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Doe v. Hills

United States District Court, District of Columbia

November 15, 2016

JOHN DOE I, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CARLA A. HILLS, Personal Representative of the Estate of Roderick M. Hills, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          JOHN D. BATES United States District Judge.

         Currently pending before the Court is [8] defendant Carla Hills' motion to dismiss this complaint. This is a case brought by Colombian nationals against defendant Carla Hills in her capacity as representative of the estate of Roderick M. Hills, who served as a member of the board of directors of Chiquita Brands International, the banana producer, prior to his death in 2014. The complaint alleges that between 1995 and 2004, Chiquita made nearly $1.7 million in protection payments, with Mr. Hills' authorization, to a violent paramilitary organization known as the Autodefensorias Unidas de Colombia (“AUC”), which the United States designated as a terrorist organization in 2001. Compl. [ECF No. 1] ¶¶ 1, 83-87, 91. In exchange for the payments, the AUC allegedly agreed to keep the banana-growing regions in which Chiquita operated free of labor opposition, social unrest, and leftist rebel groups and sympathizers. Id. ¶ 1, 90, 168-70.

         The plaintiffs in this case are victims of the AUC or family members of victims who were killed by the AUC. They allege that the payments made by Chiquita enabled the AUC to carry out a violent campaign of kidnapping, torture, and murder against the largely civilian population in Colombia's banana growing regions. The plaintiffs bring damages claims under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA), state tort law, customary international law, and Colombian tort law. The Court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332, 1350, and 1367. For the reasons that follow, the defendant's motion to dismiss is denied, and this case will be stayed pending further developments in the proceedings in the multi-district court litigation against Chiquita currently ongoing in the Southern District of Florida.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         Because this case is entangled with the multi-district litigation against Chiquita and the Hills estate pending in federal court in Florida (“the MDL case”), a brief discussion of both is in order. In March 2007, Chiquita pled guilty to one count of engaging in transactions with a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, the AUC, in violation of 50 U.S.C. § 1705(b). See Plea Agreement, United States v. Chiquita Brands Int'l, No. 7-CR-55 (RCL) (D.D.C.) [ECF No. 11] ¶ 1. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiffs in this case filed a complaint against Chiquita in the District of New Jersey (“the New Jersey complaint”); that action was consolidated with eight other cases brought in D.C., Florida, and New York into a multi-district litigation in the Southern District of Florida. See MDL Order on Consolidated Mot. to Dismiss [ECF No. 28-2] at 4 (recounting the procedural history of the MDL case). The New Jersey complaint alleged identical claims to those alleged here, but the case was initially brought only against Chiquita. These claims were litigated in the MDL court in Florida for about four years before the plaintiffs amended their complaint to name various Chiquita directors and officers as individual defendants, including board member Roderick M. Hills, who served as head of the audit committee. The amended complaints asserted similar claims against these individual defendants, alleging that they authorized and/or facilitated Chiquita's payments to the AUC. Id. at 4-7. Before Hills was a party, however, the case was stayed pending Chiquita's interlocutory appeal to the Eleventh Circuit, so Hills never filed a response to the complaint before his death in October 2014. Mot. to Dismiss [ECF No. 8-1] at 3- 4.

         Following Hills' death, the Probate Division of the D.C. Superior Court appointed Carla Hills, the decedent's widow, as personal representative of his estate in November 2014. Id. at 4. In June 2015, the plaintiffs moved to substitute Hills' estate as a defendant in the MDL case. The next month, as part of the probate proceedings, the plaintiffs presented a creditor's claim to the estate for $18.5 billion, which the estate disallowed. Id. at 5. The plaintiffs then filed the instant complaint in federal court against Carla Hills in her capacity as the estate's representative. Id. at 6. Both parties agree that the instant complaint is identical to the New Jersey complaint currently being litigated in the MDL case, but for the fact that the sole defendant is Carla Hills in her capacity as the representative of her husband's estate, and but for a footnote on page 3 that notes that the complaint was filed “out of an abundance of caution” to ensure that any future judgment is enforceable against the estate. Compl. [ECF No. 1] at 3 n.3; Mot. to Dismiss [ECF No. 8-1] at 6. The defendant filed this motion to dismiss in response, arguing that the complaint is either an ill-advised attempt to challenge the disallowance of the probate claim in federal court or duplicative of the New Jersey complaint already being litigated in the MDL action.[2] The Court will address each argument in turn.

         II. DISCUSSION

         In order to survive a motion to dismiss, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The Court must take all allegations in the complaint as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiffs' favor. See Aktieselskabet AF 21. November 2001 v. Fame Jeans, Inc., 525 F.3d 8, 15 (D.C. Cir. 2008). Here, the arguments raised with respect to dismissal have less to do with the factual content of the complaint and much more to do with the procedural tangle presented by this case, given the related litigation in the MDL case and the ongoing probate of the Hills estate in the D.C. Superior Court. The defendant argues, first, that this complaint was filed in order to improperly challenge the estate's disallowance of the probate claim, in violation of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, the Anti-Injunction Act, and the probate exception to federal jurisdiction. Second, the defendant argues that the complaint is duplicative of the New Jersey complaint and must be dismissed under the first-filed rule. Finally, the defendant argues that dismissal is required because she was not timely served with the complaint and the summons as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(m).

         A. “Probate” Claim

         The defendant spends much of her briefing arguing that the plaintiffs' complaint improperly raises some kind of “probate” claim or attempts to challenge the representative's decision to disallow the creditor's claim that the plaintiffs brought against the estate in the probate court. At the outset, it is worth noting that the only mention of probate or probate proceedings in the complaint appears in footnote 3, which states in relevant part:

To ensure that any future judgment against Mrs. Hills/the Decedent would be enforceable against the Decedent's estate, Plaintiffs filed a creditor's claim in D.C. Superior Court's Probate Division, which Mrs. Hills disallowed on July 23, 2015. The D.C. Probate Code requires that following a disallowance, a claim be filed in the D.C. Superior Court [or] another court of competent jurisdiction. Although plaintiffs believe that their existing complaint against Chiquita and others fulfills this requirement, out of an abundance of caution, Plaintiffs submit this Complaint, which has been modified to name only Carla Hills as the Defendant.

Compl. [ECF No. 1] at 3 n.3. The actual claims asserted in the body of the complaint, however, are tort claims brought under the ATS, the TVPA, and state and Colombian tort law, identical to those claims being litigated before the MDL court. Indeed, at the hearing on this motion, counsel for the defendant appeared to agree that the defendant's concern on this “probate” issue was caused by the language in footnote 3, not anything else in the complaint. Hrg. Trans. [ECF No. 37] 55:14-56:23.

         The plaintiffs argued both in their briefing and at oral argument that the inclusion of footnote 3 in their complaint was not intended to raise any claims with respect to the probate proceedings or the estate's disallowance of their probate claim. Looking at the complaint, the Court is inclined to agree. The complaint, footnote included, does not ask the Court to overturn the disallowance of the probate claim, nor does the complaint ask for an injunction against the probate court-indeed, there is no state court action here to challenge and no action against a state court is being sought. Moreover, the mere fact that the decedent's estate is a party to the case, or that probate proceedings have commenced elsewhere, does not automatically render the case barred by the probate exception to federal jurisdiction. See Marshall v. Marshall, 547 U.S. 293, 311-12 (2006) (“[T]he probate exception reserves to state probate courts the probate or annulment of a will and the administration of a decedent's estate; it also precludes federal courts from endeavoring to dispose of property that is in the custody of a state probate court. But it does not bar federal courts from adjudicating matters outside those confines and otherwise within federal jurisdiction.”).

         In short, the plaintiffs do not appear to be raising any claims that a federal court cannot adjudicate or asking for any relief that a federal court cannot give, which is presumably why the defendant has not raised these same arguments based on Rooker-Feldman or the probate exception against the identical complaint before the MDL court, in which the Hills estate is also a defendant. The Court agrees in the abstract with the defendant that the question of whether the plaintiffs have properly asserted a probate claim against the Hills estate in the D.C. probate court is a matter for the probate court to decide, but that is not the question presented by this complaint. Indeed, it is not even relevant at this time: whether the plaintiffs may assert a claim in probate against the estate goes to the plaintiffs' ability to recover on a judgment against the estate-a judgment which they do not yet have, either in this case or in the MDL case.[3] The complaint instead raises issues of liability in the first ...


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