Fritz v. Islamic Republic of Iran, Civil Action No. 15-456 (RDM)

CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
Writing for the CourtRANDOLPH D. MOSS, United States District Judge
Citation320 F.Supp.3d 48
Parties Noala FRITZ, et al., Plaintiffs, v. ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, et al., Defendants.
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 15-456 (RDM)
Decision Date02 August 2018

320 F.Supp.3d 48

Noala FRITZ, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, et al., Defendants.

Civil Action No. 15-456 (RDM)

United States District Court, District of Columbia.

Signed August 2, 2018


320 F.Supp.3d 55

Edward B. MacAllister, Emily Amick, Joshua K. Perles, Steven Robert Perles, Perles Law Firm, PC, Gwen S. Green, Michael J. O'Leary, Steven William Pelak, Holland & Hart LLP, Washington, DC, for Plaintiffs.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

RANDOLPH D. MOSS, United States District Judge

This case arises from the abductions and murders of four U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq. In January 2007, First Lieutenant Jacob Fritz, Specialist Johnathan Bryan Chism, and Private First Class Shawn Falter were abducted from the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala, Iraq and, shortly thereafter, murdered by their captors. In October 2006, Staff Sergeant Ahmed A1–Taie was abducted while in Baghdad, held hostage, and, ultimately, murdered. Plaintiffs, the estates and family members of the four direct victims, contend that "[t]hese two separate incidents of kidnapping and murder are linked" because "both were planned and executed mere months apart" by the same terrorist organization: Asaib Ahl al-Haq ("AAH"), a network of Iraqi Shia militias. Dkt. 38 at 1. Significantly, plaintiffs assert that AAH benefited from and relied on "training, funding, direction, and support" from Iran, which Iran provided as part of a "coordinated scheme ... to target U.S. service-members in Iraq." Id. Without Iranian aid, Plaintiffs continue, AAH could not have carried out the Karbala attack nor evaded the U.S. military's search for Staff Sergeant Al-Taie.

Plaintiffs, all except one of whom are U.S. nationals, bring this action against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (collectively, "Iran"), and five "John Doe" defendants. To establish subject matter jurisdiction, they invoke the state-sponsored terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act ("FSIA"). 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(a). They rely on another provision in the statute, § 1605A(c), to supply a federal cause of action, alleging that Iran provided "material support" to AAH, which in turn engaged in acts of extrajudicial killing, hostage taking, and torture. Id. § 1605A(c). Plaintiffs also assert state common law claims for wrongful death, battery, assault, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress including solatium, survival damages, conspiracy, and aiding and abetting. Iran, in the form of either the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ("IRGC"), has not answered or otherwise appeared in this action and, at Plaintiffs' request, the clerk of the court has entered a default as

320 F.Supp.3d 56

to both Defendants. Dkt. 23; Dkt. 39. The John Doe defendants have not been served, and thus the Court's decision does not apply to those defendants.

Plaintiffs have moved for a default judgment against the Islamic Republic of Iran and the IRGC, Dkt. 64, and for the appointment of a special master to conduct damages proceedings, Dkt. 49. As explained below, the U.S. national plaintiffs have established their right to relief under 28 U.S.C. § 1605A. Plaintiffs concede, however, that because plaintiff Bashar Al-Taie is not a U.S. national, he is not entitled to relief under 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(c). The Court concludes, moreover, that Bashar Al-Taie has failed, at least at this stage of the litigation, to establish that he is entitled to relief based on his state law claims. Accordingly, Plaintiffs' motion for the entry of a default judgment against the Islamic Republic of Iran and the IRGC will be GRANTED as to the U.S. national plaintiffs and DENIED without prejudice as to Bashar Al-Taie. See 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e). Having found that the U.S. national plaintiffs have established Defendants' liability to the satisfaction of the Court, the Court will GRANT Plaintiffs' motion for the appointment of a special master as to the U.S. national plaintiffs, DENY the motion without prejudice as to Bashar Al-Taie, and APPOINT a special master to hear the damage claims of the U.S. national plaintiffs and to report to the Court regarding the appropriate award.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs, the estates of the four U.S. soldiers and twenty-two of their family members, bring this action for damages against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and five unidentified "senior Iranian government officials and members of the IRGC" who, Plaintiffs allege, "planned, supported, and approved the abduction[s] and murder[s]" of Fritz, Chism, Falter, and Al-Taie. Dkt. 9 at 6–10, 12 (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 11–31, 37). They effected service on the Islamic Republic of Iran and the IRGC in January 2017 and December 2017, respectively, and neither Defendant has answered, filed a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12, or otherwise appeared. See Dkt. 21; Dkt. 37. Accordingly, at Plaintiffs' request, the clerk of the court declared the Islamic Republic of Iran in default on August 14, 2017, Dkt. 23, and declared the IRGC in default on March 27, 2018, Dkt. 39.

Plaintiffs now seek entry of a default judgment with respect to liability against both Defendants pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55. Dkt. 64. Even in a garden variety case, the entry of a default judgment is not automatic and requires the exercise of sound discretion. See Mwani v. bin Laden , 417 F.3d 1, 6 (D.C. Cir. 2005) ; Sanchez v. Devashish Hospitality, LLC , 322 F.R.D. 32, 36 (D.D.C. 2017) ; Boland v. Yoccabel Const. Co., Inc. , 293 F.R.D. 13, 17 (D.D.C. 2013) (citing Jackson v. Beech , 636 F.2d 831, 836 (D.C. Cir. 1980) ). Most notably, the Court must—at a minimum—satisfy itself that it has subject matter jurisdiction over the claims and personal jurisdiction over the defendants. See Jerez v. Republic of Cuba , 775 F.3d 419, 422 (D.C. Cir. 2014) ("A default judgment rendered in excess of a court's jurisdiction is void."); Mwani , 417 F.3d at 6 (explaining that the Court must "satisfy itself that it has personal jurisdiction before entering judgment against an absent defendant").

In cases brought against a foreign state, however, the Court's discretion to enter a default judgment is more narrowly circumscribed. By statute, no federal or state court may enter a default judgment against a foreign state or instrumentality

320 F.Supp.3d 57

"unless the claimant establishes his claim or right to relief by evidence satisfactory to the court." 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e). This is the same standard that applies to default judgments against the United States under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55(d). See Owens v. Republic of Sudan , 864 F.3d 751, 785 (D.C. Cir. 2017) ; Hill v. Republic of Iraq , 328 F.3d 680, 683 (D.C. Cir. 2003). In a case, such as this, alleging that a foreign state materially supported acts of terrorism, the district court must determine "how much and what kinds of evidence the plaintiff must provide." Han Kim v. Democratic People's Republic of Korea , 774 F.3d 1044, 1047 (D.C. Cir. 2014). But the Court must do so in light of Congress's purpose in enacting § 1605A—that is, to "compensate the victims of terrorism [so as to] punish foreign states who have committed or sponsored such acts and [to] deter them from doing so in the future," id. at 1048 (citation omitted)—and the difficulty in obtaining "firsthand evidence and eyewitness testimony ... from an absent and likely hostile sovereign," Owens , 864 F.3d at 785. This means that, to obtain a default judgment against Iran, plaintiffs must (1) carry their burden of producing evidence sufficient to show that their claims fall within the state-sponsored terrorism exception to the FSIA, see 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(a) ; Owens , 864 F.3d at 784 ; (2) establish that defendants were served in accordance with the FSIA, see 28 U.S.C. § 1608(a) ; and (3) establish their right to relief under federal, see 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(c), or state law, Owens , 864 F.3d at 809 ("the pass-through approach remains viable"), by offering evidence "satisfactory to the court," 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e).

Against this backdrop, the Court held a four-day hearing on liability, Dkt. 51 (Transcript of Evidentiary Hearing, Apr. 10, 2018); Dkt. 52 (Transcript of Evidentiary Hearing, Apr. 11, 2018); Dkt. 53 (Transcript of Evidentiary Hearing, Apr. 12, 2018); Dkt. 54 (Transcript of Evidentiary Hearing, Apr. 13, 2018), and received additional evidentiary submissions, Dkt. 55, as well as proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law from plaintiffs, Dkt. 59-1. In the course of the hearing, the Court applied the Federal Rules of Evidence, but did so on the understanding that, first, it has "the authority—indeed, ... the obligation—to ‘adjust [evidentiary requirements] to ... differing situations,’ " Han Kim , 774 F.3d at 1048 (quoting Bundy v. Jackson , 641 F.2d 934, 951 (D.C. Cir. 1981) ) (modifications in Han Kim ), and, second, that the Court need not "step into the shoes of the defaulting party and pursue every possible evidentiary challenge," Owens , 864 F.3d at 785. Recognizing that expert testimony is not only entirely proper, but often sufficient, id. at 788, and even indispensable in "terrorism cases ... because firsthand evidence of terrorist activities is difficult, if not impossible to obtain," id. at 787, the...

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29 practice notes
  • Ackley v. Islamic Republic of Iran, Civil Action 20-cv-621 (BAH)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • August 12, 2022
    ...by the U.S. Department of State “since January 19, 1984.” Blais, 459 F.Supp.2d at 47; see also, e.g., Fritz v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 320 F.Supp.3d 48, 77 (D.D.C. 2018); U.S. Dep't of State, State Sponsors of Terrorism, https://www.state.gov/j/ct/list/c14151.htm (last visited July 30, 20......
  • Turan Petroleum, Inc. v. Ministry of Oil & Gas of Kaz., Civil Action No. 10-2102 (RBW)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • April 26, 2019
    ...and must dismiss the case."). Although the foreign defendant in this case has "fail[ed] to appear," Fritz v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 320 F. Supp. 3d 48, 76 (D.D.C. 2018), such failure does not waive the defense because the Court nevertheless "must satisfy itself that a[ ] FSIA plaintiff h......
  • Karcher v. Islamic Republic of Iran, Civil Action No. 16-232 (CKK)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • August 26, 2019
    ...Center ("PJCC") in Karbala. Nov. 28, 2018 Mem. Op. and Order, ECF No. 66, at 1-4 (citing Fritz v. Islamic Republic of Iran , 320 F. Supp. 3d 48 (D.D.C. 2018) (Moss, J.)). Nevertheless, the Court made clear that it must make its "own, independent findings of fact" based on the evidence prese......
  • Schooley v. Islamic Republic of Iran, Civil Action No. 17-1376 (BAH)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • June 27, 2019
    ...of terrorism . . . continuously since January 19, 1984." Blais, 459 F. Supp. 2d at 47; see also Fritz v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 320 F. Supp. 3d 48, 77 (D.D.C. 2018); U.S. Dep't of State, State Sponsors of Terrorism, https://www.state.gov/j/ct/list/c14151.htm (last visited June 27, 2019).......
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29 cases
  • Ackley v. Islamic Republic of Iran, Civil Action 20-cv-621 (BAH)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • August 12, 2022
    ...by the U.S. Department of State “since January 19, 1984.” Blais, 459 F.Supp.2d at 47; see also, e.g., Fritz v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 320 F.Supp.3d 48, 77 (D.D.C. 2018); U.S. Dep't of State, State Sponsors of Terrorism, https://www.state.gov/j/ct/list/c14151.htm (last visited July 30, 20......
  • Turan Petroleum, Inc. v. Ministry of Oil & Gas of Kaz., Civil Action No. 10-2102 (RBW)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • April 26, 2019
    ...and must dismiss the case."). Although the foreign defendant in this case has "fail[ed] to appear," Fritz v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 320 F. Supp. 3d 48, 76 (D.D.C. 2018), such failure does not waive the defense because the Court nevertheless "must satisfy itself that a[ ] FSIA plaintiff h......
  • Karcher v. Islamic Republic of Iran, Civil Action No. 16-232 (CKK)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • August 26, 2019
    ...Center ("PJCC") in Karbala. Nov. 28, 2018 Mem. Op. and Order, ECF No. 66, at 1-4 (citing Fritz v. Islamic Republic of Iran , 320 F. Supp. 3d 48 (D.D.C. 2018) (Moss, J.)). Nevertheless, the Court made clear that it must make its "own, independent findings of fact" based on the evidence prese......
  • Schooley v. Islamic Republic of Iran, Civil Action No. 17-1376 (BAH)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • June 27, 2019
    ...of terrorism . . . continuously since January 19, 1984." Blais, 459 F. Supp. 2d at 47; see also Fritz v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 320 F. Supp. 3d 48, 77 (D.D.C. 2018); U.S. Dep't of State, State Sponsors of Terrorism, https://www.state.gov/j/ct/list/c14151.htm (last visited June 27, 2019).......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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