Abdo Luftu Ali v. U.S. Department of State: U.S. Passport Revocation After Almost 30 Years

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Excerpt from Abdo Luftu Ali v. U.S. Department of State/Memorandum of Opinion March 17, 2021:

Plaintiff Abdo Ali (“plaintiff’ or “Ali’”) brings this action under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”) against the U.S. Department of State (“State Department” or “defendant”), seeking an order setting aside defendant’s revocation of Ali’s U.S. passport.
[…]
Ali currently resides in Oxford, Mississippi, but he was born in Yemen in 1979. At the time, Ali’s father was a U.S. citizen, having naturalized approximately ten and a half years earlier in January 1969. Compl. 4 8. In 1990, Ali was first issued a U.S. passport under Section 301(g) of the INA on the grounds that he was a child of a U.S. citizen, who, prior to Ali’s birth, had been present in the U.S. for at least ten years, including at least five while he was older than fourteen. Jd. 410. Ali entered the United States in 1994 and was issued passport renewals in 1999 and 2009. Id. § 13. Because passports “may be issued only to a U.S. national,” 22 C.F.R. § 51.2(a), the initial issuance of Ali’s passport and the subsequent renewals necessarily constituted findings that Ali was a U.S. national. See Compl. ff 14, 19. On January 8, 2019, however, the State Department revoked Ali’s passport on the ground that he was not a U.S. national. Id. ¥ 15; see also 22 C.F.R. § 51.62(b) (“The Department may revoke a passport when the Department has determined that the bearer of the passport is not a U.S. national.”). In a letter to Ali, the State Department explained its decision by noting that sometime after the 2009 renewal, “[a]n investigation .. . revealed that [Ali’s] father was not physically present in the United States for ten years before [Ali’s] birth,” as was then required by Section 301(g) of the INA. See Ex. A to Pl.’s Opp. to Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss (“PI.’s Opp.’””) [Dkt. #9-1] at 1.! The letter cited documentation supporting its position but lacked any explanation as to why the State Department had initially issued Ali a passport and subsequently renewed it twice. Jd.; Compl. 418.

On May 30, 2020, Ali filed this suit under the APA, 5 U.S.C. § 701 et seq., seeking to set aside the revocation decision. See Compl. at 8. The complaint alleges that, “to the best of his knowledge,” Ali is a citizen and national of the United States, id. { 3, and that the State Department’s decision to revoke his passport was “arbitrary . . . as well as not being in accordance with law.” Id. § 1. In the alternative, the complaint states that “even if [Ali] is not a national of the United States,” the revocation should still be set aside because the State Department “is estopped by laches and equitable estoppel from revoking [] Ali’s passport.” Jd. § 2.
[…]
In an attempt to avoid the preclusive effect of § 1503(a), Ali argues in the alternative that he is permitted to proceed with this suit under the APA regardless of whether he is, in fact, a U.S. national. See Pl.’s Opp. at 3 (invoking this Court’s equitable powers under the doctrines of laches and estoppel). Under this theory, plaintiff would have the Court set aside defendant’s revocation of Ali’s passport even though he fails to allege that he meets the necessary precondition for a U.S. passport—being a U.S. national, 22 C.F.R. § 51.2(a). See Pl.’s Mot. at 4—5 n.2 (stating that Ali does not “claim unequivocally” that he is a U.S. national, but “maintains that .. . even if he is not a U.S. national, the [State] Department should be estopped from denying it”). Unfortunately for plaintiff, this I cannot do.

The power to issue passports rests solely in the Secretary of State or a designee. 22 U.S.C. § 211a (providing that the Secretary possesses the authority to “grant and issue passports .. . and no other person shall grant, issue, or verify such passports”). Passports may only be issued to U.S. nationals, see 22 C.F.R. § 51.2(a), and the State Department may revoke those passports when it determines that the bearer of the passport is not a U.S. national. 22 C.F.R. § 51.62(b); see also 22 U.S.C. § 212 (“No passport shall be granted or issued to or verified for any other persons than those owing allegiance, whether citizens or not, to the United States.”’).

The Court’s power to craft equitable remedies, while broad, does not permit it to interfere with this statutory and regulatory scheme. See INS v. Pangilinan, 486 U.S. 875, 883-84 (1988) (holding courts’ equitable authority does not extend to crafting remedies contrary to Congressional statutes). Especially in the immigration context, the Court may not rely on the doctrine of laches or the doctrine of equitable estoppel to override public policy as established by Congress. See id. at 885 (“Neither by application of the doctrine of estoppel, nor by invocation of equitable powers, nor by any other means does a court have the power to confer citizenship in violation of [statutory limitations].”).

Congress has established that only U.S. nationals may receive a passport. See 22 U.S.C. § 212. It has also provided, through 8 U.S.C. § 1503(a), a mechanism to challenge agency determinations that an individual is not a U.S. national. But where a _ plaintiff refuses to pursue this avenue of relief, courts may not grant through alternative equitable means what is effectively the same result—a determination that the State Department must treat plaintiff as if he is a U.S. national. See Pangilinan, 486 U.S. at 883-84.

Accordingly, no matter how plaintiff frames his complaint, it fails to state a claim under the APA.
[…] the Court GRANTS defendant’s motion to dismiss and DISMISSES the action in its entirety.

In footnote 7, the Court talks about what must be “exceedingly frustrating”:

The Court appreciates that the State Department’s conduct in recognizing Ali as a U.S. national for almost thirty years, only to reverse that determination with minimal explanation, must be exceedingly frustrating. But plaintiffs recourse nonetheless lies under Section 360(a) of the INA, not the APA. See Hassan, 793 F. Supp. 2d at 443 (noting that although multiple inconsistent decisions from the government over a span of many years created an understandable frustration, no action was cognizable under the APA with respect to the revocation of plaintiff’s passport).

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Picur v. Kerry: Court slaps down FSGB annuity decision as “arbitrary and capricious”

Posted: 1:37 am EDT
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This case is about a USAID/OIG criminal investigator, an annuity calculation, and a Foreign Service Grievance Board decision.

According to court documents, the starting point for computing an annuity payment under the Foreign Service Act of 1980, as amended. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 4041–4069c-1. is section 4046(a)(1), which provides that:

[t]he annuity of a participant shall be equal to 2 percent of his or her average basic salary for the highest 3 consecutive years of service multiplied by the number of years, not exceeding 35, of service credit obtained in accordance with sections 4056 and 4057 of this title[.]

22 U.S.C. § 4046(a)(1). The statute does not define “basic salary” as that term is used in section 4046(a)(1); however, section 4046(a)(8) makes clear that a participant’s “basic pay” for annuity calculation purposes includes the special differential pay that Foreign Service officers are authorized to receive. Id. § 4046(a)(8). Moreover, section 4046(a)(9) provides that, when determining the average basic salary for the highest 3 consecutive years of service—commonly referred to as the participant’s “high three” (see Compl. ¶ 13)—“the basic salary or basic pay of any member of the [Foreign] Service whose official duty station is outside the continental United States shall be considered to be the salary or pay that would have been paid to the member had the member’s official duty station been Washington, D.C., including locality-based comparability payments[.]” 28 U.S.C. § 4046(a)(9).4

Here is a quick summary of the case:

Plaintiff Gregory Picur served as a Foreign Service criminal investigator for the Office of Inspector General of the United States Agency for International Development (“USAID OIG”) from the 1990s until his retirement in May of 2010. The dispute in the instant case concerns the State Department’s calculation of Picur’s retirement annuity, which Picur alleges is incorrect. (See Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶ 14.)1 Generally speaking, Picur contends that the State Department wrongly based its annuity calculation on what the agency says Picur’s salary should have been at the time of his retirement, rather than on the compensation that Picur actually received. (See id. ¶¶ 9–14.) Picur filed an administrative grievance contesting the agency’s calculation of his retirement annuity, but the State Department denied his grievance (see id. ¶ 4), and on appeal of that denial, the Foreign Service Grievance Board (“FSGB”) upheld the agency’s calculation (see id. ¶¶ 5–8), finding that the State Department had determined Picur’s retirement annuity in accordance with agency policies (see, e.g., id. ¶ 35). Picur has filed the instant action against Secretary of State John Kerry (“Defendant” or “the Secretary”), asking this Court to review and to set aside the FSGB’s conclusion as arbitrary, capricious, and not in accordance with law under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”).

[…] Defendant argues that the FSGB’s decision should be upheld because the Board examined the relevant evidence and provided a satisfactory explanation for its conclusion. (See Def.’s Mem. in Supp. of Def.’s Mot. (“Def.’s Br.”), ECF No. 10, at 22–27.) But this Court finds that, when it affirmed the State Department’s annuity calculation, the FSGB did not consider the crucial issue of whether or not the statutory scheme that governs calculation of Picur’s annuity permits the agency to treat the annuity computation process as an opportunity to correct purported prior salary overpayments. In other words, it is clear to this Court that the FSGB ignored a key aspect of the problem that it was deciding in a manner that rendered its decision to uphold the State Department’s annuity calculation arbitrary and capricious in violation of the APA. Consequently, Defendant’s motion for summary judgment must be DENIED, the FSGB’s decision must be VACATED, and the matter must be REMANDED for further consideration.

The court’s conclusion:

Whatever the appropriate statutory analysis, the administrative record in this case makes crystal clear that the FSGB failed to consult any of the statutory provisions that specifically prescribe how an annuity is properly calculated in this context, and it appears to have merely assumed that the State Department has the power to decide that an annuitant’s actual high three salary average is too high for the purpose of an annuity calculation. Consequently, this Court concludes that the Board failed to consider an important aspect of the problem with which it was presented, and thus its decision was arbitrary and capricious for the purpose of the APA. See, e.g., Olsen, 990 F. Supp. at 40 (granting summary judgment for plaintiff where the FSGB “did not properly consider the legality of the [agency’s] policies”); see also Quantum Enterm’t, Ltd. v. U.S. Dep’t of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, 597 F. Supp. 2d 146, 153 (D.D.C. 2009) (holding that where an agency’s “decision [i]s incomplete, [it] violates the prohibition against arbitrary or capricious agency decisions” (citation omitted)).

We are posting the Memorandum Opinion for Picur v. Kerry, Civil Action No. 14-cv-1492 (KBJ) in the the member’s only section of Diplopundit’s forum. Check it out in the forum’s document dump.

The redacted FSGB Record of Proceeding (ROP) for this case is available online here (pdf) via fsgb.gov.

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