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Gonzalez-Vera v. Townley

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

March 19, 2015

LAURA GONZÁ LEZ-VERA, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
MICHAEL VERNON TOWNLEY, et al., Defendants

For Ali A. Beydoun, Personal Representative of the Estate of Carmelo Soria Espinoza, Laura Gonzalez-Vera, Plaintiffs: Alexandra Arango, Ali A. Beydoun, Diana Damschroder, Jacob Brody, LEAD ATTORNEYS, UNROW HUMAN RIGHTS IMPACT LITIGATION CLINIC, Washington, DC USA.

For Michael Vernon Townley, Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General of the United States, Defendants: Michelle Renee Bennett, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, DC USA.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JOHN D. BATES, United States District Judge.

Defendant Michael Vernon Townley is in hiding. And for good reason. He was the star witness against several defendants in a 1979 criminal case concerning the assassination of Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean ambassador to the United States. See Compl. [ECF No. 1] at 2. In exchange for this testimony, the federal government placed Townley in a witness protection program, where he has remained for almost thirty years. See id.

But Townley is also a debtor. The plaintiffs in this case, Laura González-Vera and Ali Beydoun (as representative of the estate of Carmelo Soria Espinoza), obtained a default judgment against Townley--to the tune of more than $7 million--for his role in the 1976 kidnap, torture, and murder of González-Vera's husband in Santiago, Chile. See id. Frustrated in their efforts to collect on that judgment, plaintiffs have asked this Court for help. They seek, among other things, to require the Attorney General " to determine whether . . . Townley is making reasonable efforts to comply with the judgment against him," to compel " Townley to make all required payments" to plaintiffs, and to order the Department of Justice " to disclose" Townley's location. Id. at 11 - 12. But these claims are either moot, unauthorized by the governing statute, or both, and the Court will accordingly grant the government's motion to dismiss this case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim.[1]

BACKGROUND

I. Statutory Background

This case involves the application of a rarely used (and, thus, rarely interpreted) statute: the Witness Security Reform Act of 1984, 18 U.S.C. § 3523. See Gonzalez-Vera v. Townley, 595 F.3d 379, 389 U.S.App.D.C. 222 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (interpreting the statute); Hermanson v. Hunter, 794 F.Supp.2d 1097 (S.D. Cal. 2008) (same). Generally speaking, the Act allows plaintiffs who hold a civil judgment against an (otherwise unreachable) individual in the federal witness protection program to sue for the appointment of a guardian, who will help those plaintiffs collect their unpaid debts. But there are several nuances to this cause of action, as reflected in the following provisions relevant to the present case:

(a) If a judgment . . . is entered against [a protected person] the Attorney General shall determine whether the person has made reasonable efforts to comply with the judgment. The Attorney General shall take appropriate steps to urge the person to comply with the judgment. If the Attorney General determines that the person has not made reasonable efforts to comply with the judgment, the Attorney General may, after considering the danger to the person and upon the request of the person holding the judgment disclose the identity and location of the person to the plaintiff entitled to recovery pursuant to the judgment . . . .
(b)(1) Any person who holds a judgment entered by a Federal or State court in his or her favor against a person provided protection under this chapter may, upon a decision by the Attorney General to deny disclosure of the current identity and location of such protected person, bring an action against the protected person in the United States district court in the district where the person holding the judgment . . . resides. Such action shall be brought within one hundred and twenty days after the petitioner requested the Attorney General to disclose the identity and location of the protected person . . . .
(b)(3) Upon a determination (A) that the petitioner holds a judgment entered by a Federal or State court and (B) that the Attorney General has declined to disclose to the petitioner the current identity and location of the protected person against whom the judgment was entered, the court shall appoint a guardian to act on behalf of the petitioner to enforce the judgment . . . . The Attorney General shall disclose to the guardian the current identity and location of the protected person . . . .

18 U.S.C. § 3523. As certain members of Congress have explained, these provisions--and their nuances--are meant to " strike . . . a balance" between the rights of " otherwise innocent persons . . . to litigate civil claims for damages" and the need " to ensure protection of the witness." S. Rep. No. 98-225, at 411 (1983).

II. Factual & Procedural Background

While the Witness Security Reform Act is not often litigated, the parties (and the courts in this Circuit) have wrestled with this statute once before. After winning a $7 million default judgment against Townley for his role in the " torture and murder of Carmelo Soria Espinoza," plaintiffs " asked the Attorney General to help them collect the judgment pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3523." Gonzalez-Vera, 595 F.3d at 380. The Attorney General, acting through the director of the witness protection program and after reviewing Townley's finances, determined that it was reasonable for Townley to pay plaintiffs $75 per week to satisfy the judgment against him. But this ...


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