Federal Court Authorizes Serving a Lawsuit by Tweet

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October 5, 2016, Courthouse News Service

In March 2016, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry named Islamic State atrocities against Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims in Iraq and Syria acts of genocide. This finding does not legally obligate the U.S. to take any particular action. However, the force of the U.S. government using the term “genocide” gives weight to lawmakers, humanitarian groups and others to take action.

A California-based group that works with refugees sued two banks in the Middle East and a Kuwaiti sheikh for allegedly financing ISIS acts of genocide against Assyrian Christians. But when the nonprofit group, St. Francis of Assisi, faced difficulty in serving one of the defendants, Kuwaiti-born Sunni cleric Hajjaj al-Ajmi, it asked the U.S. courts for assistance.

In a September 30th ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler of the Northern District of California invoked Rule 4(f)(3) to order that the plaintiff be allowed to use Twitter to serve process on the Kuwaiti national. The case is St. Francis Assisi v. Kuwait Financial House. The Analysis section of the four-page opinion begins this way:

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(f) establishes three mechanisms for serving an individual in a foreign country: 1) by an internationally agreed means of service that is reasonably calculated to give notice, such as those provided by the Hague Convention; 2) if there is no international means or no means specified then by means reasonably calculated to give notice; or 3) by other means not prohibited by international agreement, as the court orders. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(f).

Courts have applied Rule 4(f) to allow the order of any means of service as long as it comports with due process and: 1) it provides “notice reasonably calculated, under all circumstances to apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action and afford[s] them an opportunity to present their objections”; and 2) it is not prohibited by international agreement.

The St Francis group will tweet at al-Ajmi with a link to the summons where the complaint can be obtained. According to Courthouse News Service, Twitter was the social media channel of choice because Al-Ajmi used Twitter to launch campaigns to help fund the Islamic State’s genocidal acts. Courthouse News Service notes that “finding al-Ajmi’s current Twitter handle could prove challenging because many of his previous accounts have been disabled by the social media platform.”

Normally, papers are served in the state where the lawsuit is filed. You cannot sue someone in a California court and serve papers on the defendant in Oklahoma. When the accused is overseas, it gets more complicated. Beeler’s ruling cited cases wherein federal courts have approved serving foreign nationals with lawsuits via Facebook and other social media platforms: “In 2014, a federal judge in the Eastern District of Virginia authorized serving a Turkish defendant with a lawsuit through email, Facebook and LinkedIn in the case WhosHere Inc. v. Gokham Oran.”

Beeler concludes her ruling by stating, “Al-Ajmi has an active Twitter account and continues to use it to communicate with his audience. Service by Twitter is not prohibited by international agreement with Kuwait.”

This NPQ newswire observes a new and innovative use of Twitter to serve justice. While that legal action is described in technical and sometimes perhaps cute terms, this newswire never forgets the unspeakable horror of the Islamic State committing genocide and other war crimes against Yazidis, Christians, and Shiite Muslims. Investigations detail mass killings of those who refuse to convert to Islam. They are shot in the head or their throats are slit, often in front of their families. Reports describe in harrowing detail the trauma experienced by women and girls sold into slavery. Whether or not the clever and determined used of social media is successful in bringing a few financiers of this genocide to justice, a much larger battle is at hand and much more mightier tools than Twitter will be required to end this madness.—James Schaffer