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Walters v. People's Republic of China

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

October 27, 2014

DEBBIE WALTERS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CHINA, Defendant

For DEBBIE WALTERS, MAX WALTERS, Plaintiffs: Charles Henry Camp, Sr., LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICES OF CHARLES H. CAMP, P.C., Washington, DC.

For UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Interested Party: Daniel Schwei, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Civil Division, Washington, DC.

Page 9

MEMORANDUM ORDER

DEBORAH A. ROBINSON, United States Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiffs Debbie Walters and Max Walters initiated this miscellaneous action requesting a judgment debtor examination of Defendant, the People's Republic of China, in order to identify assets within the United States to satisfy an outstanding judgment that Plaintiffs secured against Defendant in a civil action brought pursuant to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (" FSIA" ) in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri. See Motion for Judgment Debtor Examination or, Alternatively, for Order Requiring Payment of Outstanding Judgment (Document No. 4). This action was referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge to " consider this matter in its entirety." Order (Document No. 6) at 2.

In an Order (Document No. 24) filed on February 14, 2014, this court directed Defendant to " produce [certain] requested documents to counsel for Plaintiffs by no later than April 15, 2014" and to appear before the court for a judgment debtor examination on May 6, 2014.[1] At the May 6, 2014 hearing, counsel for Plaintiffs indicated that they served the court's order and Plaintiffs' request for production of documents on Defendant, see Plaintiffs' Exhibit 1, and that they received confirmation that it was delivered, see Plaintiffs' Exhibit 2. Defendant did not produce the requested documents, see Notice (Document No. 25), and did not appear for the May 6, 2014 hearing. Plaintiffs thus renewed their request that the court find

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Defendant in contempt, which the court previously stayed pending the scheduled judgment debtor examination. See Order at 3.

The court first notes that Plaintiffs' previous requests for a finding of civil contempt were predicated on Defendant's noncompliance with an Order (Document No. 8) filed by the court on March 6, 2012.[2] Shortly after entering the order, however, the court vacated it, see 04/26/2012 Minute Order, and it is thus not a proper basis upon which to request a finding of contempt.[3] Accordingly, the court will limit its consideration to Plaintiffs' request, stated on the record at the May 6, 2014 hearing, that the court find Defendant in contempt for failure to comply with the court's February 14, 2014 order.

Plaintiffs request that the court, pursuant to its inherent authority, find Defendant in civil contempt for its failure to comply with the court's February 14, 2014 order -- more specifically, for failing to produce the requested documents and for failing to appear for the judgment debtor examination, as ordered. Plaintiffs request sanctions in the amount of " $246,500 per day until the PRC satisfies its discovery obligations . . . or the Final Judgment has been paid in full." See Proposed Order (Document No. 22-1) at 3. In support of their request, Plaintiffs rely on Chabad v. Russian Federation, 915 F.Supp.2d 148 (D.D.C. 2013) and the CIA World Factbook's assessment of Defendant's economy. See Plaintiffs/Judgment Creditors Debbie Walters and Max Walters' Second Notice of New Relevant Authority Pertaining to Entry of Order of Contempt Against the People's Republic of China (Document No. 15) at 2 n.1, 3.

" [C]ourts have inherent power to enforce compliance with their lawful orders through civil contempt," and may do so when a party " has violated an order that is clear and unambiguous," and the violation is proved by " clear and convincing evidence." Armstrong v. Exec. Office of the President, Office of Admin., 1 F.3d 1274, 1289, 303 U.S.App.D.C. 107 (D.C. Cir. 1993) (citations omitted) (quoting other sources) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Serv. Emps. Int'l Union Nat'l Indus. Pension Fund v. Artharee, No. 12-1233, 48 F.Supp.3d 25, 2014 WL 2580660, at *2 (D.D.C. June 10, 2014) (quoting Int'l Painters & Allied Trades Indus. Pension Fund v. ZAK Architectural Metal & Glass LLC,

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736 F.Supp.2d 35, 38 (D.D.C. 2010)) (" [A] party moving for civil contempt must show, 'by clear and convincing evidence, that: (1) there was a court order in place; (2) the order required certain conduct by the defendant; and (3) the defendant failed to comply with that order.'" ); Chabad, 915 F.Supp.2d at 151.

" Civil contempt, unlike the punitive remedy of criminal contempt, is designed to coerce compliance with a court order or to compensate a complainant for losses sustained." Chabad v. Russian Fed'n, 798 F.Supp.2d 260, 272 (D.D.C. 2011) (citation omitted) (quoting another source) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also United States v. Latney's Funeral Home, Inc., No. 11-2096, 41 F.Supp.3d 24, 2014 WL 1826732, at *3 (D.D.C. May 8, 2014) (citation omitted) (quoting another source) (internal quotation marks omitted) (" A civil contempt action is characterized as remedial in nature, used to obtain compliance with a court order or to compensate for damages sustained as a result from noncompliance." ). Thus, while the court has " broad" discretion in constructing civil contempt sanctions, the court's exercise of its discretion is guided by these goals. See, e.g., Latney's Funeral Home, 2014 WL 1826732, at *9 (citations omitted) (" Federal courts have broad equitable powers to craft remedial sanctions for civil contempt . . . . A court's goal is to fashion a remedy that will coerce the contemnor into compliance, compensate the complainant for losses due to the noncompliance, or both." ).

This Circuit has addressed the imposition of civil contempt sanctions on a foreign sovereign in an action brought pursuant to the FSIA. FG Hemisphere Assocs., LLC v. Democratic Republic of Congo, 637 F.3d 373, 375, 394 U.S.App.D.C. 439 (D.C. Cir. 2011). In that case, the plaintiff, seeking to execute on judgments it obtained against the Democratic Republic of Congo, served discovery requests in order " to identify the DRC's commercial property in the United States available for execution." Id. at 376. The district court entered a discovery order, with the consent of the parties, but the Democratic Republic of Congo did not produce all of the documents in accordance with the court's order. Id.; see also FG Hemisphere Assocs., LLC v. Democratic Republic of Congo, 603 F.Supp.2d 1 (D.D.C. 2009). The district court found the Democratic Republic of Congo in civil contempt, ordered it to certify its compliance with the court's discovery orders within thirty days, and ordered it to " show cause on or before the expiration of the 30-day period why a fine payable to plaintiff should not be imposed in the amount of $5000 per week, doubling every four weeks until reaching a maximum of $80,000 per week, until DRC satisfies its discovery obligations under this Order." FG Hemisphere Assocs., 603 F.Supp.2d at 2-3.

The district court denied the Democratic Republic of Congo's motion to vacate the contempt order, and the Circuit affirmed the district court's order, after determining that " contempt sanctions against a foreign sovereign are available under the FSIA." FG Hemisphere Assocs., 637 F.3d at 376, 379; see also id. at 380 (" We hold today only that the FSIA does not abrogate a court's inherent power to impose contempt sanctions on a foreign sovereign, and that the district court did not abuse its discretion in doing so here." ). In so concluding, the Court distinguished between a court's power to " impose" sanctions and the court's power to " enforce" the sanctions imposed. Id. at 377.

More recently, another member of this court imposed civil contempt sanctions, in the amount of $50,000 per each day of

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noncompliance, against a foreign sovereign -- the Russian Federation -- and other Russian entities, for their failure to comply with the court's final order with respect to the merits of the case. Chabad, 915 F.Supp.2d at 150, 154-55. The court concluded that it had authority to issue contempt sanctions under FG Hemisphere Associates, and found that sanctions were appropriate under the " general principles . . . governing the issuance of civil contempt sanctions . . . ." Id. at 153. The court also reiterated the distinction between " a court's issuing of contempt sanctions with execution or enforcement of an award . . . ." Id. at 154; see also id. at 152.

Here, Plaintiffs have shown, by clear and convincing evidence, that Defendant has failed to comply with the court's February 14, 2014 order. Plaintiffs submitted evidence that Defendant was served. See Plaintiffs' Exhibit 1; Plaintiffs' Exhibit 2. The order clearly and unambiguously directed Defendant to " produce the requested documents to counsel for Plaintiffs by no later than April 15, 2014" and to " appear before the undersigned in Courtroom 4 of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on Tuesday, May 6, 2014 at 10:00 a.m., for a judgment debtor examination." Order (Document No. 24) at 3. Defendant did not appear for the May 6, 2014 judgment debtor examination, and counsel for Plaintiffs represented, on the record at the May 6, 2014 hearing, that Defendant has not produced the documents. Defendant itself has indicated that it will not comply with the court's order because " execution of the request would infringe the sovereignty or security of the People's Republic of China []." Notice (Document No. 25).

Accordingly, the undersigned finds that Plaintiffs have established a basis for the court, in an exercise of its inherent power, to find Defendant in civil contempt of the court. The undersigned further finds that civil contempt sanctions against Defendant are authorized in this Circuit, pursuant to FG Hemisphere Associates. However, before imposing such sanctions, the court will first order Defendant to show cause why it should not be subject to civil contempt sanctions. The court in Chabad entered a show cause order prior to its issuance of civil contempt sanctions, noting that it " must remain cognizant that a fundamental requirement of civil contempt proceedings 'is that the accused party has notice and an opportunity to be heard.'" Chabad, 798 F.Supp.2d at 273 (citation omitted); see also id. at 274 (" [D]efendants' ongoing failure to comply with the Court's order . . . cannot eliminate the requirement that they be given notice and an opportunity to respond before entry of civil contempt." ); cf. FG Hemisphere Assocs., 603 F.Supp.2d at 3 (including a show cause provision in the contempt order).

While Plaintiffs' previous requests for sanctions, see supra note 2, may have alerted Defendant to the possibility that sanctions could be imposed, Defendant, to the undersigned's knowledge, has not been notified of Plaintiffs' present request for sanctions, which was made orally on the record at the May 6 hearing at which Defendant was not present. Moreover, unlike the circumstances presented in the cases discussed above, Defendant has never appeared or participated in the instant litigation. See Notice (Document No. 10); cf. Chabad, 798 F.Supp.2d at 264 (" Following nearly four years of active litigation between the parties, all defendants withdrew from this matter, explaining that '[t]he Russian Federation views any continued defense before this Court and, indeed, any participation in this litigation as fundamentally incompatible with its rights as a sovereign nation.'" ); FG Hemisphere Assocs.,

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 637 F.3d at 375-76 (noting that the " DRC began participating in the litigation" and that the district court entered a discovery order " with the consent of both parties" ). The need for notice is arguably greater where, as here, the party subject to sanctions has never appeared in the litigation.

Defendant's notices to the court reflect that it does not intend to participate in the litigation, or comply with orders of the court. See Notice (Document No. 10); Notice (Document No. 25); see also Chabad, 798 F.Supp.2d at 273 (" [D]efendants' prior statement that they view 'any continued defense before this Court and, indeed, any participation in this litigation as fundamentally incompatible with [their] rights as a sovereign state,' . . . along with their letter--sent after receipt of the default judgment--returning documents 'without judicial review,' . . . make clear that they have no intention of complying with the Court's prior order." ). Nonetheless, the undersigned finds it prudent to provide Defendant with notice of Plaintiffs' request for sanctions, an opportunity to come into compliance with the court's order prior to the issuance of sanctions, and an opportunity to be heard.

CONCLUSION

For all of the foregoing reasons, it is, this 27th day of October, 2014,

ORDERED that by no later than December 31, 2014, Defendant shall produce the documents requested by Plaintiffs in accordance with the court's February 14, 2014 order; and it is

FURTHER ORDERED that in the event Defendant fails to comply, it shall SHOW CAUSE by no later than January 7, 2015 why the court should not impose the civil contempt sanctions requested by Plaintiffs -- $246,500 per day -- for its failure to comply with the court's February 14, 2014 order directing it to produce the documents requested by Plaintiffs and to appear for a judgment debtor examination; and it is

FURTHER ORDERED that counsel for Plaintiffs shall serve a copy of this order upon Defendant in accordance with applicable federal law and international agreements.


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