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Bathiard v. Islamic Republic of Iran

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 29, 2018

RITA BATHIARD et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On April 18, 1983, a suicide bomber crashed a truck full of explosives into the entrance of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, setting off a blast that killed 52 people. Among those who died was Cesar Bathiard, a Lebanese citizen working at the Embassy. His widow and daughters have now brought suit against the Islamic Republic of Iran under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, alleging that Iran was responsible for the attack and Bathiard's resulting death. Since Iran has not appeared, the Bathiards now seek a default judgment. But because this suit was not filed within the applicable statute of limitations, the Court will deny their motion and instead dismiss the case.

         I. Background

         Cesar Bathiard worked at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut for a little over a decade. Mot. Default J. Aff. 1, ¶ 4 (Aff. for Estate of Cesar Bathiard). In April 1983, he was employed by the Department of State as a driver for Robert S. Dillon, then the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon. Id. On April 18, 1983, Bathiard was in the lobby of the embassy, waiting for Ambassador Dillon to come downstairs, when an explosives-laden truck crashed into the building and detonated. Id. ¶ 5. He was killed instantly. Id.

         Over thirty years later, in August 2016, Bathiard's widow Marcelle El-Helou and his two daughters Rita Bathiard and Pascale Mazarei (collectively “the Bathiards”) filed suit on behalf of themselves and Cesar Bathiard's estate against the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security (collectively “Iran”). The Bathiards alleged that Iranian military and intelligence operatives financed and directed Hezbollah, the militant group that carried out the embassy bombing. Compl. ¶¶ 6, 10. They claimed that Iran had “complete operational control” of Hezbollah and provided high-level technical support and funding to Hezbollah without which the April 1983 embassy bombing would not have been possible. Id. ¶¶ 6-7. Their suit seeks to hold Iran liable for injuries stemming from Cesar Bathiard's death under a provision in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”) that authorizes suits by U.S. citizens or employees and their families against foreign sovereigns who are state sponsors of terrorism for their involvement in acts of terrorism, see 28 U.S.C. § 1605A.

         In September 2017, the Bathiards served Iran with process through diplomatic channels. When Iran failed to appear, they obtained a notice of default on November 29, 2017, and subsequently moved for a default judgment. Prior to resolving their motion, however, the Court directed the parties to file supplemental briefing addressing whether this suit was timely under the applicable statute of limitations. The Court now concludes that it was not.

         II. Legal Standard

         The FSIA provides the sole basis for obtaining jurisdiction over a foreign state in a United States court. The statute generally shields foreign sovereigns from being haled into court, but carves out exceptions allowing certain kinds of lawsuits to proceed. See Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela v. Helmerich & Payne Int'l Drilling Co., 137 S.Ct. 1312, 1320 (2017). One such exception greenlights lawsuits against foreign countries that have been designated by the U.S. government as a state sponsor of terrorism when the plaintiff seeks money damages for personal injury or death resulting from the defendant country's involvement in “an act of torture, extrajudicial killing, aircraft sabotage, hostage taking, or the provision of material support or resources for such an act.” 28 U.S.C. § 1605A. As originally enacted in 1996, this provision applied solely to U.S. nationals; it was amended in 2008 to also allow federal government employees who are not nationals to bring suits for personal injuries and deaths occurring while acting within the scope of their employment. See Sheikh v. Republic of Sudan, 172 F.Supp.3d 124, 126 (D.D.C. 2016).

         Under the FSIA, a plaintiff may obtain a default judgment when the defendant fails to enter an appearance. 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(b)(2). To prevail on such a motion, a plaintiff must establish her right to relief “by evidence satisfactory to the court.” 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e). Thus, rather than accept unsupported allegations as true, the Court must examine the plaintiff's allegations and any proof provided to ensure the plaintiff has carried her burden. See, e.g., Bluth v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 203 F.Supp.3d 1, 17 (D.D.C. 2016).

         III. Analysis

         The Court directed supplemental briefing on the question of whether the Bathiards' suit is timely under the FSIA. In their supplemental briefing, the Bathiards argue that their suit is timely either (1) as an original action brought within 10 years of the date their cause of action arose or (2) as an action related to a timely-filed original action involving the same bombing. See 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(b). The Court finds that their suit is not timely under either theory. Before addressing the arguments on timeliness, however, the Court will begin with a threshold argument raised by the Bathiards: whether it is proper for the Court to sua sponte consider whether they filed their suit within the statute of limitations.[1]

         A. Consideration of the Statute of Limitations

         The statute of limitations is typically an affirmative defense that is waived unless a defendant promptly raises it. See, e.g., Worley v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 75 F.Supp.3d 311, 328 (D.D.C. 2014). This principle applies to the statute of limitations in the FSIA, which the D.C. Circuit has held is nonjurisdictional. See Owens v. Republic of Sudan, 864 F.3d 751, 801-04 (D.C. Cir. 2017), petition for cert. filed (March 2, 2018).

         That said, the Supreme Court has recognized that in some situations “courts have the discretion, but not the obligation, to raise on their own initiative certain nonjurisdictional barriers to suit.” United Student Aid Funds, Inc. v. Espinosa, 559 U.S. 260, 277 n.14 (2010); see also, e.g., Day v. McDonough, 547 U.S. 198, 199 (2006) (holding that “district courts are permitted, but not obliged, to consider, sua sponte, the timeliness of a state prisoner's habeas petition”). Such sua sponte consideration “might be appropriate in special circumstances, ” such as when a defense implicates interests beyond those of the parties. Arizona v. California, 530 U.S. 392, 412 (2000); see also United States v. Mitchell, 518 F.3d 740, 750 (10th Cir. 2008) (“[W]hen a rule implicates judicial interests beyond those of the parties, it may be appropriate for a court to ...


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