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Abedini v. Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 11, 2019

SAEED ABEDINI and ZIBANDEH ABEDINI GALANGASHY, Plaintiffs,
v.
GOVERNMENT OF THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          James E. Boasberg, United States District Judge

         The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act lays out a detailed statutory scheme for effecting service of process on a foreign state. On July 2, 2019, given some concerns apparent on the docket, this Court ordered Plaintiffs to show cause as to why they have complied with that scheme. They replied by sharing new service-related facts with the Court, which disclose a messy but proper course of service under the Act. They may thus proceed in their effort to obtain a default judgment.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs Saeed Abedini and his sister Zibandeh Abedini Galangashy filed suit against Defendant Islamic Republic of Iran on March 16, 2018. See ECF No. 1. Alleging that Mr. Abedini was taken hostage by Iran and tortured for more than three years, they seek compensatory and punitive damages. Id, ¶¶ 37-64. After Plaintiffs attempted service as described below, Defendants failed to appear and the Clerk entered a default on December 10, 2018. See ECF No. 14. Plaintiffs then moved for default judgment on April 5, 2019, see ECF No. 17, and the Court set an evidentiary hearing for July 12. See May 14, 2019, Minute Order.

         In preparing for that hearing, the Court noticed a possible issue with the manner in which Plaintiffs attempted to serve Iran. Seeking more information on this question, the Court on July 2, 2019, issued a Show Cause Order and vacated the hearing. See ECF No. 19. Plaintiffs responded on July 5, 2019, with significant added detail on their attempts at service, including email correspondence with an attorney at the State Department. See ECF No. 20 (Response to Show Cause Order) & Exh. 2 (State Emails).

         II. Analysis

         A. Law of Service

         The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act 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 Act, “[p]ersonal jurisdiction over a foreign state shall exist as to every claim for relief over which subject matter jurisdiction exists . . . so long as the defendant was properly served.” I.T. Consultants, Inc. v. Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 351 F.3d 1184, 1191 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         The Act lists, “in hierarchical order, ” four methods for serving a foreign state. Republic of Sudan v. Harrison, 139 S.Ct. 1048, 1054 (2019). The summons and complaint may be delivered, first, “in accordance with any special arrangement for service between the plaintiff and the foreign state or political subdivision, ” 28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(1), or, second, “in accordance with an applicable international convention on service of judicial documents.” Id., § 1608(a)(2). If the countries lack such agreements, defendants may be served through a third method, which involves sending the requisite documents “by any form of mail requiring a signed receipt . . . to the head of the ministry of foreign affairs of the foreign state concerned.” Id., § 1608(a)(3). And “if service cannot be made within 30 days” under that method, plaintiffs may resort to method four: sending the requisite documents to the Secretary of State for transmittal “through diplomatic channels to the foreign state.” Id., § 1608(a)(4); see also Harrison, 139 S.Ct. at 1054.

         The D.C. Circuit has explained that “a plaintiff must attempt service by the first method (or determine that it is unavailable) before proceeding to the second method, and so on .” Angellino v. Royal Family Al-Saud, 688 F.3d 771, 773 (D.C. Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Indeed, regarding the fourth method, the Court of Appeals has specified that “a plaintiff can serve the appropriate documents through the Department of State” only “if none of the first three methods works.” Barot v. Embassy of the Republic of Zambia, 785 F.3d 26, 27 (D.C. Cir. 2015); see also Azadeh v. Gov't of Islamic Republic of Iran, 318 F.Supp.3d 90, 101 (D.D.C. 2018); Estate of Hirshfeld v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 235 F.Supp.3d 45, 48 (D.D.C. 2017). These requirements are jurisdictional and strictly construed. See Barot 785 F.3d at 27 (“When serving a foreign sovereign, strict adherence to the terms of 1608(a) is required.”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Azadeh, 318 F.Supp.3d at 100 (“[W]ith respect to serving a foreign state under section 1608(a), a near miss is still a miss.”) (citation omitted); cf Bowles v. Russell 551 U.S. 205, 214 (2007) (“[T]his Court has no authority to create equitable exceptions to jurisdictional requirements.”).

         The Court issued its Show Cause Order because it was not certain Plaintiffs had met those requirements. Their sequencing did not seem to be in “strict adherence” to the terms of the statute, which greenlights transmitting documents to the State Department for diplomatic service only after a plaintiff has attempted service under § 1608(a)(3). See Barot, 785 F.3d at 27. Plaintiffs have now responded to the Show Cause Order with significantly more detail, which the Court now examines.

         B. Discussion

         Plaintiffs face no hurdles regarding methods one and two, as Iran lacks a service arrangement with Plaintiffs and is not party to an applicable legal convention. See Dep't of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Service of Process, https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/legal/travel-legal-considerations/internl-judicial-asst/Service-of-Process.html (last visited July 10, 2019, 11:20 AM) (discussing international service conventions); Hague Conf. on Private Int'l Law, Status Table, https://www.hcch.net/en/instruments/conventions/status-table/?cid=17 (last visited July 10, 2019, 11:20 AM) (showing Iran not signatory to Hague Convention on Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil or Commercial Matters).

         Yet, rather than try method three, Plaintiffs skipped right to method four. On April 26, 2018, they transmitted their documents to the State Department for diplomatic service under § 1608(a)(4) - without first attempting service by mail under § 1608(a)(3). See ECF No. 5 (Certificate of Transmittal Pursuant to 28 USC § 1608(a)(4)). Only after corresponding with the State Department did Plaintiffs try service by mail on May 14, 2018, more than two weeks after seeking diplomatic service. See State Emails ...


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