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D.C. Circuit Discusses Proper Service of Foreign Royals

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on July 27, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

What happens if you file suit against foreign royals? How is process served?

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a Brooklyn artist who brought suit against the Saudi royal family for breach of contract. The artist, Elli Bern Angellino, sued 16 members of the Al-Saud royal family for $12 million for failing to pay him for artwork they allegedly commissioned.

The lawsuit was dismissed by the district court for procedural issues. The court found that the artist, who was representing himself pro se, failed to serve process to the defendants properly.

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act governs the proper service of process on a foreign state. This can requirement to abide by FSIA can be found in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure at Rule 4(j)(1).

Service of process on foreign state defendants must be made following a four-step hierarchy, under 28 USC Section 1608(a)(1)-(4):

  1. Pursuant to a special agreement between the plaintiff and the foreign state (28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(1));
  2. As prescribed in an applicable international agreement (28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(2));
  3. Via mail from the court clerk to the head of the foreign state's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(3));
  4. Via the diplomatic channel (28 U.S.C. § 1608(a)(4)).

Angellino served the Saudi royals by sending a copy of the summons and complaint by first class mail to their embassy. The embassy refused to accept the mailing.

The district court orderd Angellino to demonstrate that a "special arrangement" existed between himself and the defendants, which would show that the mailing of the proof of service to the embassy was an acceptable form of communication. Angellino attached copies of old communication with the royals to show that this was how he had been communicating with them.

The district court dismissed his complaint for failure to establish the existence of a "special arrangement for service."

The D.C. Circuit found that Angellino's failure to serve the defendants was not due to inactivity, which was that the district court alleged. Furthermore, as a pro se plaintiff, the district court failed to provide Angellino with a fair notice of the requirements for providing service.

As a result, Angellino's case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

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