United States District Court, District of Columbia
CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER United States District Judge
October 2016, Labib Chammas pleaded guilty to abusive sexual
contact in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2244(a)(2). The
Court subsequently sentenced Chammas to a term of 30 months
of incarceration followed by five years of supervised
release. Currently before the Court is Chammas's pro
se motion to vacate both his conviction and sentence
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Chammas asserts that he
was denied the effective assistance of counsel at both the
plea and sentencing stages of his prosecution. In addition,
he requests that his § 2255 petition be assigned to a
different judge than the undersigned “to avoid any and
all potential biases that may exist, ” suggesting the
Court will not impartially review the petition because it is
familiar with the counsel Chammas now claims was ineffective.
Because there is no basis for Chammas's assertions of
judicial bias, the Court will decline that request. And, with
the exception of one issue as to which the Court will reserve
judgment pending the submission of additional evidence by the
government, the Court will also deny Chammas's §
2255 motion for relief from his conviction and sentence.
and his wife, the former Deputy Chief of Mission
(“DCM”) for the State Department in Rabat,
Morocco, lived at the DCM residence from August 2010 to
February 2013. Statement of the Offense at 49. During that
period, Chammas was responsible for managing the household
and staff. Id. at 50. According to employees,
Chammas “was an abusive head-of-household” who
frequently yelled at them and threatened to fire them.
Id. In February 2013, during a routine inspection of
the U.S. Embassy, the State Department's Office of the
Inspector General (“OIG”) received an anonymous
letter reporting that Chammas was sexually abusing a female
cook employed at the DCM residence. Aff. in Supp. of Crim.
Compl. and Arrest Warrant (“Affidavit”) at 10.
inspectors interviewed Chammas on February 13 and 14, 2013.
See Mem. of Interview of Labib Chammas
(“Chammas MOI”), Feb. 13, 2013 at 31-33; Chammas
MOI, Feb. 14, 2013 at 34-37. Chammas acknowledged having
sexual contact with the victim during massages, admitted
ejaculating during those massages, and conceded that his
penis came into contact with the victim's face on at
least one occasion. Id. The government executed a
search warrant of the DCM residence, collected potential
biological evidence, obtained a warrant for Chammas's
DNA, and determined that the DNA evidence was consistent with
the victim's account. Affidavit at 19-20. In the course
of the government's investigation into the reports of
abuse, the government also initiated a second investigation
into possible forced-labor practices at the DCM residence.
Sentencing Hr'g at 165-66.
the investigations were ongoing, Chammas traveled to Lebanon
with his wife in April 2015. Mot., ECF 33, ¶ 29. His
wife returned to the United States a month later, but Chammas
went to Syria ostensibly to resolve certain family and
employment issues. Id. Chammas left Syria and
returned to the United States in May 2016. Id. While
Chammas was abroad, the government decided to seek a warrant
for his arrest. Sentencing Hr'g at 166-67. Soon after he
returned from more than a year overseas, Chammas was arrested
at his home on May 19, 2016 and charged by complaint with
aggravated sexual abuse in violation of 18 U.S.C. §
2241(a)(1). That offense carries a maximum penalty of life
October 2016, Chammas pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of
abusive sexual contact in violation of 18 U.S.C. §
2244(a)(2). Plea Agreement at 38. As part of the plea
agreement, the parties agreed that the Statement of Offense,
which Chammas signed, fairly and accurately set forth his
offense conduct. Id. at 39. According to the
Statement, Chammas began asking the victim for massages soon
after moving into the DCM residence. During the course of
these massages, Chammas demanded that she massage his penis
with her hands; the victim complied out of fear that she
would be fired otherwise. Statement of Offense at 49-50. In
addition, on at least five occasions between August 2010 and
February 2013, Chammas attempted to insert his penis into the
victim's mouth against her will by pulling or attempting
to pull her head toward his penis. Id. at 50. In
each instance, the victim closed her mouth and turned her
face to the side. Id.
on the conduct described in the Statement, the parties also
agreed that Chammas's conduct supported an increase to
his offense level calculation under the Sentencing Guidelines
because his conduct involved the use of force in violation of
18 U.S.C. § 2241(a). Plea Agreement at 39. In addition,
because the Guidelines range for Chammas's offense
conduct exceeded the three-year maximum statutory penalty for
abusive sexual contact, the parties agreed that a
Guidelines-compliant sentence would be 36 months.
Id. at 40 n.1. Finally, the parties agreed that
Chammas would not seek a sentence of less than one year and a
day of incarceration. Id. at 41.
the plea, the Court granted defense counsel's request
that Chammas remain on release pending sentencing based on
Chammas's age (65 at the time) and various medical
conditions. See Oct. 24, 2016 Minute Order. At the
sentencing hearing on January 4, 2016, the Court reviewed the
18 U.S.C. § 3553 factors and imposed a below-Guidelines
sentence of 30 months of incarceration followed by five years
of supervised release. See Sentencing Hr'g at
January 2, 2018, Chammas filed a § 2255 motion seeking
relief based on seven instances of alleged ineffective
assistance of counsel. See Mot. On May 30, 2018, he
filed a supplement to his § 2255 motion which asserts an
additional claim of ineffective assistance. See
Suppl. Mot., ECF No. 39.
Recusal or reassignment
reaching the substance of Chammas's § 2255 motion,
the Court will address his request that the motion be
reassigned to a different judge in order to “avoid any
and all potential biases that may exist” because of the
Court's alleged familiarity with defense counsel. Mot.
¶ 93. “Recusal is required under 28 U.S.C. §
455 if ‘a reasonable and informed observer would
question the judge's impartiality, '”
United States v. Williamson, 903 F.3d 124, 137 (D.C.
Cir. 2018) (quoting SEC v. Loving Spirit Found.
Inc., 392. F.3d 486, 493 (D.C. Cir. 2004)), and
“under 28 U.S.C. § 144 if a judge ‘has a
personal bias or prejudice' either against or in favor of
a party, ” id. (quoting § 144). Chammas
alleges no credible basis for recusal under either section.
First, he suggests the Court demonstrated favoritism by
commenting at sentencing that defense counsel had “done
a terrific job.” Mot. ¶ 93 (citing Sentencing
Hr'g at 177:13). Chammas offers no authority for the
proposition that complimenting an attorney for high-quality
advocacy provides a basis for recusal in a future proceeding.
And in any event, Chammas ignores the rest of the Court's
comment, which was to thank counsel for both parties
and say the “submissions have been excellent” on
both sides. Sentencing Hr'g at 177:15-16. Second, he
suggests that the Court could be biased because of defense
counsel's purported friendship with the Court's wife.
Mot. ¶ 93. But even if the two are friends, no
reasonable observer would conclude that such friendship alone
overcomes the strong presumption of impartiality afforded to
the Court. The Court will therefore deny Chammas's
request for reassignment of his § 2255 motion.
Section 2255 relief
to the merits, a prisoner serving a federal sentence may
petition the court to vacate his sentence if he believes that
it “was imposed in violation of the Constitution or
laws of the United States . . . or is otherwise subject to
collateral attack[.]” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). The
petitioner bears the burden of proof and must demonstrate by
a preponderance of the evidence his right to relief.
United States v. Simpson, 475 F.2d 934, 935 (D.C.
Cir. 1973) (per curiam).
seeks to vacate his conviction and sentence on the basis that
he received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of
the Sixth Amendment. “The Sixth Amendment right to
counsel ‘is the right to the effective assistance of
counsel.'” Buck v. Davis, 137 S.Ct. 759,
775 (2017) (quoting Strickland v. Washington, 466
U.S. 668, 686 (1984)). To prevail, Chammas bears the burden
of showing first “that counsel's performance was
deficient” and second “that the deficient
performance prejudiced the defense.”
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. “The two-part
Strickland v. Washington test applies to challenges
to guilty pleas based on ineffective assistance of
counsel.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 58
the first prong of the Strickland test, Chammas must
prove that counsel's performance “fell below an
objective standard of reasonableness.”
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687- 88. This “sets a
high bar, ” Buck, 137 S.Ct. at 775:
“Judicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be
highly deferential” in light of the “strong
presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide
range of reasonable professional assistance, ”
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689. And although
“even an isolated error” can support an
ineffective-assistance claim if it is “sufficiently
egregious, ” Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478,
496 (1986), “it is difficult to establish ineffective
assistance when counsel's overall performance indicates
active and capable advocacy, ” Harrington v.
Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 111 (2011).
the second prong of the Strickland test, Chammas
must demonstrate a “reasonable probability that, but
for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the
proceeding would have been different.”
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. For Chammas's
claims regarding the plea-agreement phase, prejudice means
“a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's
errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have
insisted on going to trial.” Hill, 474 U.S. at
58- 59. And for Chammas's claims regarding the sentencing
phase, prejudice means a reasonable likelihood that but for
counsel's errors, he “would have received a lower
sentence.” United States v. Wilkins, 734
Fed.Appx. 1, 2 (D.C. Cir. 2018) (citing Glover v. United
States, 531 U.S. 198, 203-04 (2001)).
asserts eight independent grounds for his
ineffective-assistance claim. Because the record discloses no
Sixth Amendment violation on any of these grounds, the Court
will deny Chammas's § 2255 petition, except as to
the claim discussed in Subsection 6 below. And because, as
will follow, “the motion and the files and records of
the case conclusively show that [Chammas] is entitled to no
relief, ” the Court will also deny Chammas's