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Dahman v. The Embassy of State of Qatar

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 26, 2018

EL-SAYED DAHMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
THE EMBASSY OF THE STATE OF QATAR and THE STATE OF QATAR, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES E. BOASBERG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff El-Sayed Dahman brought this suit against both the Embassy of Qatar and the country itself, alleging that they violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act in terminating his employment as Chief Accountant for the Embassy here in Washington. When Defendants never appeared, the Clerk of the Court entered default against them, and Plaintiff now moves for a default judgment in the amount of $11, 224, 871. Finding sovereign immunity no bar to liability here and Dahman's claim meritorious, the Court will grant his Motion but order an evidentiary hearing to determine the appropriate amount of damages.

         I. Background

         Seventy-year-old Dahman is an Egyptian citizen and Virginia resident. See ECF No. 16, Exh. 4 (Declaration of Plaintiff), ¶¶ 1-2. He began working for the Washington-based Embassy of Qatar in 1995 as an accountant and became the Director of the Accounting Department the following year. Id., ¶¶ 3, 10-11. During his 21-year tenure he received “praise[ ] [for his] work performance, including the quality of [his] work, [his] loyalty and dedication, and the exercise of [his] expertise in [his] field.” Id., ¶¶ 3, 13. Plaintiff's contract with the Embassy, however, stated that it would expire when he reached age 64. Id., ¶ 11. Although Defendants waited for several years past that deadline, they “terminated him” on January 5, 2016. Id., ¶ 6. Plaintiff claims he was released “solely [because of his] age” without any other cause, evidenced by the express language in his termination letter. Id.; ECF No. 16, Exh. 10 (Termination Notice). On December 12, 2017, after receiving a right-to-sue notice from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Plaintiff brought this suit alleging two counts against the Embassy and State of Qatar for “unlawful[ ] discriminat[ion] . . . on the basis of [Plaintiff's] age”: 1) violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. § 621; and 2) violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, D.C. Code § 2-1401. See Compl., ¶¶ 32, 37.

         After serving both Defendants in February 2018 and receiving no response from either, Plaintiff filed Affidavits for Default against the Embassy and the State on April 12 and April 16, respectively. See ECF Nos. 11 (Embassy), 12 (State). The Clerk entered default as to both Defendants the following week. See ECF Nos. 13-14 (Entries of Default). On May 10, Plaintiff filed the current Motion for Default Judgment, see ECF No. 16, which has not been opposed.

         II. Legal Standard

         In seeking default judgment against a foreign state, Plaintiff needs to prove “his claim or right to relief by evidence satisfactory to the court, ” which Congress noted is the “same requirement applicable to default judgments . . . under rule 55(e), Fed. R. Civ. P.” 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e); H.R. REP. 94-1487, 26, 1976, reprinted in U.S.C.C.A.N. 6604, 6625. Default judgment may be entered where a defendant is “totally unresponsive, ” and its default is plainly willful, as reflected by its failure to respond to the summons and complaint, the entry of default, or the motion for default judgment. Gutierrez v. Berg Contracting Inc., 2000 WL 331721, at *1 (D.D.C. March 20, 2000) (citing Jackson, 636 F.2d at 836) (internal quotation omitted). In the “‘absence of any request to set aside the default or suggestion by the defendant that it has a meritorious defense,' it is clear that the standard for default judgment has been satisfied.” Int'l Painters & Allied Trades Indus. Pension Fund v. Auxier Drywall, LLC, 531 F.Supp.2d 56, 57 (D.D.C. 2008) (quoting Gutierrez, 2000 WL 331721, at *1).

         Nevertheless, “[m]odern courts are . . . reluctant to enter and enforce judgments unwarranted by the facts, ” Jackson, 636 F.2d at 835, and “a district court may still deny an application for default judgment where the allegations of the complaint, even if true, are legally insufficient to make out a claim.” Gutierrez, 2000 WL 331721, at *2 (citing Aldabe v. Aldabe, 616 F.2d 1089, 1092 (9th Cir. 1980)).

         Under the FSIA, moreover, there is a heightened standard for default judgment because of sovereign immunity. See 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e); Weinstein v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 175 F.Supp.2d 13, 19-20 (D.D.C. 2001) (“[D]efault judgments under the FSIA require additional findings than in the case of ordinary default judgments.”). The Court has “a duty to scrutinize [P]laintiff s allegations, ” and should not “unquestioningly accept a complaint's unsupported allegations, ” Reed v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 845 F.Supp.2d 204, 211 (D.D.C. 2012). Even if the foreign state fails to make an appearance, the court must still determine that an exception to immunity applies and that the plaintiff has a sufficient legal and factual basis for his claims. See Jerez v. Republic of Cuba, 777 F.Supp.2d 6, 18-19 (D.D.C. 2011).

         III. Analysis

         As one might expect when a foreign country or its embassy appears as a defendant, the critical threshold issue to resolve is that of sovereign immunity. In fact, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1330, is the “sole basis for obtaining jurisdiction over a foreign state in our courts.” Argentine Republic v. Amerada Hess Shipping Corp., 488 U.S. 428, 434 (1989). Under the FSIA, “a foreign state is presumptively immune from the jurisdiction of United States courts; unless a specified exception applies, a federal court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over a claim against a foreign state.” Saudi Arabia v. Nelson, 507 U.S. 349, 355 (1993). The Court must consequently make the initial determination that it has subject-matter jurisdiction before hearing the merits.

         Before proceeding to the FSIA analysis, another issue looms. While the Act indisputably applies to the State of Qatar, does the Embassy also enjoy its protection? The answer is clearly in the affirmative. The FSIA defines “foreign state” as “a political subdivision of a foreign state or an agency or instrumentality of a foreign state.” 28 U.S.C. § 1603(a). “Courts have uniformly found that embassies are ‘integral part[s] of a foreign state's political structure,' and therefore appropriately considered ‘foreign states' for FSIA purposes.” De Sousa v. Embassy of Repub. of Angola, 229 F.Supp.3d 23, 26 (D.D.C. 2017) (quoting Transaero, Inc. v. La Fuerza Aerea, 30 F.3d 148, 151 (D.C. Cir. 1994)). The FSIA thus applies to the Embassy here.

         In looking at the FSIA, there are two issues that arise - namely, personal and subject-matter jurisdiction. The Act's “‘interlocking provisions' . . . compress subject-matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction into a single, two-pronged inquiry: (1) whether service of the foreign state was accomplished properly, and (2) whether one of the statutory exemptions to sovereign immunity applies.” Abur v. Republic of Sudan, 437 F.Supp.2d 166, 172 (D.D.C. 2006) (quoting Mar. Int'l Nominees Estab't v. Republic of Guinea, 693 F.2d 1094, 1099 (D.C. Cir. 1982)). Dahman believes he has satisfied both prongs. The Court will address each in turn and then briefly look at the merits and the issue of damages.

         A. Service of Process

         Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(j)(1), one who serves a “foreign state or its political subdivision, agency, or instrumentality must [do so] in accordance with 28 U.S.C. §1608”; see also 28 U.S.C. § 1330(b) (“Personal jurisdiction over a foreign state shall exist as to every claim for relief over which the district courts have jurisdiction under subsection (a) where service has been made under section 1608 of this title.”). Here service was effected on both the State and the Embassy.

         1. The State of Qatar

         For the State of Qatar, § 1608(a) controls, and it provides that service on a foreign state or its political subdivision must be made

(1) by delivery of a copy of the summons and complaint in accordance with any special arrangement for service between the plaintiff and the foreign ...

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