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Estate of Michael Heiser, et al v. Islamic Republic of Iran

August 10, 2011


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



On the night of June 25, 1996, a tanker truck crept quietly along the streets of Dhahran, coming to rest alongside a fence surrounding the Khobar Towers complex, a residential facility housing United States Air Force personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia. A few minutes later, the truck exploded in a massive fireball that was, at the time, the largest non-nuclear explosion ever recorded on Earth. The devastating blast, which was felt up to 20 miles away, sheared the face off Building 131 of the Khobar Towers complex and left a crater more than 85 feet wide and 35 feet deep in its wake. The bombing killed 19 U.S. military personnel and wounded more than 100. Subsequent investigations revealed that members of Hezbollah carried out the attack.

A few years after the bombing, plaintiffs-who are former service members injured in the attack, their families, and estates and family members of those killed-brought suit under the "state-sponsored terrorism" exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act ("FSIA" or the "Act"), then codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(7). Plaintiffs allege that the Islamic Republic of Iran ("Iran"), the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security, and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps provided material support and assistance to Hezbollah to carry out the heinous attack. Following Iran's failure to appear and plaintiffs' presentation of evidence to substantiate their claims, the Court found that "the Khobar Towers bombing was planned, funded, and sponsored by senior leadership in the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran; the IRGC had the responsibility and worked with Saudi Hizbollah to execute the plan; and the MOIS participated in the planning and funding of the attack." Heiser v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 466 F. Supp. 2d 229, 265 (D.D.C. 2006) ("Heiser I").*fn1 The Court subsequently entered judgment against all defendants for $250 million in compensatory damages. Id. at 356. A few years later, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 ("NDAA" or the "2008 Amendments"), which replaced § 1605(a)(7) with a new state-sponsored terrorism exception codified at § 1605A, permitted recovery of punitive damages, and added a new provision concerning the enforcement of judgments. Pub. L. No. 110-181, § 1083, 122 Stat. 3, 338-44 (2008). Invoking the NDAA's procedures for retroactive application, in 2009 the Court entered an amended judgment, holding defendants jointly and severally liable for an additional $36 million in compensatory damages and $300 million in punitive damages. Heiser v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 659 F. Supp. 2d 20, 31 (D.D.C. 2009).

Following entry of final judgment, plaintiffs began their journey down the often-frustrating and always-arduous path shared by countless victims of state-sponsored terrorism attempting to enforce FSIA judgments. The matter before the Court today requires exploration of the latest in a series of attempts by Congress to aid these victims. In this instance, plaintiffs- relying on a new provision added to the FSIA as part of the 2008 Amendments-assert that the Telecommunication Infrastructure Company of Iran ("TIC") is an instrumentality of Iran, and ask the Court to direct Sprint Communications Company LP ("Sprint") to turn over funds it owes to TIC. Sprint responds that plaintiff has failed to prove that TIC is an instrumentality as defined by the FSIA, seeks leave to interplead TIC as a defendant, and raises several other legal defenses to attachment of the funds. The Court first reviews the regime of legal and regulatory provisions governing execution of FSIA judgments, and then turns to the parties' dispute.


A. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

1. Iran-Specific Regulations

Relations between the United States and Iran deteriorated following the 1979 revolution in which Iran's monarchy was displaced by an Islamic republic, ruled by the Ayatollahs, that remains in power today. Following the regime change and fueled by the Iran hostage crisis, President Carter-exercising the authority granted to him under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, 50 U.S.C. § 1701 et seq.-blocked the flow of assets between the United States and Iran, and seized Iranian property located within the United States. Executive Order 12170, 44 Fed. Reg. 65,729 (Nov. 14, 1979). Over the next two years, Presidents Carter and Reagan issued numerous Executive Orders seizing additional assets, while the Office of Foreign Assets Control ("OFAC")-a component of the Department of the Treasury that administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions-promulgated regulations concerning transactions between persons in the United States and Iran. In 1981, the United States and Iran reached an agreement, known as the Algiers Accords, which led to the release of the hostages and the unfreezing of most Iranian assets. Over the following decades, sanctions regimes instituted by Executive Orders and rules promulgated by OFAC evolved into the complex web of regulations governing Iranian assets in the United States, as well as transactions with Iran.*fn2

Today, the basic framework for the treatment of Iranian property and trade with Iran is set forth in two complementary sets of provisions promulgated by OFAC that generally bar all transactions either with Iran or involving Iranian interests and then carve out limited exceptions to that embargo. The first, known as the Iranian Assets Control Regulations ("IACR") and codified at 31 C.F.R. Part 535, was implemented in 1980 during the Iran Hostage Crisis, 45 Fed. Reg. 24,432 (Apr. 9, 1980), and "broadly prohibits unauthorized transactions involving property in which Iran has any interest," while granting specific licenses for certain transactions. Flatow v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 305 F.3d 1249, 1255 (D.C. Cir. 2002). The second, known as the Iranian Transactions Regulations ("ITR") and codified at 31 C.F.R. Part 560, "confirms the broad reach of OFAC's Iranian sanctions programs by establishing controls on Iranian trade, investments, and services. . . . As under the IACR, there is a general prohibition under the ITR of unauthorized transactions, coupled with specific licenses permitting certain kinds of transactions." Flatow, 305 F.3d at 1255; see also Weinstein v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 299 F. Supp. 2d 63, 68 (E.D.N.Y. 2004) ("The ITR prohibited, inter alia, the importation of goods and services from Iran, and the exportation, reexportation, and sale or supply of goods, technology or services to Iran.").

2. Attachment and Execution under the FSIA

"It is a well-established rule of international law that the public property of a foreign sovereign is immune from legal process without the consent of that sovereign." Loomis v. Rogers, 254 F.2d 941, 943 (D.C. Cir. 1958); see also Weinstein v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 274 F. Supp. 2d 53, 56 (D.D.C. 2003) ("[T]he principles of sovereign immunity 'apply with equal force to attachments and garnishments.'") (quoting Flatow, 74 F. Supp. 2d at 21). To promote this general principle, the FSIA broadly designates all foreign-owned property as immune, and then articulates limited exceptions to that immunity. See 28 U.S.C. § 1609 ("[T]he property in the United States of a foreign state shall be immune from attachment, arrest and execution except as provided in sections 1610 and 1611 of this chapter."). These exceptions include, inter alia, property (1) located in the United States that is (2) used for commercial activity and (3) controlled by a foreign state or its instrumentalities. Id. at § 1610(a)--(b); see also Bennett v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 604 F. Supp. 2d 152, 161 (D.D.C. 2009) ("[The FSIA] provides that the property of a foreign state is not immune from attachment or execution if the property at issue is used for a commercial activity by the foreign state") (emphasis in original). Though providing a workable framework in theory, the past decade of litigation under the Act has proved, for victims of state-sponsored terrorism, to be a journey down a never-ending road littered with barriers and often obstructed entirely. Two particular roadblocks merit greater discussion.

The first difficulty plaintiffs holding judgments against Iran often faced was the limited number of Iranian assets remaining in the United States. Attempting to overcome this shortfall, plaintiffs targeted property in which an Iranian entity-often a financial institution owned or controlled by Iran-had an interest. Though expressly sanctioned by § 1610(b), this strategy was undercut by the Supreme Court's decision in First Nat'l City Bank v. Banco Para El Comercio Exterior de Cuba, which involved a U.S. financial institution's attempt to collect money owed to it by the Cuban government through the seizure of funds deposited in the institution by a Cuban bank. 462 U.S. 611, 613 (1983). In its opinion, the Supreme Court observed that "government instrumentalities established as juridical entities distinct and independent from their sovereign should normally be treated as such," and determined that Congress "clearly expressed its intention that duly created instrumentalities of a foreign state are to be accorded a presumption of independent status." Id. at 626--27. According to the First Nat'l Court, this presumption may be overridden only where the plaintiff demonstrates that the foreign entity is exclusively controlled by the foreign state or where recognizing the separateness of that entity and the foreign state "would work fraud or injustice." Id. at 629--30. The practical effect of this holding was to shield the property of instrumentalities of foreign states from attachment or execution absent evidence of a connection between the instrumentality and the foreign state so strong as to render any distinction irrelevant. And by placing the burden of proof on this issue squarely on plaintiffs, the First Nat'l holding became a substantial obstacle to FSIA plaintiffs' attempts to satisfy judgments. See, e.g., Oster v. Republic of S. Afr., 530 F. Supp. 2d 92, 97--100 (D.D.C. 2007); Bayer & Willis Inc. v. Republic of the Gam., 283 F. Supp. 2d 1, 4--5 (D.D.C. 2003).

The second hurdle facing FSIA plaintiffs involved assets that once belonged to Iran or its agencies but had been seized and retained by the United States. As a legal matter, "assets held within United State Treasury accounts that might otherwise be attributed to Iran are the property of the United States and are therefore exempt from attachment or execution by virtue of the federal government's sovereign immunity." In re Islamic Republic of Terrorism Litig., 659 F. Supp. 2d 31, 53 (D.D.C. 2009) (citing Dep't of the Army v. Blue Fox, Inc., 525 U.S. 255 (1999)). Victims of state-sponsored terrorism attempting to seize such assets were thus put in the perverse position of litigating against their own government, see Weinstein, 274 F. Supp. 2d at 56 ("[I]f a litigant seeks to attach funds held in the U.S. Treasury, he or she must demonstrate that the United States has waived its sovereign immunity with respect to those funds.") which strongly opposed attempts to attach such assets. As one commentator explains:

As a matter of foreign policy, the President regards frozen assets as a powerful bargaining chip to induce behavior desirable to the United States; accordingly, allowing private plaintiffs to file civil lawsuits and tap into the frozen assets located in the United States may weaken the executive branch's negotiating position with other countries. For this reason, several U.S. presidents have opposed giving victims access to these funds.

Debra M. Strauss, Reaching Out to the International Community: Civil Lawsuits as the Common Ground in the Battle against Terrorism, 19 Duke J. Comp. & Int'l L. 307, 322 (2009). The Executive Branch has consistently succeeded in arguing that the FSIA does not waive the United States' immunity with respect to seized Iranian assets. See, e.g., Flatow, 74 F. Supp. 2d 18.

Eventually Congress enacted the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act ("TRIA"), Pub. L. No. 107-297, 116 Stat. 2322 (2002), "to 'deal comprehensively with the problem of enforcement of judgments rendered on behalf of victims of terrorism in any court of competent jurisdiction by enabling them to satisfy such judgments through the attachment of blocked assets of terrorist parties.'" Weininger v. Castro, 462 F. Supp. 2d 457, 483 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (quoting H.R. Conf. Rep. 107-779, at 27 (2002)). The TRIA declares that [n]otwithstanding any other provision of law, . . . in every case in which a person has obtained a judgment against a terrorist party on a claim based upon an act of terrorism, . . . the blocked assets of the terrorist party (including the blocked assets of any agency or instrumentality of that terrorist party) shall be subject to execution or attachment in aid of execution in order to satisfy such judgment to the extent of any compensatory damages for which such terrorist party has been adjudged liable.

TRIA § 201(a). In other words, the TRIA "subjects the assets of state sponsors of terrorism to attachment and execution in satisfaction of judgments under § 1605(a)(7)," In re Terrorism Litig., 659 F. Supp. 2d at 57, by "authoriz[ing] holders of terrorism-related judgments against Iran . . . to attach Iranian assets that the United States has blocked." Ministry of Def. & Support for the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran v. Elahi, 129 S. Ct. 1732, 1735 (2009) (quotations omitted; emphasis in original).

The TRIA was designed to remedy many of the problems that previously plagued victims of state-sponsored terrorism; in practice, however, it led to very few successes. But while the TRIA did abrogate the First Nat'l holding with respect to "blocked assets," Weininger, 462 F. Supp. 2d at 485--87, that victory proved hollow once victims discovered that, at least with respect to Iran, "very few blocked assets exist." In re Terrorism Litig., 659 F. Supp. 2d at 58. And the barren landscape facing these FSIA plaintiffs was only further depleted by the exclusion of diplomatic properties from the TRIA's reach. See Bennett, 604 F. Supp. 2d at 161 ("[The TRIA] expressly excludes 'property subject to Vienna Convention on Diplomatic relations, or that enjoys equivalent privileges and immunities under the law of the United States, being used for exclusively for diplomatic or consular purposes.'") (quoting TRIA § 201(d)(2)(B)(ii)).

Against this desolate backdrop, Congress enacted the NDAA, which added paragraph (g) to the execution section of the FSIA. This new provision, in its entirety, declares:

(g) Property in Certain Actions.-

(1) In general.- Subject to paragraph (3), the property of a foreign state against which a judgment is entered under section 1605A, and the property of an agency or instrumentality of such a state, including property that is a separate juridical entity or is an interest held directly or indirectly in a separate juridical entity, is subject to attachment in aid ...

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