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Sturdza v. United Arab Emirates

July 23, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge


Plaintiff, Elena Sturdza, retained attorney Nathan Lewin to represent her in this civil action on a contingency fee basis after this Court, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly presiding, granted summary judgment against her on some of her claims and dismissed others. Sturdza appealed the judgment. During the appeal proceedings, Lewin moved for the appointment of a guardian ad litem for his client ("Guardian ad Litem Motion"). Instead of resolving the Guardian ad Litem Motion, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ("D.C. Circuit") remanded the record and the motion for this Court's disposition.*fn1 Sturdza v. United Arab Emirates, 2002 WL 1285543 (D.C. Cir. June 6, 2002). After considering the motion, the opposition thereto, the Report and Recommendation of a United States Magistrate Judge recommending that the motion be denied, Lewin's objections to the magistrate judge's recommendation, Sturdza's reply to Lewin's objections, the refusal of Sturdza to appear before this Court to show cause why she should not be ordered to undergo a mental examination, and the entire record of this case, this Court granted the Guardian ad Litem Motion and appointed a guardian for Sturdza.

On appeal of this Court's ruling, the D.C. Circuit determined that this Court had not given Sturdza "notice and an opportunity to be heard" regarding the appointment. Sturdza v. United Arab Emirates, 562 F.3d 1186, 1188 (D.C. Cir. 2009). Consequently, the D.C. Circuit, on April 10, 2009, vacated the appointment of a guardian ad litem and remanded the record and the motion again -- an action the D.C. Circuit found it was "compelled" to take -- so that Sturdza could be given the notice and opportunity to be heard that the D.C. Circuit said she was not afforded after its first remand. Id. at 1189--90.

Upon consideration of the record of this case for a second time, including Sturdza's statements at a hearing held after the D.C. Circuit's second remand, this Court concludes that the Guardian ad Litem Motion should be granted for the reasons that follow.*fn2


The facts of this unusual and complicated case*fn3 have been set forth in several memoranda and orders.*fn4 Nevertheless, a relatively detailed summary of certain rulings, filings, and proceedings in this case pertinent to the Guardian ad Litem Motion is warranted here.

A. Proceedings in this Court Before First Remand

Sturdza, an architect, filed this action in 1998, asserting causes of action grounded on her belief that her architectural design for the new embassy of the United Arab Emirates ("UAE") was stolen from her. Defendants are the UAE, Angelos Demetriou, a rival architect, and Demetriou's firm. According to Sturdza, the UAE told her that she had won the competition phase of the process that the UAE had used to obtain an architectural design for its embassy. Thereafter, for two years, the UAE and Sturdza engaged in contract negotiations. At some point, however, the contract negotiations ceased unexpectedly, and Sturdza learned that the UAE had used Demetriou's design to construct the embassy. Sturdza v. United Arab Emirates, 281 F.3d 1287, 1292 (D.C. Cir. 2002). Sturdza contends that Demetriou's design "copied and appropriated many of the design features that had been the hallmark of her design." First Am. Compl. ¶ 47 (Sept. 25, 1998).

Sturdza's amended complaint set forth claims for copyright infringement, breach of contract, quantum meruit, conspiracy to commit sex discrimination, conspiracy to commit fraud, tortious interference with a contract, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Resolving dispositive motions filed by the UAE and Demetriou, this Court dismissed some of Sturdza's claims and granted summary judgment as to others. Sturdza v. United Arab Emirates, 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22090 (D.D.C. Oct. 28, 2000); Sturdza v. United Arab Emirates, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23173 (D.D.C. Dec. 22, 1999); Sturdza v. United Arab Emirates, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23172 (D.D.C. July 22, 1999).

With respect to Sturdza's breach of contract and quantum meruit claims, this Court granted the UAE's motion for summary judgment because Sturdza is not a District of Columbia licensed architect and long-standing doctrine in the District of Columbia operates to prevent an unlicensed contractor from recovering on breach of contract and quasi contract (quantum meruit) causes of action. Sturdza, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23173. This Court stated:

As the District of Columbia Court of Appeals has repeatedly reaffirmed, "'in the District of Columbia it is a principle of long standing that an illegal contract made in violation of a statutory prohibition designed for police or regulatory purposes, is void and confers no rights upon the wrong doer.' . . . Our decisions rejecting any deviation from this rule span more than a quarter-century." Cevern v. Ferbish,666 A.2d 17, 19-20 (D.C. 1995) (quoting Capital Constr. Co. v. Plaza West Coop. Ass.'n, 604 A.2d 428 (D.C. 1992)); see also Truitt v. Miller,407 A.2d 1073, 1079 (D.C. 1979) ("The rule simply stated is that a contract made in violation of a licensing statute that is designed to protect the public will usually be considered void and unenforceable, and the party violating the statute cannot collect monies due on a quasi-contractual basis."). The District of Columbia has not wavered in its commitment to this policy, despite sometimes harsh results. See Cevern, 666 A.2d at 20. Thus, the Court of Appeals has applied this policy to void contracts even where the party seeking to enforce the contract meets all the other eligibility requirements for licensing. See Saul v. Rowan Heating & Air Conditioning, Inc., 623 A2d 619, 621-22 (D.C. 1993). Sturdza, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23173, at *14.

B. Proceedings Before the D.C. Circuit

Sturdza appealed this Court's judgment against her. During the appeal proceedings, two uncommon motions were filed. First, on October 11, 2001, the UAE and Demetriou jointly moved to dismiss Sturdza's appeal pursuant to D.C. Circuit Rule 38. Joint Mot. of Appellees for Entry of Order Dismissing Appeal (D.C. Cir. Oct. 11, 2001) ("Joint Motion for Dismissal").*fn5

Then, on May 29, 2002, Lewin filed the Guardian ad Litem Motion, seeking the appointment of a guardian for Sturdza pursuant to Rule 1.14 of the District of Columbia Rules of Professional Conduct.*fn6 Guardian ad Litem Motion (D.C. Cir. May 29, 2002).

In their Joint Motion for Dismissal, the UAE and Demetriou argued that dismissal of Sturdza's appeal was warranted because Sturdza . . . and her counsel have, in direct violation of an Order of this Court: filed pro se written communications; divulged confidential mediation matters; and submitted impertinent, scandalous and prejudicial histories, opinions, facts and arguments. Appellant's conduct has been willful and continuous, and is devoid of colorable justification.

Joint Motion for Dismissal at 2.

Before addressing the merits of Sturdza's appeal, the D.C. Circuit dealt with the "threshold issue" presented by the Joint Motion for Dismissal.*fn7 Sturdza, 281 F.3d at 1293. The D.C. Circuit denied the motion, finding that Lewin's and Sturdza's filings "fall far short of Rule 38 sanctionable behavior." Id. at 1294. In addition to finding that the challenged filings were not sanctionable, the D.C. Circuit commented on Lewin's conduct in dealing with Sturdza and her inappropriate submissions to the court. The D.C. Circuit said, "[w]e believe Lewin proceeded with the utmost propriety, delicately balancing his ethical obligations to [Sturdza] and his responsibilities as an officer of this court. . . . This is precisely how appellate counsel should behave; indeed, we expect all lawyers practicing in this court to resist a client's desire to make 'poor legal arguments' or 'unsubstantiated factual allegations' . . . ." Id. (emphasis added).

After it resolved the motion for sanctions, the D.C. Circuit turned to the merits of Sturdza's appeal. The D.C. Circuit affirmed this Court's dismissal of Sturdza's sex discrimination claim, reversed its grant of summary judgment as to her copyright claim and its dismissal of her other claims, and certified to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals a licensing law question relevant to Sturdza's breach of contract and quantum merit claims. Id. at 1307.*fn8 It is this certification that plays a large role in Sturdza's grievance with Lewin, whom she holds at least partially responsible for the certification, and the D.C. Circuit.

While being "inclined to agree with the district court that D.C. law precludes Sturdza from obtaining contractual or quasi-contractual recovery," Sturdza, 281 F.3d at 1302, the D.C. Circuit determined it to be the "wisest course" to certify to the D.C. Court of Appeals the question of whether an unlicensed architect, under the circumstances presented here, nevertheless would be able to recover because the D.C. Court of Appeals "has never expressly determined whether the provision at issue here bars unlicensed architects from enforcing their contracts or recovering in quantum meruit." Id. at 1302--03.*fn9

The D.C. Circuit also noted that certification of the licensing law question was appropriate in light of a statutory exception that had existed:

[The] D.C. Court of Appeals [has not] considered the implications (if any) of a statutory exception that permits architects licensed elsewhere to "agree to perform or represent that he or she is able to perform any of the services involved in the practice of architecture . . . until licensed under this act." D.C. CODE § 2-262(6) (1981) (repealed by Second Omnibus Regulatory Reform Amendment Act of 1998 § 1235, 46 D.C. Reg. 3142, 3212).

Id. at 1302-03.

The D.C. Circuit further noted that "[a]lthough this exception was repealed since the events at issue here, the basic licensing framework for architects remains unchanged." Id. at 1303. Further still, the D.C. Circuit held that these unanswered questions were important because "[the D.C. Circuit] assume[d] that architects throughout the country (perhaps even around the world) unlicensed to practice in the District often submit bids to perform architectural services in this city of embassies, monuments, and public buildings." Id.

As for the Guardian ad Litem Motion, the D.C. Circuit remanded the record and the motion to this Court for its disposition. The D.C. Circuit's order of remand stated, "The district court shall make all findings of fact and conclusions of law necessary to resolve the motion in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17(c) and the requirements of due process, see Neilson v. Colgate- Palmolive Co., 199 F.3d 642, 651 (2nd Cir. 1999) (explaining that appointment of a guardian ad litem must comport with procedural due process)." Order, Sturdza v. United Arab Emirates, 2002 WL 1285543 (D.C. Cir. June 6, 2002).

C. Proceedings Before This Court After First Remand

1. Status Hearing Before this Court

In order to address the Guardian ad Litem Motion appropriately, this Court first conducted a status hearing on August 7, 2002.*fn10 During the status hearing, the parties in attendance, Lewin, Sturdza and counsel for Demetriou, were asked to express their views about the "process that is due and how to proceed[.] [In other words,] [h]ow to go about doing what the Court of Appeals has [mandated] this court to do." Tr. of Status Call Before Judge Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. at 17 (Aug. 7, 2002) ("Kennedy Tr.").*fn11 In response to the Court's query, Lewin suggested, as a first step, that Sturdza undergo a mental health examination. Lewin stated:

[A]s was true in the Nielsen case which the Court referred to, maybe the first step would be to have a mental health specialist appointed by the Court to interview Ms. Sturdza[] [in order to] familiarize himself with these matters. And maybe also make a report to the Court initially available to Ms. Sturdza, to me, and the other parties in the case, about that psychologist's or psychiatrist's . . . view as to whether [Ms. Sturdza] is able rationally to deal with this case. I think that's the issue. Not whether she should be institutionalized. Not whether she should be in some way declared mentally incompetent. I'm not making that allegation. But rather, with regard to this case, where I think she has become so obsessed with it in various ways that there is nothing that satisfies her. . . .

[I]f the Court appoints someone to interview Ms. Sturdza, to speak to her about the case, to interview me and any other parties who he thinks should be interviewed, to look at the materials, to make a recommendation to the Court, then I believe we could have a hearing. I would like to have a hearing.

Kennedy Tr. at 17--18.

After hearing from Lewin, this Court addressed Sturdza, and the following colloquy ensued:

THE COURT: Ms. Sturdza? And I suspect that I am pronouncing your last name incorrectly. How do you pronounce your last name?

MS. STURDZA: Sturdza. The "D" is silent.

Thank, Your Honor. I am unprepared to speak because I prepared all these all night, but I will try. One very important point I want to make is that you should have a good feel of how important this project was for me. This is a, probably by now, a 100 million dollar project on one of the most important sites in Washington, D.C. It is one of the 24 sites at the International Center where now stands 24 foreign embassies.

THE COURT: That's off of Van Ness?

THE WITNESS: Yes. And what happens once a building is finished, this particular one has a 2 or 300 people capacity in a ballroom. That means 2 or 300 foreign dignitaries and U.S. dignitaries that are going to receptions almost every night. There are 24 embassies nearby and each embassy is holding a large reception and everywhere are the most important people from around the world. So this particular building, once built, brings to its designer everything that a designer wishes in the world.

If an architect designs a building and it remains on paper, it means zero. After it's built there are millions of people in a period of five or ten years passing by that building.

THE COURT: Ms. Sturdza, you indicated that if an architect designs a building and it remains on paper it means zero.

THE WITNESS: Yes. I have designed hundreds of buildings and nobody knows. They are on paper. They have not been published. They are not published unless they are built. You have very, very small publishings in architectural magazines. Only architects look at them and you don't get exposure. Exposure is only from a building that has been built successfully. President Clinton's library, he chose the architect after the building in New York.

THE COURT: I certainly make the assumption that your case is very, very important to you. Very, very, very important to you.

THE WITNESS: Eight years I spent on it. Eight and more.

THE COURT: I am not asking you to discuss the merits of the case, however, at this time. What I am interested in doing is figuring out how to resolve the matter which has been sent to me to resolve by the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which is the motion of Mr. Lewin to have a guardian ad litem appointed to represent your interest in consulting with Mr. Lewin. I want to know whether there is anything that you wanted to say with respect to that matter. Mr. Lewin made some suggestions and I ask the same thing of you.

MS. STURDZA: The motion was filed and I responded within the 10 days, that Rule 27. I filed an opposition but I found out later that --

THE COURT: When you say you responded, I assume that you responded in a paper that was filed in the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit?

MS. STURDZA: Yes. Within the 10-day period after I was served. But later, just a few days ago, I found out that the Court of Appeals issued the order, without notifying me at all, against the rules of the Court of Appeals procedure. Rule 27 says that a responses can be made in 10 days after serving. And if the court wishes to act earlier, then it should give plenty of notice to the parties involved. I got no notice, not before, not after, nothing at all until today.

I found out from someone else that that order was sent to you. And I received notice of this hearing not knowing that it was about the motion. I thought it was just a hearing on the copyright issue that came back or on my motion for a new trial, because I sent a motion for a new trial.

And that's another thing. I filed a motion with the D.C. Court. I refiled with the D.C. Court and the motion is nowhere to be found. I called the clerks and expressed my problem and she said that I should bring a copy and she will take it, a stamped copy. I refiled today a new amended, new motion for a new trial.

THE COURT: I do have that paper.

MS. STURDZA: I wanted to file it earlier so you would have time to read it but I just couldn't finish it. I filed another opposition today. I filed an opposition to this guardian motion in the Court of Appeals and I filed one today here. You have it, Your Honor.

THE COURT: Yes, I do have that.

MS. STURDZA: There I am saying that the court violated the rules, Rule 27, 3A. Should have notified me before it acted so I would have time to respond. And I do think this is just an arrangement.

THE COURT: This being what? What is the this that you are referring to?

MS. STURDZA: The motion for a guardian.

It's an arrangement between Mr. Lewin and the court that he should solve the problems for me. But on June 11, I filed in the Court of Appeals a motion that I dismissed all my lawyers and I entered an appearance pro se. I thought that comes to this Court, but I called the clerk and the clerk told me to file another one and I did today and you have that. So I do expect that anyone in this democratic country can represent herself or himself. This is my wish and I think I should be able to represent myself. Now, I have to tell you why, Your Honor.

THE COURT: Actually, Ms. Sturdza, I think we're kind of moving ahead of things. Again, what I am attempting to do is to decide how to decide the processes that will be used. I know that you oppose this.

MS. STURDZA: I do oppose it strongly.

THE COURT: And as far as the reasons, we will get to that later.

MS. STURDZA: May I state my case?

THE COURT: No. As far as your case on the merits of whether or not a guardian should be appointed, I will not hear that now. I scheduled this for a status hearing and frankly, Ms. Sturdza --

MS. STURDZA: Mr. Lewin is lying all the way and I will never accept a guardian ad litem.

That will never happen. I have all these proofs. Mr. Lewin promised me when we met that he will an have appeal de novo and he did not.

THE COURT: He will have an appeal what?


THE COURT: De novo?

MS. STURDZA: Yes. And he did not plead many of the counts. Let me explain the three major things. The criminal copyright he did not plead at all. He said later on, later. The second is the civil rights discrimination. He did not plead and I explained it here perfectly.

THE COURT: Ms. Sturdza, you are now referring to things that you have put on paper.

These papers have been filed; is that correct?


THE COURT: All right. Ms. Sturdza, I will read the papers. But again, this is simply not the time to address the merits of the motion, the matter that is before me. What I'm going to do is set this matter for a hearing. I'm going to set the motion for a hearing and at that time decisions will be made, or after the hearing the Court will make a decision.

The thing to do now, however, is to set the matter for a hearing. I heard Mr. Lewin suggest that prior to any further proceedings, including the hearing, that you be examined by a physician.

THE WITNESS: I oppose that and I will never be examined as Mr. Lewin is saying. I do not accept and this will never happen. Mr. Lewin is not my lawyer, Your Honor. This is past and Mr. Lewin is not my lawyer.

THE COURT: Ms. Sturdza, I hope you understand my role.

MS. STURDZA: My mother was going to die because of her physician and I am not going talk to whoever that is.

THE COURT: Ms. Sturdza, I only indicated what Mr. Lewin said. I did not indicate that the Court would order a physician to examine you. Frankly, I have heard the request and I have not made any decisions in that regard. I only indicated what he had said. I do know that you oppose that as well.

Kennedy Tr. at 22--30.

At this point in the proceedings, the Court discussed with counsel and with Sturdza possible dates for a hearing on the Guardian ad Litem Motion and explained the difficulty of selecting an agreeable date in the near term because this Court is required to give priority to criminal cases on its docket. Thereafter, a hearing was scheduled for September 5, 2002, at 10:00 a.m. After the hearing was scheduled, however, Ms. Sturdza continued to express her views:

MS. STURDZA: Your Honor, I need to respond to Mr. Lewin at least. Mr. Lewin accused me of stopping him from sending the question to the Court of Appeals. That question is about a D.C. license. This embassy is built in the International Center which is a development of 24 embassies. Congress made a special law for those 24 embassies. The National Capital Planning Committee made the rules of how to build the buildings instead of the D.C. rules and regulations of zoning. And Congress said, in Public Law 90 and as modified at the 97th Congress, said that NCPC development controls replaces the D.C. zoning regulations.

An architect needs a license for D.C. only to comply with the D.C. zoning. This building is in the International Center and does not have anything to do with that. And they did this law especially for the foreign embassies. They encouraged all these countries to have buildings designed in their architectural heritage, in their culture.

THE COURT: Ms. Sturdza --

MS. STURDZA: I need to finish. I'm sorry.

THE COURT: I'm also sorry, Ms. Sturdza. But I simply am not going to hear you at this point on why it is that you, as I understand it, forbad[e] Mr. Lewin from filing the brief. You're telling me why you did that.

MS. STURDZA: A D.C. license is not necessary, period. There is no law. Nobody requires it. No one asked for it. Nobody. This is just a fabrication of Mr. Lewin. He fabricates things. It is all a fabrication.

THE COURT: I understand that that's what you have said in your papers.

MS. STURDZA: I said that before and no one listens. The Court of Appeals told me not to file any more and Mr. Lewin threatened me and David Shapiro threatened me that they will dismiss my appeal if I say something. ...

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