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Oveissi v. Islamic Republic of Iran

November 12, 2010

AMIR REZA OVEISSI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, ET AL. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth, Chief Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

This case arises out of the assassination of Gholam Ali Oveissi, a military leader in pre-revolution Iran, who was gunned down on a Paris street in February 1984 by the agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran ("Iran") and its intelligence service, the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security ("MOIS"). Plaintiff Amir Reza Oveissi, grandson to the senior Oveissi, brought suit under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act ("FSIA"), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1330, 1602 et seq. (2010), alleging that defendants' involvement in the murder subjected them to suit under the FSIA's "state-sponsored terrorism" exception, which at the time of the original suit was codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(7).*fn1 By memorandum opinion dated August 3, 2007, the Court dismissed plaintiff's suit. Oveissi v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 498 F. Supp. 2d 268 (D.D.C. 2007) ("Oveissi I"). Though finding "defendants Iran and MOIS culpable in the brutal murder of plaintiff's grandfather, Gholam Ali Oveissi," the Court concluded that plaintiff could not state a legal claim for relief under applicable U.S. law. Id. at 284. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed, holding that the law of France-where Gholam Ali Oveissi resided when he was murdered-rather than the law of California-where plaintiff was born and previously resided-should govern liability. Oveissi v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 573 F.3d 835, 841 (D.C. Cir. 2009) ("Oveissi II"). On remand, the Court now finds defendants subject to suit and liable under the FSIA and relevant French law, and orders that an evidentiary hearing be scheduled to permit plaintiff an opportunity to present evidence concerning damages.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Oveissi I catalogues the history of this action prior to that decision, so the Court only briefly repeats it here. Plaintiff filed his original Complaint seeking compensation for pecuniary losses, solatium, and punitive damages on June 2, 2003. Oveissi I, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 271. Following numerous failed attempts to serve defendants, and several intervening decisions of legal importance by the D.C. Circuit, plaintiff filed the Amended Complaint on December 31, 2005, which remains operative and states claims for wrongful death and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and he executed service through diplomatic channels on May 30, 2006. Id. at 271--72. Defendants failed to appear for any part of these proceedings, and the Clerk of Court entered default on April 9, 2007. Id. at 272.

A. The Original Oveissi I Opinion

Though the clerk entered default in Oveissi I, the FSIA requires that courts enter final judgment against foreign states in default only once a plaintiff "establishes his claim or right to relief by evidence that is satisfactory to the Court." 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e). In satisfaction of this obligation, the Court made several findings of fact*fn2 and reached numerous conclusions of law in Oveissi I. Of particular importance, the Court reached the following legal conclusions:

First, the Court determined that plaintiff could not bring a claim for wrongful death for the murder of his grandfather. As the Court explained: "Wrongful death is a creature of statute unknown to the common law," and modern U.S. states' wrongful death statutes are generally derived from the statute enacted by the British Parliament, known as Lord Campbell's Act. Oveissi I, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 277. That Act, and the modern U.S. counterparts, make the cause of action for wrongful death "derivative in nature and thus coterminous with the decedent's rights." Id. Thus, Amir Reza Oveissi has a right of action under U.S. law "only if his grandfather, had he lived, could have brought suit for the injuries he sustained." Id. at 277--78. The decedent, however, was not a U.S. national, and thus would have been incapable of satisfying prerequisite to the FSIA's state-sponsored terrorism exception requiring that at least one of the plaintiff or victim be a U.S. national. 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(7)(A)(ii).*fn3 The Court therefore concluded that it could not entertain plaintiff's cause of action for wrongful death. Oveissi I, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 279.

Second, the Court determined that California law should apply to plaintiff's claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. By applying the District of Columbia's "'constructive blending' of the 'governmental interests' and 'most significant relationship' analyses," the Court found that this test pointed to application of French law, as Amir was a domiciliary of France at the time of his grandfather's murder. Id. at 280--81. However, the Court then held that the United States' "'unique interest' in having its domestic law apply when its citizens are injured by state-sponsored terrorist acts"-an interest that "elevates the interests of the United States to nearly their highest point"-overwhelmed these other factors in the choice-of-law determination, thus requiring application of U.S. law. Id. at 281 (citing Dammarell v. Islamic Republic of Iran, No. 01-2224, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5343, at *63 (D.D.C. Mar. 29, 2005)). The Court then concluded that California law should apply, as it was the only state in which Amir had resided prior to his grandfather's murder. Id.

Finally, the Court held that under California law plaintiff lacked standing to bring a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. As the Court explained: "Under California law, standing to bring a claim against a defendant resulting from the death of an individual is conferred on those who are entitled to inherit property of the deceased under the provisions of the California probate code." Id. at 282 (quoting Heiser v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 466 F. Supp. 2d 229, 309 (D.D.C. 2006) (Lamberth, J.)). The California probate code, however, did not legally entitle Amir Reza Oveissi to inherit his grandfather's estate. Id. The Court therefore held that the claim was barred on standing grounds, and dismissed the Amended Complaint. Id.

B. The Appeal

On appeal, plaintiff Amir Reza Oveissi challenged each of the Court's legal conclusions described above. The Court of Appeals, however, focused on a single issue: whether it was proper for this Court to apply California, rather than French, law. Oveissi II, 573 F.3d at 841.

The Court of Appeals began its discussion by examining whether courts in FSIA cases should apply the choice-of-law principles of the forum in which they sit or should construct a set of federal common law principles. Concurring with the Second Circuit, it adopted the former approach, holding that "applying the forum state's choice-of-law principles . . . better effectuates Congress' intent that foreign states be liable in the same manner and to the same extent as private individuals in FSIA actions." Id. (internal quotations omitted). The Court of Appeals thus applied the District of Columbia's blended approach to choice-of-law, and concluded that the relevant choice-of-law factors "overwhelmingly point in the direction of France." Id. at 842.

Turning to this Court's holding that the United States' unique interest in providing redress for citizens injured by state-sponsored terrorism should trump France's otherwise-dominant interests, the Court of Appeals held that this principle was inapplicable given the circumstances of this case. Specifically, while acknowledging that U.S. interests may be paramount in cases where, for example, the terrorist attack was "directed against the security of the state" or was motivated by the nationality of the victims, id. at 843, the Court of Appeals pointed to the fact that Gholam Ali Oveissi was an Iranian national and French domiciliary, as well as evidence indicating that the assassination was one in a series "intended to . . . deter French intervention in Lebanon," id. (citing Oveissi I, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 273), to distinguish this case. Here, the Court of Appeals explained, "if any country was the object of the attack it was France." Id. The Court thus held that French law should be applied, and remanded the case to this Court "to evaluate the plaintiff's claims under French law." Id. at 844.

C. Remand

Following remand, the Court ordered and received briefings on a number of issues. Having now considered the Court of Appeals' guidance in Oveissi II, as well as the supplemental briefings, the Court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law.

III. FINDINGS OF FACT

The Court clerk entered default judgment on April 9, 2007. Before entry of final judgment, however, the Court must be satisfied that plaintiff has "establishe[d] his claim or right to relief by evidence that is satisfactory to the court," 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e), thus obligating the Court "to inquire further before entering judgment against Iran and MOIS." Oveissi I, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 272.

Courts may look to many sources in satisfaction of this obligation. As an initial matter, the Court can rely upon "'uncontroverted factual allegations, which are supported by . . . documentary and affidavit evidence.'" Valore v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 700 F. Supp. 2d 52, 59 (D.D.C. 2010) (Lamberth, J.) (alteration in original; quoting Int'l Rd. Fed'n v. Embassy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 131 F. Supp. 2d 248, 252 n.4 (D.D.C. 2001)). In addition, the Court may "'take judicial notice of related proceedings and records in cases before the same court.'" Valore, 700 F. Supp. 2d at 59 (quoting Brewer v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 664 F. Supp. 2d 43, 50--51 (D.D.C. 2009)). Finally, the Court may of course evaluate and rely upon the documentary and testimonial evidence presented throughout the proceeding before it.

The Amended Complaint in this case alleges, inter alia, that "agents of [Iran] and the MOIS shot and killed" plaintiff's grandfather, Gholam Ali Oveissi, Amended Complaint at ¶ 5, Dec. 31, 2005 [19], , that Gholam "was the victim of state sponsored terrorism by virtue of his extra-judicial killing," id. at ¶ 10, and that plaintiff Amir Reza Oveissi has suffered financial and emotional injuries as a result of his grandfather's murder. Id. at ¶ 8.

In support of these allegations, plaintiff Oveissi, as well as a man known as "Cyrus Tehrani," testified at a bench trial held on February 2, 2007. Oveissi I, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 272. In addition, the Court received into evidence the video deposition of Dr. Reuven Paz, an international terrorism expert. Id. There being no intervening events that would raise any concerns regarding the validity of the Court's findings of fact in Oveissi I, the Court hereby adopts its previous factual determinations, in their entirety.

Critically, the findings of fact in Oveissi I include the following: First, plaintiff Amir Reza Oveissi was born in the United States, is thus a United States citizen, and is the paternal grandson of decedent Gholam Ali Oveissi. Id. at 272--73. Second, "Defendant Iran 'is a foreign state and has been designated as a state sponsor of terrorism pursuant to section 6(j), of the Export Administration Act of 1979, 50 U.S.C. § 1405(j) continuously since January 19, 1984.'" Id. at 272 (quoting Weinstein v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 184 F. Supp. 2d 13, 20 (D.D.C. 2002) (Lamberth, J.)). Third, Iran "has sponsored and orchestrated terrorist activities" through defendant MOIS, and Iranian agents founded a political organization known as Hezbollah, or "Party of God," which, under the direction of Iran and MOIS, engaged in terrorist activities outside of the Middle East using the nom-de-guerre "Islamic Jihad."*fn4 Id. at 272-73. Fourth, Iran, through MOIS, provided logistical support and training that were "crucial" to Hezbollah's ability to carry out assassinations, ...


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