Case of the Day: Angellino v. Royal Family Al-Saud

Today’s case of the day, Angellino v. Royal Family Al-Saud (D.C. Cir. 2012), is an offbeat service of process case. Elli Bern Angellino, an artist, alleged that he had an agreement with the Saudi royal family and sixteen of its members to design, produce, and deliver several sculptures to them in Suadi Arabia. The deal was that Angellino would deliver the sculpture. If the Al-Sauds accepted it, they would pay the invoice. If not, they would return it to Angellino with no obligation to pay. Angellino alleged that he created and shipped 29 sculptures to Saudi Arabia in 2006 and 2007, with invoices totaling $12.58 million. The Al-Sauds kept the sculptures but didn’t pay the invoices, according to the complaint.

Angellino had conducted his business with the royal family through the Saudi Embassy in Washington. The Al-Sauds, when they wanted to acknowledge receipt of a sculpture, would send a letter to the Saudi Ambassador, who would forward the letter to Angellio. Angellino communcated with the Embassy about his invoices, and the Embassy advised him to mail the invoices to the Embassy. But not payments were forthcoming, so Angellino sued.

Angellino, acting pro se, sought to serve process by mailing the summons and complaint to the Embassy by first class mail. The Embassy refused to accept the papers. Angellino tried to file a proof of service with the court, but he sent it to the judge’s chambers rather than the clerk’s office, and so the clerk rejected the filing with instructions to review the applicable rules before filing again, but not noting any substantive deficiency in the papers. Seven months later, the judge ordered Angellino to show cause why the case should not be dismissed for failure to prosecute. Angellino responded by arguing that service on the Embassy was proper because it was part of the “special arrangement for service” between the parties.1 But the judge found that Angellino had failed to show that a “special arrangement for service” existed, and the judge dismissed the case without prejudice.

On appeal, Angellino, now supported by Christopher J. Deal, whom the court appointed as amicus curiae to argue in favor of Angellino’s position, prevailed. Judge Henderson, writing for herself and Judge Rogers, held that Angellino had not shown a lack of diligence but had tried to effect service fairly actively, and that because Angellino was acting pro se, the court should have provided him with fair notice of the requirements for serving process under the FSIA and under Rule 4(f). Moreover, the judges thought it reasonably probable that Angellino, if he followed the requirements of the FSIA and Rule 4(f), would likely be able, in the end, to effect service on the defendants. The court therefore reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Judge Kavanaugh dissented, arguing (very briefly) that the judge had given Angellino fair warning and a fair opportunity to make service, and that in any event review of a dismissal for failure to prosecute an action was for abuse of discretion.

This decision is really about the treatment of pro se litigants, and not about the FSIA or the requirements of service of process. Plaintiffs with lawyers should not rely on it as an escape from the strictures of the FSIA or Rule 4!

  1. Everyone in the case agreed that the Royal Family as such was protected by the FSIA, so Angellino’s argument was pertinent—a “special arrangement for service” is the first method of service that a plaintiff must try in an FSIA case. The judge also found that the individual members of the royal family ought to be served under FRCP 4(f), which also seems correct.

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