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Azadeh v. The Government of Islamic Republic of Iran

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 11, 2018

AFSANEH AZADEH, Plaintiff,
v.
GOVERNMENT OF THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION (PUBLIC VERSION OF ECF NO. 30)

          KETANJI BROWN JACKSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Judges are sometimes called upon to set aside heart-wrenching and terrible facts about a claimant's treatment at the hands of a defendant and enforce seemingly draconian, technical mandates of law. This is an especially difficult duty when the machinery of the judicial system itself appears to have played a role in the claimant's mistaken view of the applicable legal requirements. The somber circumstances of the instant case present one such scenario: Plaintiff Asfaneh Azadeh has sued the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran (“Iran”) and the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (“Islamic Revolutionary Guard” or collectively “Defendants”) for the uncontested and inhumane atrocities she suffered during the three months she spent wrongfully imprisoned in an Iranian jail, but she cannot obtain the judgment she seeks and may well deserve, without strict adherence to the procedural requirements of the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (“FSIA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1601, et seq. Azadeh undertook to satisfy the FSIA's personal-jurisdiction prescriptions by serving her complaint on Iran pursuant to Title 28 sections 1330(b) and 1608 of the United States Code, in conjunction with guidance on the subject that appeared on the United States District Court for District of Columbia's website; however, in so doing, Azadeh effected service under 28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(4) before attempting service under 28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(3), which the law does not permit. See Barot v. Embassy of the Republic of Zambia, 785 F.3d 26, 27 (D.C. Cir. 2015).

         As a result, this Court cannot adopt the entirety of Magistrate Judge Harvey's Report and Recommendation (“R & R”, ECF No. 27), which is before this Court at present, and instead, must STAY its consideration of that recommendation until Azadeh proceeds to serve Defendants under 28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(4) once again. The relevant motion for a default judgment will be DENIED without prejudice, for want of personal jurisdiction, and once Azadeh cures the service defect, this Court will have the requisite authority to adopt the remainder of Magistrate Judge Harvey's thorough R & R and enter a default judgment in Azadeh's favor, if appropriate. See Sinochem Int'l Co., Ltd. v. Malay. Int'l Shipping Corp., 549 U.S. 422, 430-31 (2007) (“[A] federal court generally may not rule on the merits of a case without first determining that it has jurisdiction over the category of claim in suit (subject-matter jurisdiction) and the parties (personal jurisdiction).”); see also Mwani v. bin Laden, 417 F.3d 1, 6 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (“[A] court should satisfy itself that it has personal jurisdiction before entering judgment against an absent defendant.”).

         I. BACKGROUND[*]

         On July 18, 2016, Azadeh filed a civil complaint against Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard in this Court, bringing various tort claims under federal and state law arising from the torture she allegedly experienced during a three-month detention in Evin Prison. (See Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶¶ 51-81.) Among other things, Azadeh was repeatedly “subjected to mock executions . . . [and] hours-long interrogations during which she was beaten, whipped, threatened, and intimidated.” (Id. ¶ 1.) She was also “poisoned and forced to take ‘truth pills' on a daily basis[, ] . . . [and she] lived in” an unsanitary “cell that was a mere six feet wide” without lighting, windows, or a bed. (Id.) Azadeh's captors regularly woke her in the middle of the night (Decl. of Asfaneh Azadeh, ECF No. 12-2, ¶ 24); denied her necessary medical treatment (id. ¶¶ 26, 32); caused her to suffer a miscarriage (id. ¶ 35); subjected her to extreme psychological abuse (id. ¶¶ 27-29, 37, 39); and drove her to attempt suicide (id. ¶¶ 42-43). Thus, Azadeh's lawsuit brings claims against Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard for torture, assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false imprisonment. (See Id. ¶¶ 51-81), and seeks an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages (see Id. (Prayer for Relief)).

         On August 4, 2016, Azadeh attempted to serve her complaint on Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard under 28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(4), by having the clerk of the court send two copies of the summons, complaint, notice of suit, and a translation of those documents to the Director of Special Consular Services within the State Department, who was to transmit one copy of these documents to Defendants through diplomatic channels. (See Aff. Requesting Foreign Mailing, ECF No. 5, at 1.)[1] Azadeh attempted service in this manner first-rather than starting with service by mail under 28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(3)-largely due to a statement contained in “the Attorney Manual for Service of Process on a Foreign Defendant, issued by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia[, ]” which appeared to authorize this course of action. (Pl.'s Resp. to Order to Show Cause, ECF No. 20, at 2-3.) At the time that Azadeh consulted it, the Manual stated in relevant part that

[t]he countries of Iran and Iraq have not objected to service by mail. However, many attempts at service by mail or courier are unsuccessful. Therefore, it is okay for an attorney to request service directly through diplomatic channels (28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(4)) without attempting service under any other provision first.

         Azadeh made such a request for diplomatic services, as mentioned, and the clerk of the court complied. (See Certificate of Clerk, ECF No. 6, at 1.) Then, on February 1, 2017, the State Department indicated that it had transmitted Azadeh's documents through diplomatic channels to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on January 17, 2017. (See Return of Service and Aff., ECF No. 8, at 1.)

         Believing that she had properly served Iran, and knowing that neither Iran nor the Islamic Revolutionary Guard had responded to her complaint, Azadeh petitioned the clerk for an entry of default on March 22, 2017. (See Aff. for Default, ECF No. 10.) The clerk of the court entered the requested default the very next day. (See Entry of Default, ECF No. 11.) Azadeh subsequently moved for a default judgment against Defendants (see Pl.'s Mot. for Default J. (“Pl.'s Mot.”), ECF No. 13, at 1), after which this Court referred the entire matter to Magistrate Judge Harvey for full case management (see October 10, 2017 Minute Entry).

         On June 13, 2018, Magistrate Judge Harvey issued a fifty-three page R & R recommending that Plaintiff Azadeh's motion for a default judgment be granted. (See R & R at 2.) Magistrate Judge Harvey addressed various legal issues in reaching this conclusion, and ultimately determined that (1) the Court has subject-matter jurisdiction over the instant dispute under the FSIA (see Id. at 20-27); (2) the Court may properly exercise personal jurisdiction over Defendants consistent with the FSIA (see Id. at 27- 33); (3) Defendants are in fact liable to Azadeh for an array of tortious actions (see Id. at 33-38); and (4) Azadeh is entitled to damages consisting of $13, 028, 889 for her pain and suffering, $5, 176, 733 in economic damages, and a punitive damages award of $18, 205, 622 (see Id. at 38-52). Moreover, as relevant here, Magistrate Judge Harvey specifically grappled with the issue of what steps are required to serve a foreign sovereign under the FSIA, and, prior to reaching his conclusions regarding personal jurisdiction, he expressly required Azadeh to effect service by mail.

         To be specific, on April 23, 2018, Magistrate Judge Harvey expressed to Azadeh his concern that she had only attempted to serve the defendants through diplomatic channels under 28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(4), and was thus seeking a default judgment without having attempted to serve Iran or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard under section 1608(a)(3). (See Order to Show Cause, ECF No. 17, at 1-2 (explaining that “recent decisions from this Court have held that service on Iran may not be perfected solely via diplomatic channels pursuant to section 1608(a)(4)”; rather, “service [must] be attempted first via a form of mail requiring a signed receipt pursuant to section 1608(a)(3)”).) Azadeh responded to Magistrate Judge Harvey's order by claiming, inter alia, that “[i]t is highly prejudicial to Ms. Azadeh to inform her, well over a year after service was made under (a)(4), that she first should have attempted service under (a)(3), despite what the [c]ourt's own Attorney Manual provides and despite the [c]ourt's practice in other cases” (Pl.'s Resp. to Order to Show Cause at 14), and she further argued that “the Court should not require service to be made again” under section 1608(a)(4) (id. at 15).

         In the meantime, on May 4, 2018, Azadeh asked the clerk of the court to mail one copy of the summons, complaint, and a translation of each to Iran's ministry of affairs, pursuant to the procedure laid out in section 1608(a)(3). (See Affs. Requesting Foreign Mailing, ECF Nos. 21 & 22.) On May 29, 2018, Azadeh reported that this service by mail “was attempted and refused on May 20, 2018[, ]” and she thereby established that service could not be made under section 1608(a)(3) in the instant case. (Pl.'s 2d Status Report, ECF No. 25, at 2.) Azadeh also insisted that “the [c]ourt should not require Plaintiff to again serve through diplomatic channels under [28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(4)].” (Id.)

         Magistrate Judge Harvey agreed that Azadeh's service should be considered sufficient at that point, and issued the aforementioned R & R on June 13, 2018. In regard to the FSIA's personal jurisdiction requirements, the R & R asserts that “Plaintiff's efforts at service to date [should] be deemed sufficient under section 1608(a) for entry of a default judgment against Defendants” (R & R at 32), for a number of reasons. First, the R & R reasons that section 1608(a) can be interpreted as setting forth service requirements that appear in “‘descending order of preference,' not obligation[.]” (Id. (quoting Barot, 785 F.3d at 27).) In addition, the R & R contends that, given Azadeh's prior compliance with the diplomatic channels requirement (to which defendants did not respond), there was “no reason to believe the outcome” of such service “would be any different” the second time around, and no “conceivable purpose” existed for making Azadeh go through such an “empty gesture[.]” (Id.) The R & R also emphasized that Azadeh had only undertaken good-faith efforts to serve Defendants (id. at 33), and that she had done so partly based on the erroneous districtwide guidance laid out in the Attorney Manual for Service of Process on a Foreign Defendant (see id.). Moreover, the R & R observed that Azadeh would likely suffer severe prejudice if she was required to proceed to serve defendants again under section 1608(a)(4) (see Id. at 32-33), because embarking upon any such effort would mean that she would likely miss the predetermined September 2018 deadline to submit her claim (accompanied by a judgment in her favor in this matter) to the United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund for payment (see Id. at 31).

         Taken together, these significant considerations persuaded the Magistrate Judge that the equities “weighed in favor of finding Plaintiff's service on Defendants sufficient[, ]” and thus, he recommended that “this Court find that it has personal jurisdiction under the FSIA over Defendants.” (Id. at 33.) To this day, neither Iran nor the Islamic Revolutionary Guard has appeared in the instant matter, and their fourteen-day window to object to the Magistrate Judge's R & R has now passed. This Court is also unaware of any additional effort by Azadeh to effect service through ...


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