Qatari Law in U.S. Courts

American courts routinely enforce foreign money judgments; this is needed for international business, and it also avoids the injustice that might happen if someone flees, say, Canada or Germany with assets that he owes to someone, and that he otherwise couldn’t be required to pay. At the same time, it’s also unjust if American courts are used to enforce a foreign money judgment that was entered using procedures or implementing substantive rules that we see as sufficiently unfair. Yet how are American courts to figure out whether some relatively little-know foreign judicial system is fair enough? Here’s an example of one court struggling with this, Manco Contracting Co. v. Bezdikian (Cal. Ct. App. Jan. 11, 2003):

Manco is a construction and engineering company operating in Qatar. In the mid-1980’s, Bezdikian, who had cofounded Manco with Qatari citizen Omar Al-Mana, owned 40 percent of the company and Al-Mana owned 60 percent. By 1988, the relationship between Bezdikian and Al-Mana soured and Bezdikian left Qatar never to return…. After leaving Qatar, Bezdikian eventually settled in Los Angeles county.

In 1991, Manco sued Bezdikian in Qatar’s civil courts alleging Bezdikian had embezzled company funds. Bezdikian cross-complained against Manco by which he sought an accounting and Manco’s dissolution. The Qatari court consolidated the two suits and in 1997 entered judgment for Manco. Bezdikian appealed to the Qatari appellate court. In 2000, the Qatari appellate court entered a final judgment for Manco for 13.69 million riyals, which at then-current exchange rates was about 3.76 million dollars.

In 2004, Manco filed in Los Angeles Superior Court a complaint for “Domestication of Foreign Money Judgment” seeking to render the Qatari judgment a judgment enforceable in California under the former Uniform Foreign Money-Judgments Recognition Act. Following a bench trial, the trial court entered its judgment domesticating the Qatari judgment in the amount of $3,760,274.64….

The Uniform Foreign Money-Judgments Recognition Act requires that a foreign judgment be “conclusive” before a California trial court may domesticate the judgment to make it enforceable in California. (§ 1713.2.) To be conclusive, the foreign court that issued the judgment must be part of an impartial judicial system that provides due process. Section 1713.4, subdivision (a)(1) states: “A foreign judgment is not conclusive if [t]he judgment was rendered under a system which does not provide impartial tribunals or procedures compatible with the requirements of due process of law.” The foreign tribunal’s procedures need not mirror California’s procedures. But the tribunal must follow a “fair procedure [that is] simple and basic enough to describe the judicial processes of civilized nations.” (Cf. De la Mata v. American Life Ins. Co. (D.Del. 1991) 771 F.Supp. 1375, 1389-1390 [“it appears the impartiality criteria only comes into play where a plaintiff seeks to enforce a money judgment from a country whose foreign policy manifests express hostility to the United States and whose jurisprudence has been molded to reflect that hostility”].)

The trial court found Bezdikian offered no persuasive evidence that bias against him infected the Qatari proceedings and denied him due process. Bezdikian’s principal expert on the Qatari judicial system, Joseph Kechichian, opined that Qatar’s judiciary favored Muslim citizens such as Manco’s majority owner, Al-Mana, over non-Muslim foreigners such as Bezdikian, but the court found Kechichian’s opinions unpersuasive. Kechichian based his opinion about the purported bias of the Qatari legal system by applying his “common sense” to his knowledge of Qatar drawn from his study of the country and personal observations during visits there.

But the court rejected Kechichian’s opinion. The court stated it was “not persuaded by Mr. Kechichian’s speculative, equivocal, conditional, and unsupported opinions that non-Qatari citizens like Bezdikian may not … be able to get a fair trial in Qatar against Qatari citizens. Mr. Kechichian had no observational, statistical, or even anecdotal data or evidence that there actually is such bias, either in general or in this kind of case. Mr. Kechichian also stated that he had no information that any of the judges who heard the lawsuits between Manco and Bezdikian, either in the lower court or on appeal, were biased against Bezdikian.” (See Lauderdale Associates v. Department of Health Services (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 117, 126 [“the trier of fact may disregard an expert’s testimony and draw its own conclusions from the evidence when the evidence conflicts or the expert’s testimony is rebutted”].)

Bezdikian contends that even if, as the trial court found, the Qatari judges that tried his case were not biased against him, conclusiveness under the Uniform Foreign Money-Judgments Recognition Act requires that Qatar’s entire judicial system be itself impartial. Bezdikian’s contention is unavailing, however, because the record contains substantial evidence to support the trial court’s finding that Qatar’s judiciary is impartial. Qatar’s Constitution promises unbiased governmental treatment of all people. The constitution states, “All persons shall enjoy equal public rights and shall be subject to equal public duties without distinction on grounds of race, sex, or religion.”

Qatar also promises judicial independence by protecting judges from loss of judicial office during the lawful exercise of their duties. Qatari law states: “[J]udges are independent with no authority over them in connection with their rulings except to the law and their decisions are issued and enforced in accordance with the law. … It is not permissible to remove a judge from his position whether by removal or transfer. In addition, it is not permissible to demote him from his position.” Indeed, the court noted that expert Kechichian conceded that Qatar’s Constitution ensured an impartial and independent judiciary. Kechichian testified “the procedures on the books of Qatar are compatible with the due process of law,” and “the Qatari civil court system and laws are set up and designed to be impartial as to whether or not non-Muslims or noncitizens are treated fairly ….”

Despite expert Kechichian’s concessions about the impartiality of Qatar’s judiciary, Bezdikian offered evidence of bias by the Qatari judicial system against non-Muslim foreigners. According to Kechichian, the system was fair only in theory because it was “not impartial or fair as put into practice.” Kechichian had visited Qatar about two dozen times in some 30 years. Based on his visits and his study of the country, he testified about the political, historical, and cultural forces that he believed generated an antiforeigner bias. He noted that most Qatari judges were foreign nationals who held their permits to reside in Qatar at the government’s pleasure. Because the government could revoke the residency permits, Kechichian reasoned that judges would tend to rule in favor of Qatari citizens in order to remain in the government’s good graces.

Kechichian’s testimony created a conflict in the evidence which the court resolved against Bezdikian. The court acknowledged Kechichian’s expertise about Persian Gulf nations was “extensive and impressive.” He had worked at the Rand Corporation with top-secret security clearance between 1990 and 1996 writing reports and supplying information about Qatar to the CIA, United States Department of State, and Pentagon.

But the court noted that his expertise was as a political scientist, not a lawyer, and his opinion about Qatar’s legal system was limited to the years before 1995, a point Bezdikian emphasized during cross-examination. “Q. … [Y]ou told me in your deposition you only intended to give your expert opinion in this case about the country of Qatar and its laws; right? A. Right. Q. And your opinions about the Qatar legal system are limited to before 1995; correct? A. Correct.” Here, however, both the initial trial and the appeal took place in 1997 and 2000, which undercut the significance of Kechichian’s pre-1995 opinions. Moreover, the court noted that Kechichian could not cite any specific acts of judicial discrimination against Bezdikian…. Because we as a reviewing court do not reweigh the evidence, and must resolve all conflicts in the record in favor of the trial court’s findings, Bezdikian’s contention fails that the trial court erred in finding the Qatari judgment was “conclusive.”

The court also upheld the trial court’s decision to exclude the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports as hearsay, and also added that “the [trial] court noted the reports focused mostly on human rights in Qatar and Qatar’s Islamic Shari’a courts, not its civil courts in which the parties tried their case, and thus did not overcome the evidence of Qatar’s impartiality in its civil justice system.”