Tangled Fee Dispute From Airport Massacre
WASHINGTON (CN) - A Maryland attorney seeking to enforce a settlement with the American Center for Civil Justice must explain in writing why the court should retain jurisdiction in a case dismissed nearly two years ago, a federal judge ruled this week.
Attorney Joshua Ambush has been at loggerheads with the legal advocacy group since they worked together and obtained a $1.8 billion fund from Libya for the victims of the 1972 Lod Airport Massacre in Tel Aviv and their families.
On May 30, 1972, three members of the Japanese Red Army used submachine guns and grenades to fire into a crowd of airline passengers at Israel's Lod International Airport, now known as Ben Gurion International Airport.
After securing the damages fund, a dispute arose as to whether Ambush could claim a portion of the $12 million in legal fees or just his hourly wage. In September 2012 the parties informed the court they'd reached a settlement, depositing $1.9 million with the registry of the court.
Under the agreement, each side was to receive 50 percent of that amount.
In January 2013, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals held that Ambush defrauded the families of some Puerto Rican victims of the massacre: a jury found he had secured his clients' consent to retainer agreements by deceit, or dolo as it is known in Spanish.
Puerto Rican tourists waiting for their baggage to begin a pilgrimage were among the 24 fatalities and 78 injured.
Ambush appealed the jury decision on grounds of insufficient evidence, but the Boston-based 1st Circuit found that the jury reasonably came to its conclusion, and dismissed Ambush's other arguments.
The jury awarded the heirs $100,000 in damages, and the court nullified the retainer agreements and ordered Ambush to pay $1 million in restitution.
In the meantime, the estate of one of Ambush's clients grew restive waiting to receive a payout stemming from the death of their loved one in the massacre, and this led to more legal tussling.
In the midst of this, Ambush said in his motion to enforce the settlement, "the Center, by its own initiative and without any order from the court, filed a document titled 'Motion in Reply to Statements of Attorney Ambush in his "Opposition to Motion to Strike."'"
In it, Ambush said, the Center argued that Ambush had no rights or claims over the money previously deposited in court.
On Feb. 28 this year, the Center filed another motion, requesting the court to hold in its favor and deny Ambush the money from the settlement.
In considering Ambush's motion to intervene, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman noted that "Once a case has been dismissed, a federal court does not retain jurisdiction to enforce a settlement agreement simply on the basis of its prior authority over the underlying dispute. ...
"There must be either 'some independent basis for federal jurisdiction,' or the Court must possess ancillary jurisdiction because 'the parties' obligation to comply with the terms of the settlement agreement had been made part of the order of dismissal - either by separate provision (such as a provision 'retaining jurisdiction' over the settlement agreement) or by incorporating the terms of the settlement agreement in the order," the judge wrote.
He noted that several courts have concluded that in the context of self-executing stipulations of dismissal, "jurisdiction is retained only if (1) prior to filing the joint stipulation, the parties seek a court order retaining jurisdiction over the agreement or embodying the terms of the agreement; or (2) the parties file a joint stipulation that is contingent on a court order retaining jurisdiction. ...
"The parties in this case took neither of these steps," Friedman said. "[T]here was no motion requesting that the Court retain jurisdiction, nor was the stipulation conditioned on any jurisdictional order. In fact, the joint stipulation is devoid of any reference at all to compliance with the settlement agreement, and the settlement agreement itself was never filed with the Court - until recently, as an exhibit to defendant's motion to enforce.
"In light of the foregoing, the Court does not see how it would have authority to grant the defendant's motion. The defendant's motion to enforce is not helpful in this regard: although the defendant's 41-page motion, accompanied by 22 exhibits, raises a number of different legal and factual issues, it contains only one page devoted to the question of jurisdiction, and its jurisdictional argument is unpersuasive."
In directing Ambush to respond in writing to this issue, Friedman said: "The Court believes that it is in the interest of efficiency and judicial economy to resolve this jurisdictional question before turning (if necessary) to the other legal and factual questions raised by defendant's motion."