Prejudgment Security and Immunity from Attachment

In its recent decision in Pine Top Receivables of Illinois, LLC v. Banco de Seguros del Estado, 771 F.3d 980 (7th Cir. 2014), the Seventh Circuit held that the FSIA’s ban on prejudgment attachment barred enforcement of the Unauthorized Insurers Process Act’s prejudgment security requirement.  The Seventh Circuit’s decision accords with the FSIA’s plain language.

Pine Top Receivables (“Pine Top”) filed suit against the Uruguayan instrumentality Banco de Seguros del Estado (“Banco”) in 2012, seeking claimed overdue balances on various reinsurance contracts.  In the district court litigation, Pine Top moved to strike Banco’s answer on the basis that Banco was required to post pre-answer security in the full amount of the disputed debt under 215 ILCS 5/123(5).  Pine Top Receivables, 771 F.3d at 982; see also 215 ILCS 5/123(5) (“Before any unauthorized foreign or alien company shall file or cause to be filed any pleading in any action or proceeding, including any arbitration, instituted against it, such unauthorized company shall . . . deposit with the clerk of the court in which such action or proceeding is pending or with the clerk of the court in the jurisdiction in which the arbitration is pending cash or securities or file with such clerk a bond with good and sufficient sureties, to be approved by the court, in an amount to be fixed by the court sufficient to secure the payment of any final judgment which may be rendered in such action, proceeding, or arbitration.”).   The district court denied Pine Top’s motion to strike, concluding that the FSIA’s prohibition on attaching a foreign state’s property prevents application of the Illinois security requirement.

On appeal, Pine Top argued that the FSIA’s prohibition against prejudgment attachment was limited to jurisdictional attachments.  That was, indeed, one of the key problems that the FSIA was intended to resolve.  See, e.g., H.R. Rep. 94-1487, at 27 (1976) (“The elimination of attachment as a vehicle for commencing a lawsuit will ease the conduct of foreign relations by the United States and help eliminate the necessity for determinations of claims of sovereign immunity by the State Department.”).  However, the statute’s prohibition extends well beyond prejudgment attachments for purposes of establishing jurisdiction.

In rejecting Pine Top’s argument, the Seventh Circuit relied mainly on the plain language of the FSIA.  Section 1609 provides that “the property in the United States of a foreign state shall be immune from attachment arrest and execution except as provided in sections 1610 and 1611 of this chapter.”  28 U.S.C. § 1609.  As the court recognized, the “FSIA does not define the term ‘attachment arrest and execution,’ nor does § 1609 make any other reference that would clarify whether it covers only jurisdictional attachments or attachments to secure judgments.”  Pine Top Receivables, 771 F.3d at 983.  However, relying on the established rule that “‘[i]nterpretation of a word or phrase depends upon reading the whole statutory text, considering the purpose and context of the statute,’” the Seventh Circuit examined the language of section 1610(d).  Id. at 983 n.3, quoting Dolan v. United States Postal Service, 546 U.S. 481, 486 (2006).  Section 1610(d) provides that the property of a foreign state used for a commercial activity is not immune from prejudgment attachment if “the foreign state has explicitly waived its immunity from attachment prior to judgment” and the “purpose of the attachment is to secure satisfaction of a judgment that has been or may ultimately be entered against the foreign state, and not to obtain jurisdiction.”  28 U.S.C. § 1610(d)(1)-(2).  The Seventh Circuit concluded that “[i]f we accepted Pine Top’s reading—that § 1609 deals exclusively  with jurisdictional attachments—§ 1610(d) would accomplish nothing; it would allow waiver of immunity only for a class of property to which no immunity attached by virtue of the prior section. That is, unless § 1609 includes attachments ‘the purpose of [which] is to secure satisfaction of a judgment,’ § 1610(d) is superfluous.”  Pine Top Receivables, 771 F.3d at 983-84.  Given the settled rule that courts should avoid interpretations that “would render a statutory term superfluous,”  Dole Food Co. v. Patrickson, 538 U.S. 468, 477 (2003), the Seventh Circuit correctly rejected Pine Top’s contention.

The Seventh Circuit’s decision is consistent with FSIA precedent, namely the Second Circuit’s decision in Stephens v. National Distillers & Chemical Corp., 69 F.3d 1226 (2d Cir.1995); see also, e.g., Dellapenna, Suing Foreign Governments and Their Corporations, at 745 (2d ed. 2003).  As a result, in addition to adhering the FSIA’s plain language, the Pine Top Receivables case has the added benefit of not creating a circuit split.  See, e.g., Vencedora Oceanica Navigacion, S.A. v. Compagnie Nationale Algerienne de Navigation, 730 F.2d 195 (5th Cir. 1984) (“[I]t is highly desirable to avoid circuit conflicts in the sensitive area of sovereign immunity.”); Abrams v. Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais, 332 F.3d 173, 186 (2d Cir. 2003), vacated on other grounds by Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais v. Abrams, 542 U.S. 901 (2003) (discussing “the importance of having a uniform, consistent law in this area”).

One final note: it appears that the FSIA’s treatment of prejudgment attachments is much stricter than the approach taken in other countries.  See generally Yang, State Immunity in International Law, at 378-90 (2012).  Accordingly, while the Seventh Circuit’s decision is correct as a matter of statutory interpretation, the FSIA could be amended – in a manner consistent with customary international law – to permit greater flexibility with regard to prejudgment attachments.  However, since Congress has not done so, the Seventh Circuit properly followed the statute’s plain language.

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