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Hekmati v. Islamic Republic of Iran

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 29, 2017

AMIR HEKMATI, Plaintiff,
v.
ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ELLEN SEGAL HUVELLE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Amir Hekmati, a United States citizen, spent four and one-half years in Evin prison in the Islamic Republic of Iran (“Iran”). He brings this action for compensatory and punitive damages against Iran under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1602-1611, alleging that Iran's detention of him and treatment while detained constituted hostage taking and torture. (Compl., May 9, 2016, ECF No. 1.) Iran failed to respond to the complaint, the Clerk entered a default, and plaintiff has now moved for a default judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55(b)(2). (Mot. for Default Judgment, Feb. 6, 2017, ECF No. 12.) For the reasons set forth herein, the Court will grant the motion for default judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         I. FINDINGS OF FACT

         The evidence in the record before the Court establishes the following facts.

         Amir Hekmati is a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen who was born in the United States in 1983. (Proposed Findings of Facts and Conclusions of Law in Support of Mot. for Default Judgment (“Mem.”) Ex. A (Decl. of Amir Hekmati (“Hekmati Decl.”)) ¶¶ 1, 3.) His parents, Ali and Behnaz Hekmati, had immigrated to the United States from Iran before he was born. (Id. ¶ 3.) He has three siblings--an older sister, a twin sister, and a younger brother. (Id. ¶ 4.) When he was eight years old, his family moved to Flint, Michigan, and he lived there until he graduated from high school in 2001. (Id. ¶¶ 7-8.)

         From July 2001 until August 2005, Hekmati served in the United States Marine Corps. (Id. ¶ 9, Ex. A.) While in the Marines, he completed a 63-week course in Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, graduating with high honors in May 2003. (Id. ¶ 10, Ex. C.) Thereafter, he was deployed to Iraq as an infantry rifleman to support combat operations; he also served as the personal interpreter for the battalion commander. (Id. ¶ 11, Ex. D.) After completing his four-year term of active service, during which he reached the rank of E-5/SGT, he was honorably discharged in August 2005. (Id. ¶¶ 9, 12, Ex. A.) After leaving the military, Hekmati worked as a defense contractor in the areas of language and cultural instruction, with a focus on new language translation technology. (Id. ¶¶ 14-16, 18.) He also went to college online, obtaining a bachelor's degree in International Business Management in 2009 from the University of Phoenix. (Id. ¶ 17.)

         In 2009, Hekmati was hired as a research manager for a U.S. defense contractor, which led to his spending a year in Iraq, providing cultural analysis and advice to U.S. military commanders. (Id. ¶ 19.) In May 2011, he started a new job in Afghanistan as an analyst for another U.S. defense contractor. (Id. ¶ 20.) Shortly thereafter, though, he was accepted into a Master's Program in Economics at the University of Michigan, and he decided to enroll. (Id. ¶¶ 21-22.) Before returning to the United States, he decided he would take his first trip to Iran to visit relatives and see the country of his parents' birth. (Id. ¶ 25.)

         A. Iran

         Hekmati received authorization to travel to Iran from the Iranian Interests Section of the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C., and he arrived at the airport in Tehran on August 14, 2011. (Id. ¶¶ 27-28.) After a brief interview with immigration officials, he was admitted to the country using his Iranian passport. (Id. ¶ 28.) On August 29, 2011, two days before his scheduled departure, two men who represented themselves as being from a passport control agency appeared and asked him to come with them to answer a few additional questions. (Id. ¶ 30.) They took Hekmati to a small office building nearby, where he was questioned by men from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (“MOIS”). (Id. ¶¶ 31-32.) MOIS is Iran's primary intelligence organization; in 2012, it was designated by the United States Department of the Treasury for human right abuses dating back to June 12, 2009. See U.S. Dept. of Treasury, Treasury Designates Iran Ministry of Intelligence and Security for Human Rights Abuses and Support for Terrorism, U.S. Dept. of Treasury Press Center (Feb. 16, 2012) (“Treasury Designation”) (“The U.S. Departments of the Treasury and State also today imposed sanctions against MOIS pursuant to E.O. 13553 for being responsible for or complicit in the commission of serious human rights abuses against the Iranian people since June 12, 2009.”)

         Hekmati was asked why he was in Iran, and he told them he was there “[t]o visit Iran.” (Hekmati Decl. ¶ 31.) He was also asked to write down the names of his family members, which he did. (Id.) Then he was ordered to write down that he was a former member of the U.S. military. (Id.) Once he did that, the interrogator asked him to sign the paper, which he did. (Id. ¶ 32.) After Hekmati signed the paper, the interrogator began to call him a “spy” and threatened that he would be taken to “a very bad place” if he did not confess. (Id. ¶ 33.) He told the interrogator that he had no idea what he was talking about, but ultimately, two guards handcuffed Hekmati and took him to Evin Prison. (Id. ¶¶ 33-34.)

         B. Detention

         “Evin Prison in Tehran [is] notorious for cruel and prolonged torture of political opponents of the government.” U.S. Dep't of State, Iran 2012 Human Rights Report at 7. When Hekmati first arrived at Evin, he was strip-searched, given blue prison pajamas, blindfolded, and taken to a small, windowless cell in Ward 209, which was controlled by MOIS. (Hekmati Decl. ¶¶ 34, 36); see also Iran 2012 Human Rights Report at 7 (“news organizations and human rights groups reported [that Ward 209] was under the control of the country's intelligence services”); Treasury Designation at 1 (“MOIS agents are responsible for the beatings, sexual abuse, prolonged interrogations, and coerced confessions of prisoners, particularly political prisoners, which occurred in Ward 209 of Evin Prison, which is controlled by MOIS, following the June 2009 elections in Iran.”)

         Hekmati describes his first few days in Ward 209 as a “blur.” (Hekmati Decl. ¶ 35.) He was “shocked, confused, scared, [and] indignant.” (Id.) He did not know if what had happened was all a “misunderstanding” or if “prison official were about to blow [his] head off.” (Id. ¶ 35.) As it turned out, Hekmati spent the next four months in his cell in solitary confinement. (Id. ¶ 36.) His cell was so small that he could not fully extend his legs when he was lying down. (Id. ¶ 37.) The walls were curved, making him “feel constantly like the walls were caving in” on him. (Id.) The “floor was cold tile covered with a thin carpet, ” and that is where Hekmati slept as there was no mattress. (Id.) Hekmati was given a thin blanket, but it did little to protect him from the cold floor. (Id.) “There was nothing else in the cell except a small makeshift toilet, which was more like a pail with a hose.” (Id. ¶ 38.) “There was no plumbing and no toilet paper.” (Id.) The prison official kept bright lights on 24 hours a day, making it impossible for Hekmati, in his windowless cell, to tell if it was daytime or nighttime. (Id. ¶ 39.) “At other times, the power went out, and [he] was left in complete darkness for hours at a time.” (Id.) When that happened, Hekmati felt like he was “being buried alive.” (Id.) He was served very little food-a slice of bread and margarine in the morning, soggy rice and lentils for lunch, and a small cup of soup or lentils in the evening. (Id. ¶ 49.) He rapidly lost a significant amount of weight - by his estimate, over 20 pounds. (Id.) Hekmati was permitted to leave his cell “only once every few days for 10-15 minutes to take a cold shower.” (Id. ¶ 40.) Otherwise, he was “taken from [his] cell only for interrogations, which . . . happened every few days.” (Id.) He was always blindfolded when he was taken out of his cell. (Id.)

         While Hekmati was in Ward 209, he was frequently subjected to physical and psychological abuse. For example, “[p]rison officials intentionally exacerbated [Hekmati's discomfort] by regularly pouring water on the floor of [his] cell so that it remained cold and damp and grew moldy, ” a smell he describes as “putrid.” (Id. ¶ 37.) “At times, the air was so heavy and polluted that [Hekmati] had trouble breathing” and, in fact, “the guards [had to wear] surgical masks.” (Id. ¶ 38.) In addition, “[p]rison guards beat [him] repeatedly with batons and struck [him] in [his] kidneys with an electric taser.” (Id. ¶ 41.) On one occasion, an interrogator “chained [him] to a table blindfolded and whipped the bottom of [his] feet with cables as punishment for not giving him the answers he wanted.” (Id. ¶ 42.) Hekmati describes these “whippings” as “excruciating.” (Id. (“Because I could not move, I felt the pain not just on my feet, but reverberating through my head, like a screwdriver jammed into my brain.”).) Also, because the wounds were on his feet, they were slow to heal; his feet became swollen, and he could not walk properly. (Id.) On multiple occasions, he “was handcuffed in stress positions for hours at a time.” (Id. ¶ 43.) Such as on one occasion, he “was handcuffed with one arm reaching behind [his] shoulder and the other hand meeting it behind [his] back for nearly forty-eight hours, ” a position that prevented him from sitting the entire time and caused “excruciating” pain in his shoulder. (Id.) The prison guards also constantly taunted and belittled him, insulting him, his mother, and his country. (Id. ¶ 44.) On one occasion, prison officials lied and told him that his sister had been involved in a terrible car accident, but then refused him access to a phone to call his family unless he confessed that he was a spy. (Id.) He “worried every day about [his] mother, who [he] knew must be desperate to find [him].” (Id. ¶ 45.)

         Hekmati's “physical and psychological health deteriorated rapidly, ” to the point where he thought he “was truly losing [his] mind.” (Id. ¶ 51.) Initially, he completely lost track of time and just stared at the wall all day. (Id. ¶ 46.) Next, he “began talking to the walls, as if they were a family member or friend from home.” (Id. ¶ 47.) Eventually, he felt that the “walls were caving in on [him] and that [he] couldn't breathe.” (Id. ¶ 51.) He had “numerous panic attacks, ” during which he “would start banging and clawing at the door, screaming for the guards. (Id.) His distress “was met only with taunts and more beatings.” (Id.) He often thought about suicide. (Id.)

         “Roughly three months into [Hekmati's] solitary confinement, the guards started forcing [him] to take sedatives.” (Id. ¶ 52.) “The sedatives made it even harder to keep track of time.” (Id.) He “drifted in and out of consciousness, ” a state he describes as like “a living corpse.” (Id.) Hekmati resisted the pills initially, but “they quickly became [his] lifeline, ” as they “allowed [him] to feel numb.” (Id. ¶ 53.) Once Hekmati was “hooked on the pills . . . [his] interrogator used them as a means of controlling [him].” (Id. ¶ 54.) He “would cut off the pills abruptly to attempt [to] coerce [Hekmati] to do things or say things that were untrue.” (Id.) Hekmati “felt out of control when the pills were taken from [him]”; he “stopped sleeping and started experiencing panic attacks again”; he “felt [he] would do anything to get more pills.” (Id.)

         Hekmati was “told that all of these abuses would continue for as long as it took [him] to confess to being a spy sent to Iran by the CIA to collect intelligence and spread pro-U.S. propaganda.” (Id. ¶ 55.) He was also told “on numerous occasions” that “‘[his] Government'- meaning the United States-needed to ‘cooperate' if [he] was to be released.” (Id.) In light of these statements, Hekmati concluded “shortly after [his] arrest, ” “that he was being used as a pawn by the Iranian Government to spread anti-U.S. propaganda and to win concessions from the U.S. Government.” (Id.)

         In December 2011, after four months in solitary confinement, Hekmati was dressed in civilian clothes and transported to a local hotel, where he was given food, cigarettes, and more pills, and “told that [he] would be released immediately if [he] agreed to be interviewed for an internal training video for MOIS” and to “state that [he] had been sent to Iran by the CIA.” (Id. ¶ 56.) Hekmati initially refused, but after his interrogators “swore on the Koran that the video was only for internal training purposes, ” he eventually decided “to comply in hopes of being released.” (Id. ¶ 57.) Hekmati was not released. Rather, he was returned to solitary confinement in Ward 209. (Id. ¶ 59.) He later learned that the Iranian Government “broadcast [his] false ‘confession' on Iranian state television as ‘proof' of [his] crimes.” (Id.)

         In January 2012, Hekmati was tried by Iran's Revolutionary Court. He was not informed of the charges against him, and he only met his court-appointed defense counsel five minutes before the trial began. (Id. ¶ 61.) After a 15-minute proceeding behind closed doors, he was convicted of “espionage, waging war against God, and corrupting the earth.” (Id. ¶ 62.) A month later, he learned from a newspaper article, shown to him by the prison guards, that he had been “sentenced to death, to be executed immediately by hanging.” (Id. ¶¶ 62-63.)

         After receiving his death sentence, Hekmati was kept on Ward 209, but moved to a “suite”-“two solitary confinement cells with the dividing wall removed.” (Id. ¶ 64.) Other than that change, the physical and mental mistreatment continued. (Id.) He still had “no phone, no visits, no lawyer, and no reading material.” Added to that was a death sentence that “haunted [him] day in and day out, ” such that he woke up every day “wondering if it was [his] execution day.” (Id. ¶ 65.) Hekmati lived “in a constant state of fear and anxiety.” (Id.) He “started having nightmares and more frequent panic attacks.” He heard “other prisoners being dragged from their cells to be executed” and those screams continue to haunt him. (Id.) Hekmati “could feel whatever mental strength [he] had left begin to crumble.” (Id. ¶ 66.) He “stopped sleeping”; he “stopped eating”; he “paced [his] cell at all hours”; and he “was hypervigilant, paranoid that [his] executioners were about to arrive.” (Id.) He had “constant visions of [his] execution and death.” (Id.)

         After several months on death row, Hekmati was taken back to the Revolutionary Court for a new trial - before a different judge - because an Iranian appeals court had “overturned [his] death sentence based on insufficient evidence.” (Id. ¶ 67.) The second trial was also held behind closed doors, and it lasted no more than 10 minutes. (Id.) Months later Hekmati learned, again through a newspaper shown to him by prison guards, that he had been convicted of cooperating with a hostile government and sentenced to 10 years in Evin Prison.[1] (Id. ¶ 68.)

         By this time, Hekmati had spent nearly a year in solitary confinement. (Id. ¶ 70.) Although he “felt some relief when [his] death sentence was annulled, . . . [he] knew the courts could re-instate the sentence at any time.” (Id.) Thus, his fear of execution “festered, never really going away, ” and he “continued to live for [his] daily dose of pills.” (Id.)

         Hekmati could not bear the thought of spending 10 more years in solitary confinement, and he went on multiple hunger strikes to protest his conditions. (Id. ¶ 71.) Eighteen months into his imprisonment, he lost consciousness after a prolonged hunger strike, fell, and suffered a head injury. (Id. ¶ 72.) At that point, Iranian officials transferred him out of Ward 209 to a political prison in Ward 350. (Id.)

         When Hekmati arrived in Ward 350, he saw his reflection for the first time in eighteen months, and he “didn't recognize the face staring back” at him. (Id. ¶ 73 (“I was pale and drawn. My eyes were sunken and had dark circles under them. A thick beard covered the hollows of my face.”).) Although he was no longer in solitary confinement, conditions in Ward 350 were “terrible”: there were “20-30 prisoners . . . packed together in a small cell”; “[e]veryone had physical and psychological problems”; “[t]here were no beds[--]only pieces of wood suspended from the wall”; prisoners “were regularly dragged out of the cell for execution or beatings”; and “[t]he guards indicated that prisoners would be helped if they snitched on other prisoners, so there was a constant atmosphere of fear and distrust among the population.” (Id. ¶ 74.) “Tensions ran high, ” so Hekmati tried to keep to [him]self.” (Id.) Although “Ward 350 had a small courtyard where [prisoners] could see a small patch of sky, ” it was so small that Hekmati “could do little more than move in tight circles.” (Id. ¶ 75.) In addition, prison officials stopped giving Hekmati his pills, causing him months of painful withdrawal symptoms. (Id. ¶ 74.)

         While in Ward 350, Hekmati still was not allowed to use the phone or to speak to a lawyer, diplomatic officials, or his family back home, but he was allowed to meet with his uncle once a month for 20-30 minutes. (Id. ¶ 76.) It was then that he learned that his father, after learning about Hekmati's death sentence, had suffered a major stroke, followed by a diagnosis of advanced brain cancer. (Id. ¶ 77.) His father at that point had lost his mobility and could no longer care for himself. (Id.) In addition, Hekmati's older sister had quit her job to lobby fulltime for his release, despite having two young children at home, and his family was spending tens- of-thousands of dollars on lawyer fees and expenses to lobby for his release. (Id.) Hekmati had been in Ward 350 for about a year and a half when there was a “huge riot, ” and “[a]s punishment, ” he (and others) “were transferred to the general population prison.” (Id. ¶ 80.)

         In the general prison population, Mr. Hekmati was assigned to Ward 7, where he was housed with drug dealers and other violent criminals. (Id.) He describes the conditions there as “some of the most brutal he had faced in his three years at Evin”: his “'cell' was actually a basement typically used to quarantine sick prisoners”; there were again 20-30 prisoners packed into a small space; “[t]he cell was infested with rats, ” which Hekmati and the other prisoners “had to kill [them]selves using broomsticks or other blunt objects”; “[t]here were no beds”; his “skin was eaten by lice and fleas”; he “would wake up with bed bugs all over [him]”; and when prison officials would occasionally spray the room with chemicals to get rid of the bed bugs, the chemicals “made the prisoners sicker than the bug bites did.” (Id. ¶ 81.) In addition, the ward “had no heat, air conditioning, or ventilation”; “[t]there was no courtyard or outdoor recreational space”; “[t]here were no toilets, ” just “three holes in the ground with a hose next to them”; “[t]he showers were directly next to the toilet holes” and, “because of the terrible ventilation, the showers became a breeding ground for infection.” (Id. ¶ 82.) Prisoners were given a surgical mask to wear in the shower, but each only got one mask, so masks quickly became filthy. (Id.)

         Hekmati was sick the entire time he was in Ward 7 from “recurring lung and sinus infections and constant intestinal problems.” (Id. ¶ 83.) “Prison officials would ignore [prisoners'] ailments unless they had a high fever, which they would ‘treat' by injecting [them] with steroids that actually suppressed the immune system, making the infection worse.” (Id.) Hekmati eventually stopped requesting any medical treatment. (Id.)

         Hekmati “lived in constant fear of [the] other prisoners in Ward 7.” (Id. ¶ 84.) Prison officials would put violent criminals in the cell to pressure political prisoners like Hekmati to confess or swear allegiance to the Iranian Government. (Id.) These prisoners would beat other prisoners; one prisoner's face was torn apart by a razor blade. (Id.) Many of the political prisoners who had been transferred to Ward 7 with Hekmati suffered mental breakdowns from the trauma of the surroundings. (Id.) Hekmati “tried not to make trouble”; his “only goal was to stay alive.” (Id.) The only bright spot was that Hekmati finally was permitted to call his family. (Id. ¶ 85.) But his phone access was limited to 5-10 minutes per day, and the news from his family was “always disheartening.” (Id. ¶¶ 85-86.) His father's health was “getting worse, ” and his mother was “clearly struggling to take care [of him].” (Id.)

         C. Release & Post-Release

         In January 2016, Hekmati was taken from his cell in Ward 9 back to Ward 209, where he met with a prosecutor, who told him that he would be released if he “expressed regret over [his] actions.” (Id. ¶ 87.) Hekmati refused, but nonetheless he was taken to the airport and, on January 16, 2016, put on a plane leaving Iran. (Id. ¶¶ 87-88.) As Hekmati later learned, Iran had released him and three other imprisoned Americans in exchange for clemency for seven Iranians indicted or imprisoned in the United States for sanctions violations. (Id. ¶ 89); see also, e.g., Michael Pearson and Elise Labott, Five Americans Released by Iran, Four as Part of Prisoner Swap, CNN (Jan. 16, 2016), available at http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/16/middleeast/iran-jason-rezaian-prisoners-freed/index.html.

         After Hekmati returned to the United States, he continued to suffer from his detention. Prior to his imprisonment, Hekmati was an energetic and hardworking young man, with plans to go to graduate school, get married, and start a family. (Hekmati Decl. ¶¶ 91-92; see also Mem. Ex. C (Decl. of Behnaz Hekmati (“Behnaz Hekmati Decl.”)) ¶¶ 7-30; Mem. Ex. D (Decl. of Sarah Hekmati (“Sarah Hekmati Decl.”)) ¶¶ 2-15.) After his return, he was XXXXX (Hekmati Decl. 91; Behnaz Hekmati Decl. ¶¶ 7-30; Sarah ¶¶ 2-15.) XXXXX (Hekmati ¶¶ 94-95.) XXXXX (Id. ¶ 95.) XXXXX (Id. ¶¶ 97-99.) XXXXX (Behnaz ¶ 17.) (Hekmati Decl. ¶¶ 100-101; see also Behnaz Hekmati Decl. ¶¶ Sarah ¶¶ 13-14.) XXXXX (Hekmati ¶ 102; Behnaz Hekmati Decl. ¶ 19; Sarah Hekmati Decl. ¶ 15.)

         Dr. Stuart Grassian, M.D., who was retained as an expert to evaluate Hekmati “in relationship to the psychiatric effects of his imprisonment, ” has diagnosed Hekmati as XXXXX (Mem. B (Expert Report of Stuart Grassian, M.D. (“Grassian Rep.”)), at 1)[2] [3] XXXXX : see also Hekinati Decl. ¶ Ex. F (Letter from Dr. Katherine Porter, VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, Aug. 9, 2016) XXXXX (see Grassian Rep. at 16-17)

         D. Iran's Purpose in Detaining Hekmati

         According to Dr. Mehdi Klialaji, Hekniati was detained "at the direction, and with the active participation, of the Iranian government" and as "part of a policy and practice of the Iranian government to seek political advantage through the mistreatment of Iranian-American dual citizens." (Mem. Ex. F (Expert Report of Dr. Mehdi Klialaji ("Klialaji Rep.")), ¶¶ 7, 34-35)[4]; see olso Opinions Adopted by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, No. 28/2013 (Aug. 2013), ovailoble ot http://hilibraiy.imni.edu/wgad/28- 2013.html (finding Mr. Hekmati's detention arbitrary and hi contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). Specifically, ban's piuposes in detaining Hekinati, and other banian-Americans detained during the same period, and others like him, included “coercing . . . false confessions that they had taken actions against the Iranian state on behalf of the American government” and to use them “as leverage in the U.S.-Iranian nuclear negotiations” or to obtain the release of Iranians in prison in the United States. (Khalaji Rep. ¶ 34; see also Behnaz Hekmati Decl. ¶¶ 4-5 (“Iranian Government officials initially told our family that Amir would be released if we kept quiet. Judge Salavati, the judge presiding over Amir's case, later told us to do more to pressure the U.S. Government to cooperate with the Iranian Government's demands.”); see also Mem. at 10-11 & nn. 5-6 (citing news articles reporting on Iran's interest in a possible prisoner swap).[5]

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On May 9, 2016, Hekmati filed suit against Iran, claiming that its treatment of him constituted torture and hostage-taking in violation of the FSIA, 28 U.S.C. § 1605A. On May 24, 2016, plaintiff's counsel asked the Clerk of Court to effectuate service on Iran, pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(4), by mailing a copy of the summons, complaint, notice of suit, and offer to arbitrate, together with a translation of each into Farsi, the official language of Iran, to the United States Department of State, for it to effect service through diplomatic channels. (Aff. Requesting Foreign Mailing, May 24, 2016, ECF No. 5.) On November 29, 2016, the Department of State confirmed that the documents were delivered to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, via the Embassy of Switzerland, under cover of diplomatic note, on October 18, 2016, and that service was refused that same day (see Return of Service/Affidavit, Dec. 6, 2016, ECF No. 7). Iran's answer was due on December 17, 2016. (Id.) No answer or other response to the complaint was filed by that date; nor has any been filed to date. On December 20, 2016, plaintiff requested that the Clerk ...


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