Case of the Day: Manco Contracting Co. v. Bezdikian
Posted on February 15, 2013
The case of the day is Manco Contracting Co. v. Bezdikian (Cal. Ct. App. 2013). Manco Contracting Co. was a construction and engineering company operating in Qatar. Krikor Bezdikian owned 40% of the company, and Omar Al-Mana, a Qatari national, owned the remaining 60%. In 1988, Bezdikian and Al-Mana had a dispute that led to Bezdikian’s departure from Qatar for Los Angeles, “never to return.” In 1991, Manco sued Bezdikian in Qatar, alleging that Bezdikian had stolen money from the company. Bezdikian counterclaimed for an accounting and Manco’s disolution. In 1997, the Qatari court entered judgment in favor of Manco. Bezdikian appealed, but in 2000 the appellate court entered a final judgment for Manco in the amount of nearly 13.7 million riyals (or about $3.76 million in 2000 dollars).
In 2004, Manco sought recognition and enforcement of the judgment in the Los Angeles Superior Court. The judge, after a trial on the merits, entered a judgment for Manco in the full amount of the judgment, excluding post-judgment interest—the judge found that Manco had failed to prove that Qatari law provides for post-judgment interest. Both parties appealed.1
On appeal, the court affirmed. Bezdikian’s main argument was that the Qatari judgment was not conclusive under § 4(a) of the UFMJRA because Qatar’s judiciary “does not provide impartial tribunals or procedures compatible with the requirements of due process of law.” The court found that Bezdikian had failed to make his case: his expert, Joseph Kechichian, had opined that “Qatar’s judiciary favored Muslim citizens such as … Al-Mana, over non-Muslim foreigners such as Bezdikian,” but his opinion rested on application of his common sense “to his knowledge of Qatar drawn from his study of the country and personal observations during visits there.” The trial judge rejected the opinion as unsubstantiated, and the Court of Appeals agreed, pointing to the “substantial evidence” that supported the trial judge’s findings that Qatar’s courts were impartial, including the provisions of Qatar’s constitution, protections for judicial independence under Qatari law. While there was evidence of bias against non-Muslim foreigners, the evidence on this question was mixed, and the court held that the trial judge had permissibly decided the question in favor of Manco.
Perhaps the most interesting point in the case was Bezdikian’s argument that the trial judge had erred by excluding from evidence the State Department’s Human Rights Report on Qatar.2 The question was whether the contents of the report were hearsay. For you civilians out there who fail to appreciate the baroque splendor of our law of evidence, hearsay is a statement that a declarant does not make while testifying at the current trial, and that a party offers in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement. Hearsay is not admissible in evidence, but there is an exception for certain public records. In federal law, the exception extends in civil cases to a record or statement of a public office if it sets out factual findings from a legally authorized investigation, and neither the source of the information nor other circumstances indicate a lack of trustworthiness. (FRE 803(8)). Bezdikian pointed to this rule, somewhat oddly, and the court rightly rejected his argument on the grounds that it was California law, not federal law, that governed. Under California law, one of the conditions for the application of the hearsay exception is that the writing must be “made by and within the scope of duty of a public employee.” The evidence was that non-public employees, including Bezdikian’s expert witness himself, contributed to the report. The testimony was that the State Department relies not just on US embassies, but on “think tank reports from Rand Corporation, from the Brookings Corporation (sic), a variety of sources.” Therefore, the report was inadmissible under California law, even though it would likely have been admissible in federal court. In any case, the court found that no prejudice resulted from the exclusion of the report, because Bezdikian’s expert was permitted to quote from the report during his testimony and in any case the report focused on shortcomings in Qatar’s Shari’a courts, not in the civil courts that heard Manco’s lawsuit.
Last, Bezdikian argued extrinsic fraud, which under § 4 of the UFMJRA is grounds for refusing recognition. He argued that Al-Mana had filed a criminal complaint against him in Qatar for embezzlement, and that in 1992 he had been tried in absentia and sentenced to seven years in prison. Bezdikian had the right to return to Qatar, request a vacation of his conviction, and request a trial, but he believed—perhaps wrongly—that under Qatari law he would be imprisoned without bail pending his trial. But because under Qatar’s legal system Bezdikian’s personal presence was not necessary to presentation of his case (the civil courts in Qatar rarely take viva voce testimony), the court held there had been no complete denial of Bezdikian’s right to present his case and thus no basis for refusing recognition.