Roeder v. Islamic Republic of Iran, Civ.A. 00-3110 EGS.

Citation195 F.Supp.2d 140
Decision Date18 April 2002
Docket NumberNo. Civ.A. 00-3110 EGS.,Civ.A. 00-3110 EGS.
PartiesDavid M. ROEDER, et al., Plaintiffs, v. The ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Defendants.
CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
195 F.Supp.2d 140
David M. ROEDER, et al., Plaintiffs,
The ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Defendants.
No. Civ.A. 00-3110 EGS.
United States District Court, District of Columbia.
April 18, 2002.

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Vernon Thomas Lankford, Jr., Lankford & Coffield, PLLC, Terrance Gilroy Reed, Alexandria, VA, C. Cary Patterson, Jeffrey J. Angelovich, Michael B. Angelovich, Nix, Patterson & Roach, LLP, Texarkana, TX, John C. West, Bethea, Jordan & Griffin, Hilton Head Island, SC, John C. West, Jr., Camden, SC, for plaintiff.

James Jordan Gilligan, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for defendant.


SULLIVAN, District Judge.

Plaintiffs filed this case seeking a belated remedy for the horrible suffering to which they were subjected by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran more than 20 years ago. There is no dispute that members of the plaintiff class were held hostage, and at times tortured, for 444 days after being seized from the United States Embassy in Tehran by Iranian governmental officials. There is also no dispute that the spouses and children of those hostages, who comprise the remainder of the plaintiff class, were also held

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hostage during this time, unable to resume the normalcy of their daily lives without knowing when or if their loved ones would return. There is also no dispute that had plaintiffs been so treated by fellow United States citizens, such actions would lead to civil, and indeed, criminal liability.

Unfortunately, this litigation has only continued the roller coaster ride onto which plaintiffs were thrust over 20 years ago. 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 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 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 bi-lateral 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 last minute 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

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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, rather than proceed with the requisite clarity and assurance of purpose needed when legislating in the realm of foreign affairs, Congress chose to enact two provisions about which only one thing is clear: Congress' intent to interfere with ongoing litigation. This Court takes very seriously the question of whether Congress by these actions has impermissibly intruded on the exclusive judicial authority granted to this Court by virtue of Article III of the U.S.Constitution. Ultimately, however, this Court need not resolve these important constitutional questions because 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 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.

Finally, while the actions of the co-equal branches of government are generally entitled to the due respect of this Court, this Court can not ignore the reality of what has occurred here. Both Congress and the President have expressed their support for these plaintiffs' quest for justice, while failing to act definitively to enable these former hostages to fulfill that quest. If the political consequences of overturning the Algiers Accords are too great, so be it, and my co-equal counterparts should say so. However, the only branches of government with the power to make that difficult decision should not with one hand express support for plaintiffs and with the other leave it to this Court to play the role of the messenger of bad news. Congress and the President possess both the power to decide and the obligation to decide with clarity.

Upon consideration of the government's motion to intervene, to vacate the entry of default judgment, and to dismiss the plaintiffs' claims, the responses and replies thereto, the further briefing requested by

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the Court, as well as the many oral arguments of counsel, this Court has no choice but to grant the government's motions and dismiss this case.


I. Events of 1979 and 1980

On November 4, 1979, Iranian militants seized the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran, and took as hostages more than 50 U.S. diplomatic and military personnel who were stationed there. At the same time, representatives of the Iranian government detained the American diplomatic personnel who were meeting with government representatives at the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All of the seized individuals were citizens of the United States. All of the seized individuals were present in Iran with the permission of the Iranian government, and were serving as representatives of the United States.

These hostages remained in Iranian custody for 444 days and were subjected to physical and mental torture and inhumane conditions of confinement. At the nonjury trial conducted in this case, former hostages testified about the treatment they endured. The hostages were often blindfolded and tied to chairs or other objects for prolonged periods of time. They were at times kept in isolation from one another, and denied the right to communicate with one another or their families. Several...

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