The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) recently held that proper service of a Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) lawsuit requires strict adherence to the statutory requirements. The court held that the FSIA mandates a mailing to be sent directly to a foreign minister’s office in a foreign state.
The Case Below:
In 2010, the victims of the U.S.S. Cole bombing and their family members filed a lawsuit against the Republic of Sudan under FSIA. The lawsuit alleged that Sudan contributed to the families and victims’ losses because of its support of al Qaeda. The plaintiffs tried to comply with proper service under FSIA’s Section 1608(a)(3) by requesting the clerk of the court serve Sudan’s minister of foreign affairs at the country’s embassy in Washington, D.C. When Sudan failed to appear in court, D.C. District Court entered a default judgment against the country in the amount of $314 million.
Subsequently, the plaintiffs registered the judgment in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Court orders were issued directing numerous banks to hand over Sudanese assets. As a result, Sudan appealed the orders, arguing the default judgment was invalid due to lack of personal jurisdiction. The law, Sudan argued, required the plaintiffs send the service packet to the foreign minister’s principal office located in Sudan.The Sudanese Embassy in the United States was not enough under the law. The Second Circuit disagreed, finding service to be proper because mail to the embassy could be reasonably expected. Sudan appealed to the Supreme Court.
The SCOTUS explained that, due to the delicate diplomatic relations implicated by lawsuits brought under FSIA strict construction of the statute takes priority over considerations of equity.
Generally, foreign sovereigns enjoy immunity from lawsuits in American courts under FSIA – unless a statutory exception to the act applies. If an exception is applicable, a plaintiff may establish personal jurisdiction over a foreign state defendant through section 1608(a)(3). This section allows service by any form of mail that requires a signed receipt and should be addressed and sent by the clerk of the court to the head of the ministry of foreign affairs of the defendant sovereign. This method of service is exactly what the plaintiffs used.
SCOTUS focused on the language of the FSIA, focusing on the words “dispatched” and “addressed.” Since the foreign minister neither resides or keeps a usual place of business at the embassy, service to the embassy does not satisfy “address” in its dictionary meaning. The Court found that “dispatch” implies sending correspondence directly to a recipient and, therefore, indirect service on the foreign minister at a U.S. embassy falls short of the meaning of the word, as well.
The case is the Republic of Sudan v. Harrison.