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Estate of Steinberg v. The Islamic Republic of Iran

United States District Court, District of Columbia

November 15, 2019

THE ESTATE OF MAX STEINBERG, et al. Plaintiffs,
v.
THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN and THE SYRIAN ARAB REPUBLIC, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Royce C. Lamberth, United States District Judge

         Max Steinberg, an American citizen fighting for the Israeli army, was ambushed and killed in Gaza City on July 20, 2014. Compl. ¶¶ 41-42, ECF No. 1. Plaintiffs-Max's estate, parents, and siblings-have brought claims and seek damages pursuant to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act ("FSIA") against the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Syrian Arab Republic. Id. ¶ 1. Pending before the Court is plaintiffs' motion for default judgment. ECF No. 18. For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that the plaintiffs' motion will be GRANTED.

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiffs filed their original complaint on September 18, 2017. Compl., ECF No. 1. Their causes of action are premised on § 1605 A of the FSIA, as is this Court's jurisdiction. Iran was served with process on May 16, 2018. ECF No. 12. Syria was served with process on June 20, 2018. ECF No. 15. Neither defendant made a response and neither has appeared in this case'. The Clerk of the Court entered default against Iran on July 25, 2018, and against Syria on October 15, 2018. ECF Nos. 14, 17. Plaintiffs have now moved for entry of default judgment against defendants, both as to liability and damages. Mot. Default J., ECF No. 18.

         II. Findings of Fact

         Section 1608(e) of the FSIA prohibits courts from entering a default judgment "unless the claimant establishes his claim or right to relief by evidence satisfactory to the court." 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e). The Court cannot "simply accept a complaint's unsupported allegations as true," and must "inquire further before entering judgment against parties in default." Rimkus v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 750 F.Supp.2d 163, 171 (D.D.C. 2010) (internal quotations omitted). In considering evidence and making findings of fact, the Court may rely on affidavits and may take judicial notice of prior related proceedings. Id.

         A. The Attack

         On July 20, 2014, Max's Israeli army unit initiated a mission to discover and destroy underground tunnels used by Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist organization. Dr. Ronni Shaked Expert Decl. ¶¶ 55-56, ECF No. 18-2.[1] During the mission, Hamas terrorists launched rocket-propelled grenades at an Israeli armored vehicle, killing Max and six of his fellow soldiers. Id. ¶ 56. Following the attack, Hamas kidnapped the body of Shaul Oron, a soldier from Max's brigade who had also been killed. Id. ¶ 57.

         Shortly thereafter, Hamas took credit for the attack. Id. ¶ 58. It disseminated its claim of responsibility through its website, where it claimed that "fighters of the Izzadin Al-Qassam Battalions were able to ambush an armored carrier and kill 14 soldiers." Id. In a video clip broadcast on television, a Hamas spokesman confirmed personal details of its dead captive, Oron. Id. ¶ 59. The backdrop of the video displayed a Hamas flag. Id. According to plaintiffs' expert Dr. Shaked, "[o]fficial sources in Israel, the Prime Minister's Office, the Foreign Ministry and [the Israeli army] Spokesman confirmed that Hamas carried out the terrorist attack." Id. ¶ 65.

         B. Defendants' Support of Hamas

         Hamas is described by the State Department as "an outgrowth of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood" that "has conducted anti-Israeli attacks, including suicide bombings against civilian targets inside Israel." U.S. Dep't of State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2014 at 292 (2015) [hereinafter Country Reports on Terrorism]. It has been "the most successful of all [Palestinian] terrorist organizations over the past 30 years," and "strives to establish a Palestinian state founded on Islamic law ... in place of the state of Israel." Dr. Shaked Expert Decl. ¶ 34, ECF No. 18-2. "Hamas sanctifies Jihad as the sole method of action to destroy the State of Israel." Id.

         Iran has been designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism since 1984 "and continued its terrorist-related activity in 2014." Country Reports on Terrorism at 284. "Iran has historically provided weapons, training, and funding to Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups ...." Id. at 285. Historical Iranian support of Hamas is well-documented by the State Department and acknowledged by this Court. See Roth v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 78 F.Supp.3d 379, 388-89 (D.D.C. 2015). In 2012, however, relations between Hamas and Iran stalled. Dr. Matthew Levitt Expert Decl. 26, ECF No. 18-3.[2] Hamas's refusal to support Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's regime against rebellion distressed Assad's Iranian allies. Id. at 26-27. Iran began to withhold substantial funds from Hamas. Id. at 27. But relations appeared to be on the mend the following year. Speaking in late 2014, Iran's Supreme Leader "highlighted Iran's military support to 'Palestinian brothers' in Gaza and called for the West Bank to be similarly armed. In December, 2014, Hamas Deputy Leader Moussa Abu Marzouk announced bilateral relations with Iran and Hamas were 'back on track."' Country Reports on Terrorism at 285. Plaintiffs' expert Dr. Levitt claims that even in the midst of the political controversy, Iran continued to fund Hamas's military wing. Dr. Levitt Expert Decl. 27, ECF No. 18-3. Dr. Levitt also cites Iranian officials in 2014 explicitly stating that "Iran is supporting Hamas," and that "[m]uch of the arms Hamas deployed were the products of the Islamic Republic of Iran." Id. (quotations omitted). Six months before Max's killing, an aide to a Hamas leader confirmed that "relations between [Hamas and Iran] are now almost back to how they were before [the crisis over Syria]. We believe we will soon be back at that point." Id. The State Department's report on terrorism for 2014 summarized: "Since the conclusion of [an Israeli military offensive], Iranian governmental officials have publicly stated a willingness to resume Iran's military support of Hamas, including arming Hamas in the West Bank with the same weapons as in Gaza, but it remains unclear whether efforts have resumed." Country Reports on Terrorism at 173.

         Syria, meanwhile, has been designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism since 1979. Country Reports on Terrorism at 287. This Court has noted that "Hamas undertook to carry out acts of extrajudicial killing and terrorism against Jews in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and in return Syria undertook to provide Hamas with material support and resources to carry out such extrajudicial killings and terrorist attacks." Roth v. Syrian Arab Republic, 2018 WL 4680270, at *3 (D.D.C. Sept. 28, 2018) (quoting Braun v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 228 F.Supp.3d 64, 71 (D.D.C. 2017)). For years, Syria provided safe haven to Hamas. Id. The terrorist group operated its headquarters out of Damascus until 2012. Id. "In fact, Syrian military intelligence worked closely with Hamas military leaders in Syria, and [instructions for terrorist attacks were transmitted directly from Damascus to the terrorist cell that was to carry out the attack." Id. (internal quotations omitted). Through Syria, Hamas channeled financial support, smuggled weapons, and conducted training. Id. Hamas and Syria cut ties in 2012 following the aforementioned Syrian civil war rift, but Hamas continued to benefit from the substantial support that it had received from Syria up to that point. Dr. Levitt Expert Decl. 26, 38, ECF No. 18-3.

         C. Plaintiffs' Status and Injuries

         The Court now makes findings regarding each plaintiff, including the injuries each plaintiff suffered as a result of Max Steinberg's killing and each plaintiffs citizenship (as is relevant to their entitlement to recover under § 1605 A of the FSIA).

         1. Max Steinberg

         Max Steinberg was killed in the July 20, 2014, attack. Dr. Shaked Expert Decl. ¶ 56, ECF No. 18-2. He was 24 years old. Id. ¶ 28. He is represented in this litigation by his father, Stuart Steinberg, who serves as special administrator of Max's estate. Compl. ¶ 9, ECF No. 1. Max was a United States citizen. Stuart Steinberg Decl. ¶ 19, ECF No. 18-7.

         2. Stuart Steinberg

         Stuart Steinberg is Max Steinberg's father. Stuart Steinberg Decl. ¶ 3, ECF No. 18-7. He constantly reckons with the reality that he will never see, hug, or speak with his son ever again. Id. ¶ 6. To him, the loss is incomparable. Id. Max's birth had coincided with the loss of Stuart's own mother, and his love filled a void that is once again empty. Id. ¶ 7. After experiencing the paternal satisfaction of watching his son grow from boy to man, Stuart then endured having to see his son cut down in the prime of his youth. Id. ¶ 11. His emotional trauma caused him to step' down from a promotion and has hindered him financially. Id. ¶ 13-14. He sees no end to his grief. Id. ¶ 16.

         3. Evie Steinberg

         Evie Steinberg is Max Steinberg's mother. Evie Steinberg Decl. ¶ 3, ECF No. 18-6. Her declaration describes a devastated woman, riddled with anxiety and victim to sleeplessness and panic attacks. Id. ¶ 6. The loss of her son has sapped her enjoyment of life and caused her to mask her brokenness for the sake of her family. Id. ¶ 7, 11. Holidays that were once eagerly anticipated are now dreaded reminders of life without Max. Id. ¶ 8. The emotional weight of the loss has fostered neglect of her health, finances, and relationships. Id. ¶ 10, 15, 16.

         4. Jake Steinberg

         Jake Steinberg is Max Steinberg's brother. Jake Steinberg Decl. ¶ 3, ECF No.' 18-9. Jake describes health issues stemming from his emotional trauma: hair loss, weight fluctuations, and sleeplessness among them. Id. ¶ 6. He worked less and earned less. Id. His law school ambitions faded away. Id. ¶ 7. To Jake, the future looks much less bright without Max in it. Id. ¶ 10.

         5. Paige Steinberg

         Paige Steinberg is Max Steinberg's sister. Paige Steinberg Decl. ¶ 3, ECF No. 18-8. Since Max's death she has felt robbed of peace and unable to relax. Id. ¶ 7. To cope with the loss she moved from her home in the United States to Israel, where Max was killed. Id. ¶ 5. She sought out lower paying jobs that offered more flexibility so she would have personal time to attempt to heal. Id. ¶ 9. She attributes her seemingly constant illness to the stress brought on by Max's death. Id. ¶ 8.

         III. CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

         A. Sovereign Immunity

         The FSIA 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). Foreign sovereign immunity is "a matter of grace and comity on the part of the United States, and not a restriction imposed by the Constitution." Verlinden B. V. v. Central Bank of Nigeria,461 U.S. 480, 486 (1983). Only specifically enumerated exceptions to that principle may authorize a district court to assert subject matter jurisdiction over claims against a foreign state. Odhiambo v. Republic of Kenya, 764 F.3d 31, ...


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