Roeder v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 02-5145.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
Citation333 F.3d 228
Docket NumberNo. 02-5145.,02-5145.
PartiesDavid M. ROEDER, et al., Appellants, v. ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, et al., Appellees.
Decision Date01 July 2003
333 F.3d 228
David M. ROEDER, et al., Appellants,
ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN, et al., Appellees.
No. 02-5145.
United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit.
Argued May 12, 2003.
Decided July 1, 2003.

Page 229


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Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (00cv03110).

V. Thomas Lankford argued the cause for appellants. With him on the briefs were William Coffield, Terrance G. Reed, Roark M. Reed, and Jonathan S. Massey.

Stuart H. Newberger, Michael L. Martinez, and Laurel Pyke Malson were on the brief for amici curiae Blake Kilburn, et al. in support of appellants.

H. Thomas Byron III, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, argued the cause for appellee United States of America. With him on the brief were Roscoe C. Howard, Jr., U.S. Attorney, and Douglas N. Letter, Litigation Counsel, U.S. Department of Justice.

Before: HENDERSON, RANDOLPH, and GARLAND, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge RANDOLPH.

RANDOLPH, Circuit Judge:

Americans taken hostage in Iran in 1979 and held for 444 days brought a class action on behalf of themselves, and their spouses and children, against the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The district court, Sullivan, J., issued a comprehensive opinion and ordered the action dismissed for failure to state a claim. Roeder v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 195 F.Supp.2d 140 (D.D.C.2002). Among the several issues presented on appeal, the principal question is whether legislation specifically directed at this lawsuit, and enacted while the case was pending in the district court, provided a cause of action for the hostages and their families.


The district court ably summarized the case and the reasons for its decision:

"Members of this plaintiff class previously attempted to sue Iran, but their claims were dismissed because Congress had not waived Iran's sovereign immunity. See Persinger v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 729 F.2d 835 (D.C.Cir.1984); McKeel v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 722 F.2d 582 (9th Cir.1983); Ledgerwood v. State of Iran, 617 F.Supp. 311 (D.D.C.1985). In 1996, Congress passed the Federal Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("the 1996 Anti-terrorism Act") and the Flatow Amendment, which together waived foreign sovereign immunity and created a cause of action for individuals harmed by state-sponsored acts of terrorism. 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(7) and note. With the assistance of their counsel, plaintiffs brought this action under those statutes, arguing that this new cause of action applied to the 1979 hostage taking in Tehran, and asking for compensatory and punitive damages of $33 billion.

"Iran chose not to defend its actions in this Court, despite its long history of adjudicating claims in this Circuit. See, e.g., McKesson HBOC, Inc. v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 271 F.3d 1101 (D.C.Cir.2001). Plaintiffs therefore proceeded with their claims unopposed, and at plaintiffs' request the Court entered a default judgment on liability on August 13, 2001. The Court

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scheduled a date for a trial to hear evidence on damages, at which several of the plaintiffs were scheduled to testify about their experiences. The Court did not look lightly upon requiring plaintiffs to relive their terrible ordeal and appreciated the difficulty of both testifying and witnessing such testimony.

"On the eve of trial, however, the State Department, recently made aware of plaintiffs' claims, attempted to intervene, vacate the judgment, and dismiss the suit. Plaintiffs' hopes of recovery were once again placed in jeopardy. The United States argued that the Algiers Accords, the 1980 bilateral agreement between the United States and Iran, by which the hostages' release was secured, and its implementing regulations, contain a prohibition on lawsuits arising out of the hostage-taking at issue here. See Govt's Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Vacate of 10/12/01. Because no act by Congress had specifically abrogated the Accords, the government argued, that agreement precludes plaintiffs' claims and the case should be dismissed. The United States also raised several other arguments interpreting the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act that this Court lacked jurisdiction to hear plaintiffs' claims, and that plaintiffs' claims should be dismissed on the merits.

"Because of the last-minute nature of the government's [motion] to intervene, rather than deny plaintiffs, many of whom had traveled from distant parts of the country, the opportunity to present their testimony on the record, the Court proceeded with the trial. For two days, the Court heard the harrowing accounts of 444 days spent in captivity from both the former hostages and their family members. The Court scheduled a later date to hear argument on the government's motions and established a briefing schedule to afford the plaintiffs an opportunity to respond to the government's arguments. The Court also directed plaintiffs' counsel to explain why they had not brought the Algiers Accords to the Court's attention earlier.

"On November 28, 2001, the date that the government's reply brief was due, the case took yet another dramatic turn. The government informed the Court that Congress had recently passed, and the President had signed on that very day, an appropriations bill with a provision amending the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act that specifically referred to this case. See Subsection 626(c) of Pub.L. 107-77, 115 Stat. 748 (2001) ("Subsection 626(c)"). After hearing argument from counsel on the impact of the appropriations rider, this Court expressed its serious concern about the lack of clarity in Congress' recent action.

"After the Court took this case under advisement, Congress acted yet again. On December 20, 2001, Congress passed yet another appropriations rider that added a technical amendment to Subsection 626(c) and contained language in its legislative history purporting to explain the legislative intent behind the earlier Subsection 626(c). See Section 208 of the Department of Defense and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act, Pub.L. 107-117, 115 Stat. 2230 ("Section 208"). However, ... while Congress' intent to interfere with this litigation was clear, its intent to abrogate the Algiers Accords was not.

"Were this Court empowered to judge by its sense of justice, the heart-breaking accounts of the emotional and physical toll of those 444 days on plaintiffs would be more than sufficient justification for granting all the relief that they request. However, this Court is bound to apply the law that Congress has created, according to the rules of interpretation that the Supreme Court has determined. There are

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two branches of government that are empowered to abrogate and rescind the Algiers Accords, and the judiciary is not one of them. The political considerations that must be balanced prior to such a decision are beyond both the expertise and the mandate of this Court. Unless and until either the legislative or executive branch acts clearly and decisively, this Court can not grant plaintiffs the relief they seek." Roeder, 195 F.Supp.2d at 144-45.

The Algiers Accords, mentioned in the district court's summary, is an executive agreement of importance to this case. In order to secure the hostages' release, the United States froze Iranian government assets, imposed trade sanctions, prosecuted a claim before the International Court of Justice, and undertook a military rescue operation. See Persinger v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 729 F.2d 835, 837 n. 1 (D.C.Cir.1984). These efforts failed. On January 19, 1980, the United States entered into the Algiers Accords, settling a broad range of disputes between this country and Iran. See generally Iran-United States: Settlement of the Hostage Crisis, 20 I.L.M. 223 (1981). As part of the Accords, the United States agreed to "bar and preclude the prosecution against Iran of any ... claim of ... a United States national arising out of the events ... related to (A) the seizure of the 52 United States nationals on November 4, 1979, [and] (B) their subsequent detention." Id., Declaration of the Government of the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria, General Principles, ¶ 11, 20 I.L.M. at 227. The hostages were released the next day. President Carter, on his last full day in office, issued an executive order directing the Secretary of the Treasury to issue regulations implementing this provision, and directing and authorizing the Attorney General to take appropriate measures to notify the judiciary of the Order. Non-Prosecution of Claims of Hostages and for Actions at the United States Embassy and Elsewhere, Exec. Order No. 12,283, 46 Fed.Reg. 7927 (Jan. 19, 1981); see also Prohibition Against Prosecution of Certain Claims, 31 C.F.R. § 535.216(a). After the change in administrations, President Reagan ratified this executive order and related ones. Suspension of Litigation Against Iran, Exec. Order No. 12,294, § 8, 46 Fed. Reg. 14,111 (Feb. 24, 1981).


One of the issues plaintiffs raise is whether the district court erred in permitting the United States to intervene as a defendant. We wonder how a reversal of that ruling would assist plaintiffs. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act — FSIA — does not automatically entitle a plaintiff to judgment when a foreign state defaults. The court still has an obligation to satisfy itself that plaintiffs have established a right to relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e). The district court did not mention the Algiers Accords when the default judgment was entered, but that was because plaintiffs' counsel had not alerted the court to the Accords.1 After the Justice Department informed the court of the Accords, the court performed its duty under § 1608(e) and determined that plaintiffs were not entitled to relief. We see no basis for assuming that the court, having become aware of this impediment to plaintiffs'...

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