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Dahman v. Embassy of State of Qatar

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 25, 2019




         Plaintiff El-Sayed Dahman brought this age-discrimination suit against both his former employer, the Embassy of Qatar, and the State of Qatar, alleging that they violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act in terminating him from his position as an accountant. Defendants never appeared, and Dahman successfully moved for a default judgment on liability. Finally arriving on the scene, Defendants now move on several grounds both to vacate the default and to dismiss the case. Agreeing that the suit does not belong here, the Court will grant the Motion.

         I. Background

         As the Court has already treated in detail the facts of this dispute, see Dahman v. Embassy of Qatar, 2018 WL 3597660, at *1 (D.D.C. July 26, 2018), a brief recap suffices here. Seventy-year-old Dahman began working as an accountant for the Embassy of Qatar here in Washington in 1995. He became Director of the Accounting Department the next year. Id. His employment was governed by a contract that provided that it would expire when he reached the age of 64 in February 2011. See ECF No. 16 (Motion for Default Judgment), Exh. 8 (Plaintiff's Employment Contract), ¶ 7.1. That date came and went, but Plaintiff kept working. Several years later, the Embassy finally terminated him on January 5, 2016. See Dahman, 2018 WL 3597660, at *1.

         On December 12, 2017, having received a right-to-sue notice from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Dahman brought this action against the Embassy and the State of Qatar (which, for ease of reference, the Court will refer to jointly as “Qatar”) for age discrimination in his termination in violation of the ADEA and the DCHRA. Id. He served both Defendants in February 2018 but received a response from neither. Id. As a result, he obtained the entry of default in April 2018. See ECF Nos. 13-14. He then moved the following month for default judgment. See ECF No. 16. Defendants did not challenge that either, and the Court issued a 20-page Opinion on July 26, 2018, addressing a number of issues, including the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. See Dahman, 2018 WL 3597660. It found Defendants liable and set a hearing to determine the proper amount of damages. Id. at *1.

         Three days before the damages hearing set for September 13, 2018, Defendants finally appeared, see ECF Nos. 19-20, and the Court permitted them to file a motion to vacate the liability judgment. See Minute Order of Sept. 13, 2018. Defendants now so move on three grounds: lack of subject-matter jurisdiction pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(4), forum non conveniens pursuant to Rule 60(b)(6), and for several additional reasons having to do with immunity for the State of Qatar and whether Dahman exhausted EEOC remedies. See ECF No. 22 (Motion to Vacate Default). Because the Court will vacate the default judgment on laibility and dismiss on forum non conveniens grounds, it need not address the other two bases for the Motion.

         II. Legal Standard

         Rule 60(b) provides “[g]rounds for [r]elief from a [f]inal [j]udgment, [o]rder, or [p]roceeding.” It enumerates in the first five subsections specific reasons that “[o]n motion and just terms, the court may relieve a party” from final judgment. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(1)-(5). Finally, it stipulates that the court may also do so for “any other reason that justifies relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(6). Under this provision, the Court has “broad” discretion to grant relief from judgment under “extraordinary circumstances.” Salazar v. Dist. of Columbia, 633 F.3d 1110, 1116 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (internal citations and quotations omitted).

         III. Analysis

         While courts must typically assure themselves of their own jurisdiction before proceeding to any other determination, see Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Environment, 523 U.S. 83, 94- 95 (1998), forum non conveniens presents a threshold issue, and the Court may “choose among threshold grounds for denying audience to a case on the merits, ” dismissing on forum non conveniens grounds “when considerations of convenience, fairness, and judicial economy so warrant.” Sinochem Int'l Co. v. Malaysia Int'l Shipping Co., 549 U.S. 422, 425, 431-32, 436 (2007) (citations omitted); see also Phoenix Consulting, Inc. v. Republic of Angola, 216 F.3d 36, 40 (D.C. Cir. 2000). The Court will do so here, opting to resolve forum non conveniens first as a clearly dispositive issue and avoiding the need to look elsewhere.

         Plaintiff rejoins that the Court must begin with jurisdiction because forum non conveniens can only be considered first where jurisdiction “is difficult to determine, and . . . forum non conveniens considerations weigh heavily in favor of dismissal.” ECF No. 23 (Opp.) at 13 (quoting Sinochem, 549 U.S. at 436). As the foregoing discussion made clear, however, the Court's discretion is not so limited. In any event, even if Plaintiff's precise formulation were correct, the course here would remain appropriate. That is because, as the following analysis will demonstrate, forum non conveniens considerations do weigh heavily in favor of dismissal, while the jurisdictional question - namely, whether an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act applies here to allow the suit to proceed - is a much closer question. See Dahman, 2018 WL 3597660, at *4-8 (discussing FSIA issue without input from Defendants).

         In asserting forum non conveniens here, Qatar argues that the forum-selection clause in Dahman's contract - namely, an arbitration clause - necessitates dismissal. See Atlantic Marine Constr. Co. v. U.S. Dist. Ct., 571 U.S. 49, 60 (2013) (“[T]he appropriate way to enforce a forum-selection clause pointing to a state or foreign forum is through the doctrine of forum non conveniens.”); see also D & S Consulting v. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 322 F.Supp.3d 45, 49- 50 (D.D.C. 2018) (similar). Although this case is in a somewhat different procedural posture, as the Court has already issued a judgment on liability, Dahman does not argue that Rule 60(b)(6)'s application should alter in any way the Court's ordinary forum non conveniens analysis or that Defendants should be otherwise penalized for their delay.

         The Court, accordingly, will proceed through the two-step examination the Supreme Court has enumerated for a forum non conveniens motion based on a forum-selection clause. See Atlantic Marine, 571 U.S. at 63 (describing how forum non conveniens “calculus changes . . . when the parties' contract contains a valid forum-selection clause”); see also D&S Consulting, 322 F.Supp.3d at 49 (describing the two-step analysis). First, the Court must determine the validity of the forum-selection clause. See Atlantic Marine, 571 U.S. at 62-63 & n.5. If the clause is valid, it should be “given controlling weight in all but the most exceptional cases.” Id. at 63 (citation omitted). The second step, therefore, is to determine whether ...

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