Minnesota Statute Chapter 13 as it provides access to government data. It is the state version of the Freedom of Information Act.
Chapter 13 presumes government data is public and defines “government data” as “all data collected, created, received, maintained, or disseminated by any government entity regardless of its physical form, storage media, or condition of use.” Chapter 13 explains which records must be made available for public inspection and which records (or portions of records) should or may be withheld from disclosure. It also provides administrative and judicial remedies for those denied access to records. Chapter 13 applies to state agencies, statewide systems like the University of Minnesota and MnSCU, and political subdivisions. It does not apply to some townships, non-governmental entities, and the Legislature. Specific to tax cases, the Commissioner of Revenue has promulgated rules, Minnesota Rules Chapter 1205, Data Practices, which apply to the Minnesota Department of Revenue.
In terms of scope, Chapter 13 classifies data into three categories: public, private, and confidential.
All members of the public have access to public data. This is defined as all government data collected, created, received, maintained or disseminated by a government entity unless classified by statute; temporary classification pursuant to section 13.06; federal law, as nonpublic or protected nonpublic; or with respect to data on individuals, as private or confidential.
Private data is defined as the information that subjects and individuals within an entity have access to. This is a pretty restricted group. There is an additional rule for minors. For taxpayers, the request of a copy of one’s tax return is the equivalent of requesting private data.
Confidential data is information that the subject does not have access to. This is a rarely applicable category for taxpayers.
Ultimately, given the background and scope of the Freedom of Information Act and Chapter 13, it is clear that there is significant information and documentation that can be obtained via the submission of the FOIA or a GDPA. Furthermore, it is clear that those statutes provide solidly defined mechanisms for requesting that information and documentation. We will get into those mechanisms in more detail in our next article in this series.