An Artist's Guide to Suing Deadbeat International Buyers — Like the Saudi Royal Family — on the Cheap

An Artist's Guide to Suing Deadbeat International Buyers — Like the Saudi Royal Family — on the Cheap
(Courtesy s_falkow via flickr)

In a decision filed yesterday, the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia ruled in a 2-1 that Brooklyn artist Elli Bern Angellino can once again take up his lawsuit against the Saudi royal family. The al Sauds are allegedly deadbeat buyers who refuse to fork over the $12.6 million they owe the sculptor for the 29 works he created specifically for them.

In 2010, Angellino sued the Saudi royal family and 16 of its members, claiming they had not paid for the sculptures he created for them and shipped to the Arabian Peninsula in 2006 and 2007. Under the contract, the Saudis could either pay for the works once they arrived in Riyadh or send them back to the artist. After they did neither, Angellino sued. But, a court found that Angellino, acting as his own lawyer, failed to properly meet all the legal requirements for pursuing payment and threw the case out last year. Tuesday's decision reinstated the case, allowing Angellino to pursue payment anew.

Luckily for other artists pursuing deadbeat Saudi royals — and for Angellino himself — judge Karen LeCraft Henderson ends up giving him a nice little primer for suing a foreign entity accused of neglecting art payments. Here, then, are the most helpful excerpts from the decision if you are trying to sue any foreign governments that owe you millions, with minimal personal expense:

1) Argue the case yourself.

As we observed in Moore, "[p]ro se litigants are allowed more latitude than litigants represented by counsel to correct defects in service of process and pleadings."

The court may go easier on you if you represent yourself. That said — can you imagine trying to navigate both U.S. and international law without a lawyer?

2) Know the law.

"The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (Act, FSIA), 28 U.S.C. § 1608, governs service of process on a foreign state, including a political subdivision, agency or instrumentality thereof."

Ordinarily, a foreign government is protected from lawsuits in the United States under a 1976 law called the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (the same ones that allow diplomatic cars to ignore parking tickets). However, one of the exceptions is when a foreign government engages in commercial activities here. Art purchases apply.

3) Don't mail it in.

"Given his practice of communicating with the defendants through the Embassy, Angellino believed he was required to serve process on the defendants using the same means. But when he attempted to serve a copy of the summons and complaint by mailing them via first class mail to the Embassy, it refused to accept the mailing." 

A lot of this case rests on a mail mix-up. The law states that you first have to try to deliver the summons in other ways before you can try the postal service. When and if you get to that point, you must make sure you use the kind of mail that requires a signature and a receipt.

4) Do some tricky Hollywood-type stuff that someone else did before.

"We believe there exists a 'reasonable probability' that Angellino can effect service on the defendant Royal Family given the success of other parties … [Quoting from a 2005 case] ('The  [U.S.] Embassy in Khartoum delivered the summons, complaint and notice of suit … to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on June 28, 2005 under cover of a diplomatic note…')"

Basically, the judge is laying out a proven way to serve papers to the Saudis: Have the U.S. embassy in Riyadh send the summonses in an envelope that says "diplomatic note." Then they have to open it.

5) When in doubt, just keep trying.

"Angellino’s  dogged (albeit inadequate) attempts to  effect service of process  and the district court’s failure to provide 'a form of notice sufficiently understandable to one in [Angellino’s] circumstances fairly to apprise him of what is required' to serve process … we conclude the district court abused its discretion in dismissing Angellino’s complaint'"

This case is being allowed to continue because Angellino gets points for effort (albeit only from two of the three judges).