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Paredes v. Vila

March 29, 2007

LUCIA MABEL GONZALEZ PAREDES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOSE LUIS VILA AND MONICA NIELSEN, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Friedman United States District Judge

OPINION

This matter is before the Court on defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint and quash service of process on the grounds that both defendants are diplomatically immune from suit.*fn1 Plaintiff Lucia Mabel Gonzalez Parades, a domestic worker from Paraguay, brought this lawsuit against her former employers, Jose Luis Vila and his wife Monica Nielsen. See Complaint ("Compl.") at 1. Plaintiff brings suit under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FSLA"), the District of Columbia Minimum Wage Revision Act, and the District of Columbia Minimum Wage Payment and Collection Act, and for common law breach of contract and unjust enrichment. See id. at 2, 12. For the reasons explained below, the Court grants defendants' motion and dismisses the complaint without prejudice to the claims being re-filed if and when the defendants are no longer diplomatically immune from suit.*fn2

I. BACKGROUND

Ms. Gonzalez alleges that the defendants hired her in February 2004, while she was living in Argentina, to perform house work and take care of their soon-to-be-born baby. See Compl. ¶ 6. Ms. Gonzalez alleges that she was hired in part to care for the defendants' child so that Ms. Nielsen could pursue her legal education in the United States while her husband worked at the Embassy of Argentina here in Washington, D.C. See id. ¶ 8. Ms. Gonzalez alleges that she and Mr. Vila signed an employment contract in April 2004, so as to allow her to obtain an A-3 diplomatic visa with which she could accompany defendants to the United States to continue her employment for them when Mr. Vila took up his post at the Argentine Embassy. See id. ¶¶ 7, 9. Ms. Gonzalez's complaint states that she did not receive a copy of this contract, but that "upon information and belief," the written terms of the contract included a provision that she be paid $6.72 per hour for the first forty hours she worked each week, overtime pay for any hours above that, and holiday and vacation time. See id. ¶¶ 10, 11.*fn3

Ms. Gonzalez alleges that defendant Vila told her before her A-3 visa interview at the U.S. Embassy in Argentina that he intended to pay her only $500.00 per month, rather than the wages specified in the written contract. See Compl. ¶ 13. Ms. Gonzalez alleges that defendant Vila told her to inform the U.S. Embassy employees that she would be paid under the terms of the written contract, rather than the reduced wages he had explained to her verbally, and Ms. Gonzalez did so. See id. ¶¶ 13, 15. Ms. Gonzalez received an A-3 visa in April 2004. See id. ¶ 2. She arrived in Washington with the defendants and their child on April 29, 2004 and began working for them the next day. See id. ¶ 16.

Ms. Gonzalez alleges that she worked on average 77 hours per week for the defendants between April 30, 2004 and February 19, 2005, and was paid $500.00 per month, which the complaint states is equivalent to either $1.62 or $3.13 per hour, depending on which paragraph of the complaint one accepts. See Compl. ¶¶ 13, 17, 18.*fn4 She asserts that this wage is a violation of both federal and District of Columbia wage laws, as well as constituting a breach of contract and an unjust enrichment. See id. at 1-2.

Defendants have filed a motion to quash service of process and dismiss the complaint, asserting that each of them holds an A-1 diplomatic visa and that the government of Argentina has requested that they assert diplomatic immunity from suit under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, April 18, 1961, 23 U.S.T. 3227 ( "VCDR" or "the Convention"). See Mot. at 1. Defendants' motion also relies upon a decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Tabion v. Mufti, 73 F.3d 525 (4th Cir. 1996).

The Court received a letter from the Embassy of Argentina that was filed in this case by order of the undersigned on October 13, 2006. The letter from the Embassy included with it a letter from Gladys Boluda, Assistant Chief of Protocol for the United States Department of State, dated September 25, 2006. The letter from Ms. Boluda certifies the status of Mr. Vila as a national of Argentina and a diplomatic agent at the Embassy of Argentina in the United States. She further certified that the Embassy of Argentina identified Ms. Nielsen as a national of Argentina and Mr. Vila's spouse residing in his household.

II. DISCUSSION

This Court has subject matter jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1351, which states that district courts "have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of all civil actions and proceedings against . . . members of a mission or members of their families (as such terms are defined in section 2 of the Diplomatic Relations Act)." 28 U.S.C. § 1351; see also Logan v. Dupuis, 990 F. Supp. 26, 27 n.2 (D.D.C. 1997).

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations provides in relevant part that a "diplomatic agent shall . . . enjoy immunity from [the receiving state's] civil and administrative jurisdiction . . . ." VCDR, Article 31(1). There are three exceptions set forth in the Convention, including an exception "in the case of . . . (c) an action relating to any professional or commercial activity exercised by the diplomatic agent in the receiving State outside his official functions."

Id. The Convention also provides that the "members of the family of a diplomatic agent forming part of his household shall, if they are not nationals of the receiving State, enjoy the privileges and immunities specified in Articles 29 to 36." VCDR, Article 37. Finally, the VCDR provides that a diplomatic agent "shall not in the receiving State practise for personal profit any professional or commercial activity." VCDR, Article 42.

In accordance with the treaty, 22 U.S.C. § 254d provides that "[a]ny action or proceeding brought against an individual who is entitled to immunity with respect to such action or proceeding under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations . . . shall be dismissed. Such immunity may be established upon motion or suggestion by or on behalf of the individual . . . ." 22 U.S.C. § 254d. As the defendants have moved to dismiss on the grounds of diplomatic immunity, the only question before the Court is whether defendants are immune under the terms of the Vienna Convention, or whether, as plaintiff contends, they are excepted from immunity under Article 31(1)(c) thereof. If the Court concludes that defendants are immune, it must dismiss the action pursuant to 22 U.S.C. § 254d.

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations is a multilateral treaty. "Treaties are contracts between sovereigns, and as such, should be construed to give effect to the intent of the signatories." Tabion v. Mufti, 73 F.3d at 537 (citing United States v. Stuart, 489 U.S. 353, 365-66 (1989) and Nielsen v. Johnson, 279 U.S. 47, 51 (1929)). When construing a treaty, the Court should look at the treaty's language, considering the context in which the words were used. See Tabion v. Mufti, 73 F.3d at 537 (citing Eastern Airlines, Inc. v. Floyd, 499 U.S. 530, 534 (1991)). As Judge Oberdorfer has explained, a "treaty is to be interpreted 'in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in light of its object and purpose.'" Logan v. Dupuis, 990 F. Supp. at 29 (citing the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, art. 31(1), May 23, 1969, 1155 U.N.T.S. 331). "Treaties generally are liberally construed: courts 'may look beyond the written words to the history of the treaty, the negotiations, and the practical construction adopted by the parties' to ascertain the meaning ...


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