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Fawzi v. Al Jazeera Media Network

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 11, 2017




         Mohamed Fawzi was a cameraman for Al Jazeera in 2013 when he was assigned to work in the network's Cairo office. Apparently, the new post was more than he bargained for: Fawzi ended up being arrested, and then tried in absentia, for his ties to his employer-by then a vocal critic of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Fawzi now brings breach of contract and tort claims in this Court, alleging that Al Jazeera failed to properly warn him about the dangers of the Cairo assignment. However, the alleged actions that give rise to Fawzi's suit have no connection to this forum, nor can Al Jazeera be considered “at home” here. Daimler AG v. Bauman, 134 S.Ct. 746, 751 (2014). Accordingly, this Court lacks personal jurisdiction over Fawzi's claims.

         I. Factual Background

         The factual account that follows is based on the allegations outlined in Fawzi's complaint. Fawzi, an Egyptian citizen currently residing in Virginia, has worked as a cameraman “in hot spots all over the globe.” See Compl. ¶¶ 1, 3. In September 2013, Al Jazeera Media Network (“Al Jazeera”)-a Qatari corporation with its headquarters and principal place of business in Doha, Qatar-requested that Fawzi travel to Egypt to work as a cameraman at the network's Cairo bureau. See id. ¶¶ 1, 5, 63, 65. At the time, Al Jazeera was accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood's efforts to overthrow the then-nascent el-Sisi regime, and there was an “extremely antagonistic relationship” between the network and the Egyptian government. Id. ¶ 14. For instance, in July and August of 2013, Egyptian security forces conducted raids on Al Jazeera's Cairo office, and they arrested Al Jazeera journalists. Id. ¶ 24. In early September of that year, an administrative court officially banned Al Jazeera from broadcasting in Egypt, on the grounds that it was fabricating pro-Muslim Brotherhood news. Id. ¶ 20. According to Fawzi, however, Al Jazeera never informed him about any of this, or even discussed with him the risks associated with working as an Al Jazeera journalist in Cairo. Id. ¶¶ 13, 20, 26.

         Purportedly unaware of the above dangers, Fawzi took the Cairo assignment. In December 2013, he was arrested and interrogated by Egyptian security officers due to his Al Jazeera connections, although he was released shortly thereafter. Id. ¶¶ 15, 58. Perceiving that “his life was endangered, ” Fawzi claims that he then “immediately booked an airline reservation and left the country.” Id. ¶ 16. He did not return to Egypt, but in June 2014, Fawzi-along with a number of his colleagues-were tried in an Egyptian criminal court in absentia. Id. ¶ 50. Fawzi “was sentenced to ten years in prison and was designated as an international terrorist.” Id.

         Fawzi now claims that Al Jazeera's failure to warn or otherwise advise him of the dangers surrounding his work in Egypt was negligent and a breach of his employment contract. See id. at 1. Citing lost wages due to his unemployment, as well as the emotional trauma he experienced from his arrest and in absentia conviction, Fawzi seeks $2.4 million in compensatory damages, and an additional $5 million in punitive damages. See id. ¶ 81. Al Jazeera moves to dismiss his complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2), asserting that Fawzi has shown no basis for either general or specific personal jurisdiction over the Doha-based network. Al Jazeera also argues for dismissal on grounds of insufficient service of process and forum non conveniens. The motion is ripe for review.

         II. Standards of Review

         “The plaintiff has the burden of establishing a factual basis for the exercise of personal jurisdiction over the defendant” when a challenge to the court's personal jurisdiction is raised. Crane v. New York Zoological Soc'y, 894 F.2d 454, 456 (D.C. Cir. 1990). See also First Chi. Int'l v. United Exch. Co., Ltd., 836 F.2d 1375 1378 (D.C. Cir. 1988) (“[T]he general rule is that a plaintiff must make a prima facie showing of the pertinent jurisdictional facts.”). In making this determination, the Court must resolve “factual discrepancies appearing in the record” in favor of the plaintiff. Crane, 894 F.2d at 456. However, the Court “need not accept inferences drawn by plaintiffs if such inferences are unsupported by the facts.” Livnat v. Palestinian Auth., 851 F.3d 45, 57 (D.C. Cir. 2017). Mere conclusions or “bare allegation[s]” do not constitute the prima facie case for jurisdiction that this standard requires. Id.

         III. Discussion

         The requirements of due process impose certain limitations on the power of a court to exercise jurisdiction over nonresident defendants. See Helicopteros Nacionales de Colom., S.A. v. Hall, 466 U.S. 408, 414 (1984) (citing Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714 (1878)). In order for a court to exercise personal jurisdiction over a defendant, a plaintiff must show that there are sufficient contacts between the defendant and the forum such that the court's jurisdiction “does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” GTE New Media Servs. Inc. v. BellSouth Corp., 199 F.3d 1343, 1347 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (quoting International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945)). The basis for personal jurisdiction may be general, under which a court may “hear any and all claims against [the defendant], ” or specific, under which a court may assert jurisdiction only over claims arising from forum-related contacts. Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations, S.A. v. Brown, 564 U.S. 915 (2011). As explained below, Fawzi has not established either general or specific personal jurisdiction over Al Jazeera.

         A. General Personal Jurisdiction

         A court may assert general personal jurisdiction over a foreign corporate defendant when the defendant corporation's contacts with the forum state “are so constant and pervasive ‘as to render [it] essentially at home in the forum State.'” Daimler AG v. Bauman, 134 S.Ct. 746, 751 (2014) (quoting Goodyear, 564 U.S. at 919). Engaging in continuous and substantial business with the forum jurisdiction is not sufficient to permit an exercise of general jurisdiction. Instead, absent “exceptional” circumstances, a defendant corporation is “at home” only in the jurisdiction where it is incorporated or has its principal place of business. See id. at 760-61 & n.19.

         Citing a 1950 D.C. Circuit decision, Goldberg v. Southern Builders, 184 F.2d 345 (D.C. Cir. 1950), Fawzi alleges that general personal jurisdiction in this district is established through Al Jazeera's operation of its subsidiary Al Jazeera International (USA) Inc., and by certain Al Jazeera employees with Washington, D.C. business addresses. See Pl.'s Opp'n. 9-10. But these factual allegations are plainly insufficient for establishing general jurisdiction. In Daimler, plaintiffs relied on contacts between the defendant's subsidiary, Mercedes-Benz USA, and the state of California as their basis for jurisdiction in the Northern District of California. See Daimler, 134 S.Ct. at 751-52. The Supreme Court held that even if the subsidiary were found to be at home in California, and even if its contacts were assigned to its corporate parent Daimler, “there would still be no basis to subject Daimler to general jurisdiction in California, for Daimler's slim contacts with the State hardly render it at home there.” Id. at 760.

         Fawzi, in his complaint, acknowledges that Al Jazeera is based in Qatar, has its corporate headquarters in Qatar, and is owned by the government and royal family of Qatar. See Compl. ¶¶ 2-7. Clearly, Al Jazeera is “at home” in Qatar. And nothing in the record appears to show that this is an “exceptional case” where general jurisdiction is appropriate in a forum state where the corporate defendant is neither incorporated nor has its principal place of business. See Daimler, 134 S.Ct. at 755-56, 761 n.19 (citing as such a case Perkins v. Benguet Consolidated Mining Co., 342 U.S. ...

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