Litigation Comment: Richardson v. Attorney General of the British Virgin Islands

Another blog devoted to issues relating to foreign sovereigns in United States courts recently mentioned the case Richardson v. Attorney General of the British Virgin Islands, Civil No. 2008-144, 2013 WL 4494975 (D.V.I. Aug. 20, 2013).  See www.foreignsovereignblog.com.  Although Richardson is unusual because the foreign sovereign is appearing pro se, the case is indeed interesting for a number of reasons:

Capacity: Richardson addresses the circumstances under which a lawsuit against a foreign sovereign official should be deemed a lawsuit against the foreign sovereign itself.  Richardson, 2013 WL 4494975, at *2.  The official capacity issue frequently arises with respect to domestic government officials.   Cf. Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166 (1985) (“[A]n official-capacity suit is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity.  It is not a suit against the official personally, for the real party in interest is the entity”).  In Samantar, the Supreme Court recognized that it was an issue under the FSIA as well: “it may be the case that some actions against an official in his official capacity should be treated as actions against the foreign state itself, as the state is the real party in interest.”  Samantar v. Yousuf, 560 U.S. 305, 325 (2010), citing Graham, 473 U.S. at 166.  It is an issue that should be kept in mind whenever an attorney confronts a case against a foreign sovereign official.

Waiver: The Richardson court correctly held that a foreign state does not waive immunity simply by failing to appear in the matter.  Richardson, 2013 WL 4494975, at *4.  However, the court also accurately stated that a foreign state does waive immunity if it fails to assert immunity in a responsive pleading – which, according to a docket check, is what the pro se foreign sovereign defendant may just have done in a recent filing.  Id.  Richardson highlights that a foreign sovereign can actually increase the risk of waiver by appearing in the action, particularly if defense counsel is not familiar with the FSIA’s waiver rules.

Commercial Activity: In analyzing whether the plaintiff’s claims involved commercial activity, the Richardson court examined whether the conduct was “of a nature that a private person would undertake for profit.”  Richardson, 2013 WL 4494975, at *4.  The “for profit” test is controversial, particularly given the nature/purpose language in 28 U.S.C. section 1603(d).  However, there is a strong argument that whether or not an activity is the type customarily undertaken for profit is an appropriate factor to consider, and I address that issue here.

Scope of Employment/Respondeat Superior: The Richardson court quotes the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Moran for the following proposition relating to the tort exception’s “scope of employment” requirement: “‘[T]he scope of employment provision of the tortious activity exception requires a finding that the doctrine of respondeat superior applies to the tortious act or omission committed by the officer or employee of the foreign state.’”  Richardson, 2013 WL 4494975, at *5, quoting Moran v. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 27 F.3d 169, 173 (5th Cir. 1994).  This again is an issue for a future post, but courts and attorneys in FSIA cases should be careful not to equate the tort exception’s “scope of employment” requirement with a respondeat superior analysis.  Under most circumstances the two are identical, but in certain situations there is a big difference.  Cf. Primeaux v. United States, 181 F.3d 876 (8th Cir. 1999) (en banc).

Political Subdivision: Richardson determined that BVI was a political subdivision of the United Kingdom for purposes of the FSIA.  Richardson, 2013 WL 4494975, at *10.  On its face that determination appears correct, but it is worth noting that there are not many cases under the FSIA addressing what is meant by the term “political subdivision.”  Under the right circumstances, the political subdivision issue is one that could involve very interesting litigation.

Strict Compliance: The Richardson court correctly held that a plaintiff must strictly comply with section 1608(a)’s service of process requirements.  See Richardson, 2013 WL 4494975, at *8; see also https://fsialaw.com/2013/11/07/the-ninth-circuits-substantial-service-error/.  However, Richardson is unusual in that the court appeared to hold that the strict compliance standard applied to the requirements of the Hague Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil or Commercial Matters, Nov. 15, 1965, 658 U.N.T.S. 163 (“Hague Service Convention”).  See Richardson, 2013 WL 4494975, at *13; see also 28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(2).  There are not many cases under section 1608(a)(2), but applying a strict compliance standard to the Hague Service Convention requirements appears to be a logical extension of FSIA service precedent.

Official Immunity: Official immunity is relatively straightforward when the Executive Branch files a suggestion of immunity.  See, e.g., Rosenberg v. Lashkar-e-Taiba, — F. Supp. 2d — , 2013 WL 5502851 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2013).  Richardson provides an example of a court finding a foreign sovereign official immune even in the absence of a suggestion of immunity from the Executive Branch.  Richardson, 2013 WL 4494975, at *16; see also Samantar, 560 U.S. at 311 (discussing that, under the common law, a district court “had authority to decide for itself whether all the requisites for such immunity existed” in the “absence of recognition of the immunity by the Department of State”) (citations and internal quotations omitted).  A court determination of official immunity can be a useful tool for FSIA defense counsel in cases against officials or in situations where discovery is sought from foreign sovereign officials.

The Second Circuit’s Apparent FSIA Authority

Agency is deeply enmeshed with FSIA jurisdiction.  Because jurisdiction over a foreign state generally requires an act by the state, the question of whether an exception to immunity applies will often turn on whether the conduct of an individual – for example, an official, employee or agent – is attributable to the sovereign.  Since jurisdiction is the key legal issue in FSIA cases, the need for clear rules relating to agency is paramount.  Cf. H.R.Rep. No. 94-1487, at 32 (discussing “the importance of developing a uniform body of law in this area [of foreign sovereign immunity]”).

Unfortunately, FSIA jurisprudence does not provide the needed clarity with respect to agency.  In this post, I will examine one of the agency problems in FSIA cases: whether an individual’s apparent authority to act on behalf of a foreign state is sufficient to give rise to subject matter jurisdiction under the commercial activity exception.  As will be shown below, the Second Circuit’s unclear precedent on the issue of apparent authority unnecessarily gives rise to confusion and lack of uniformity.  The issue should be litigated in the Second Circuit at the earliest opportunity.

The Ninth, Fourth and Fifth Circuits have all squarely held that apparent authority is insufficient to give rise to jurisdiction under the commercial activity exception.  See Phaneuf v. Republic of Indonesia, 106 F.3d 302, 308 (9th Cir. 1997) (“We hold that an agent must have acted with actual authority in order to invoke the commercial activity exception against a foreign state.”); Velasco v. The Gov’t of Indonesia, 370 F.3d 392, 400 (4th Cir. 2004) (“we concur with the position of the Ninth Circuit and hold that the commercial activity exception may be invoked against a foreign state only when its officials have actual authority”); Dale v. Colagiovanni, 443 F.3d 425, 429 (5th Cir. 2006) (“We agree with the Fourth and Ninth Circuits that an agent’s acts conducted with the apparent authority of the state is insufficient to trigger the commercial activity exception to FSIA.”) [Author’s Note: I represented the foreign sovereign in the Dale district court and appellate proceedings].

There are two basic reasons for the rule.  First, “[a]ll three clauses of the [commercial activity] exception require ‘a commercial activity of the foreign state.’”  Phaneuf, 106 F.3d at 307, quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(2) (emphasis in original).  That language “clearly entails commercial activity in which the foreign state is engaged.”  Id.  “If the foreign state has not empowered its agent to act, the agent’s unauthorized act cannot be attributed to the foreign state; there is no ‘activity of the foreign state.’”  Id. at 308, quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(2); see also Dale, 443 F.3d at 428.

Second, “courts analyzing the sovereign immunity of the United States have held consistently that the act of an agent beyond what he is legally empowered to do is not binding upon the government.”  Velasco, 370 F.3d at 399; see also Larson v. Domestic & Foreign Commerce Corp., 337 U.S. 682, 689 (1949); Fed. Crop Ins. Corp. v. Merrill, 332 U.S. 380, 383-84 (1947). Under basic principles of comity, similar principles apply to preclude foreign sovereigns from being drawn into litigation based upon the unauthorized acts of individuals.  See, e.g., Long v. The Tampico & Progresso, 16 F. 491, 495 (S.D.N.Y. 1883) (“By international comity, and that tacit agreement which constitutes the law of nations, every government accords to every other friendly power the same respect to its dignity and sovereignty . . . which it enjoys itself within its own dominions.”); see also Velasco, 370 F.3d at 399; Phaneuf, 106 F.3d at 308.

While there is broad agreement among three circuit courts, the Second Circuit has twice assumed that apparent authority would be sufficient to confer jurisdiction under the FSIA.  See Fidelity Bank, N.A. v. Gov’t of Antigua & Barbuda-Permanent Mission, 877 F.2d 189, 193-94 (2d Cir.1989); Reiss v. Societe Centrale du Groupe des Assurances Nationales, 235 F.3d 738, 748 (2d Cir. 2000).  However, because First Fidelity and Reiss did not address the issue directly, it is arguable that neither constitutes binding precedent.  See Estate of Magnin v. CIR, 184 F.3d 1074, 1077 (9th Cir. 1999) (“When a case assumes a point without discussion, the case does not bind future panels.”); Matter of Stegall, 865 F.2d 140, 142 (7th Cir. 1989) (“A point of law merely assumed in an opinion, not discussed, is not authoritative.”); Am. Portland Cement Alliance v. EPA, 101 F.3d 772, 776 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (“[J]urisdictional issues that were assumed but never expressly decided in prior opinions do not thereby become precedents.”); see also Phaneuf, 106 F.3d at 308 n.4 (stating that First Fidelity “assumed the appropriateness of invoking the commercial activity exception based on apparent authority” and “gave no analysis or explanation of its statements regarding apparent authority”); Dale, 443 F.3d at 429 (stating that only the Fourth and Ninth Circuits had previously “directly addressed the issue”).  Nevertheless, district courts in the Second Circuit have adopted the apparent authority approach, and courts outside the circuit have recognized a circuit split.  See Storr v. Nat’l Defence Sec. Council of Republic of Indonesia-Jakarta, 95 CIV. 9663 (AGS), 1997 WL 633405 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 14, 1997) aff’d sub nom. Storr v. Nat’l Def. Sec. Council, 164 F.3d 619 (2d Cir. 1998); see also, e.g., EduMoz, LLC v. Republic of Mozambique, — F. Supp. 2d —, CV 13-02309 MMM CWX, 2013 WL 5040937, at *17 n.82 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 10, 2013).  And there have been efforts to harmonize the different opinions, including a recent decision in the Southern District of New York that would embed a public vs. private analysis into the equation – which would likely deepen rather than alleviate any confusion.   See Themis Capital, LLC v. Democratic Republic of Congo, 881 F. Supp. 2d 508, 522-26 (S.D.N.Y. 2012).

The issue of apparent authority is critical, because it can make all the difference on the question of FSIA immunity.  For example, the plaintiffs’ cases in Phaneuf, Velasco and Dale all fell apart once apparent authority was taken off the table.  See, e.g., Phaneuf v. Gov’t of Indonesia, 18 Fed. Appx. 648, 650 (9th Cir. 2001); Velasco, 370 F.3d at 400-02.  On such an important issue, a circuit split – or, in this case, an apparent circuit split – should be resolved as soon as possible.   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.”).

Recent Development: The D.C. Circuit’s Latest FSIA Decision

The D.C. Circuit’s decision last week in Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc.v. Islamic Republic of Iran, — F.3 —, 2013 WL 5853916 (D.C. Cir. Nov. 1, 2013), raises several issues of interest under the FSIA.

First, the affirmance of the district court’s grant of Iran’s motion to vacate the judgment — a motion that was filed nearly a year after the default judgment was entered against the sovereign — acknowledges a powerful tool in the arsenal of foreign states in FSIA cases.  It is significantly easier for foreign sovereigns to vacate default judgments in federal court than it is for non-sovereign corporations or individuals, and that could have important strategic implications in certain cases.

Second, Bell Helicopter is one of relatively few cases in which a plaintiff was found to have failed to meet the burden of production under the FSIA’s burden-shifting scheme.  To function properly, the FSIA’s burden-shifting regimen should require plaintiffs to meet a substantial burden — a burden of production “with bite.”  With the Ninth Circuit’s 2010 decision in Peterson (see Peterson v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 627 F.3d 1117, 1125 (9th Cir. 2010)) and now with Bell Helicopter, that trend may be gathering steam in FSIA cases.

Third, Bell Helicopter properly refused to recognize remote, attenuated or speculate effects as sufficient for purposes of the “direct effect” requirement of the commercial activity exception’s third clause.  The Court of Appeals’ decision is consistent with appellate courts’ recent resistance to accepting creative “direct effect” arguments from plaintiffs’ attorneys in FSIA cases.  Early in FSIA jurisprudence, Judge Leval recognized the danger of a liberal construction of the direct effect requirement:

[T]he direct/indirect distinction serves a meaningful end in relation to the statute’s objectives in foreign relations. The statute seeks a balance between the provision of a convenient forum for claimants aggrieved in commercial dealings with foreign states and the promotion of comity and harmony between the United States and other nations. To extend jurisdiction to claims brought by all persons indirectly injured by commercial acts of foreign states would subject them to the jurisdiction of United States courts in an enormously expanded number of cases (including, no doubt, many that would eventually be dismissed for failure to state a cause of action). Given the proclivity of the United States population to devise lawsuits for every contretemps, the harassment of foreign sovereigns by exposure to the jurisdiction of United States courts would no doubt be considerable. Thus the statutory clause limiting jurisdiction over foreign sovereignties to instances of “direct” effect serves a valuable goal of foreign relations and should not be nullified by freehanded court interpretation.

Colonial Bank v. Compagnie Generale Mar. et Financiere, 645 F. Supp. 1457, 1465 (S.D.N.Y. 1986) (citation omitted).  Judge Leval’s words hold true nearly thirty years later, and it is good to see that federal courts continue to be cognizant of that danger today.