Wednesday, February 18, 2015
C.A. Rejects Order Allowing Property Dispute to Be Tried in Iran
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A lawsuit between citizens of Iran over real property located in that country should be heard in Los Angeles Superior Court because women and non-Muslims are treated unequally by Iranian courts, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Eight reversed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kevin Brazile’s order staying an action by the son and daughters of Gagik and Knarik Galstian, non-Muslim Iranian émigrés who came to this country following the 1978 overthrow of the Shah and died in 2012. The plaintiffs claim the defendants, Shahen Minassian and Nader Izadi, used powers of attorney to fraudulently transfer the Galstians’ properties to themselves.
The complaint alleges that in 1991, the Galstians began efforts, through an Iranian lawyer friend, to recover the properties they had abandoned in fleeing the country. On the attorney’s advice, the plaintiffs claim, the couple began executing powers of attorney in favor of their lawyer and others, and eventually obtained an order of the Iranian government allowing them to enter and leave Iran reclaim the properties, and engage in property transactions.
Several properties were reclaimed by the family and sold, before the defendants allegedly used their powers of attorney to transfer the remaining properties to themselves, for little or no consideration, in 2008, although the plaintiffs alleged that the family did not learn of the transfers until 2010 and did not obtain a copy of the quitclaim deed until 2012.
The plaintiffs sued in 2013, seeking damages for breach of fiduciary duty and conversion, as well as an injunction and an accounting. Minassian moved to dismiss and stay for forum non conveniens, and for lack of jurisdiction over Izadi, who lives in Iran, and over the properties themselves. Brazile found that the Iranian civil courts were able to provide substantial justice, and stayed the action.
Presiding Justice Tricia Bigelow, writing for the Court of Appeal, acknowledged that a trial court ruling on a forum non conveniens motion is reviewed under a highly deferential standard. In this case, however, the trial judge was wrong because the defendants completely failed to refute the plaintiffs showing that they could not obtain a fair trial in Iran because of their religion and gender.
Bigelow cited Rasoulzadeh v. Associated Press (S.D.N.Y. 1983) 574 F.Supp. 854, holding that an alternative forum in Iran was not available since Iranian courts were administered by Iranian mullahs and the plaintiffs were likely to be shot if they returned to Iran, and Bank Melli Iran v. Pahlavi (9th Cir. 1995) 58 F.3d 1406, which held that Iranian banks could not enforce judgments they obtained against the late Shah’s sister.
The Ninth Circuit held in the latter case that the judgments were unenforceable in this country because the defendant “could not expect fair treatment from the courts of Iran, could not personally appear before those courts, could not obtain proper legal representation in Iran, and could not even obtain local witnesses on her behalf.”
Minassian, the presiding justice explained, presented expert opinion regarding the availability of discovery and appropriate procedures for pleading, venue, challenging judicial bias, and the like, but did not contradict evidence by experts on Iranian law and policy regarding religious and gender bias, as well as bias against those who fled the country after the revolution, and the lack of an honest and independent judiciary and independent and competent counsel.
‘Stacked Against Her’
Bigelow discounted the claim of plaintiff’s expert that Iranian law imposes no limitation on the right of women or non-Muslims to sue. “[J]ust because a woman or non-Muslim may file a lawsuit or present her case at trial is not evidence the proceedings are not stacked against her,” Bigelow wrote, citing a rule that a woman’s testimony is counted as having one-half the value of a man’s.
Attorneys on appeal were Mitchell C. Tilner and Steven S. Fleischman of Horvitz & Levy, and Allan B. Cooper of Ervin Cohen & Jessup for the plaintiffs and John Derrick for the defendant.
The case is Aghaian v. Minassian, 15 S.O.S. 902.
Copyright 2015, Metropolitan News Company