A Washington federal court judge has ruled that the Lebanese ambassador to the United States and his wife are immune from a breach of contract lawsuit brought by a former housekeeper.
U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg wrote in an opinion (PDF) released yesterday afternoon that Antoine Chedid and his family are protected by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, finding that an exception to diplomatic immunity for certain commercial agreements doesn’t apply to domestic workers.
The former housekeeper, Araceli Montuya, worked for the Chedid family in their diplomatic residence from August 2007 to September 2009. In her complaint (PDF), she accused Chedid of failing to pay minimum wage and also of verbally abusing and otherwise mistreating her.
Montuya’s attorney, Silver Spring, Md.-based solo practitioner Laurence Johnson, had argued that Montuya’s job fell outside the scope of commercial activities relating to diplomatic responsibilities that are protected under the Vienna Convention. Under that logic, Johnson said, a diplomat could refuse payment to any number of everyday service providers – house painting and tailoring, for instance – without any consequences.
Johnson asked the court to consider a definition of commercial activity as defined in the Federal Sovereign Immunities Act, which he claimed would support his position. Boasberg, noting that the FSIA is not a multilateral treaty and was not intended to “change the meaning of existing international treaties,” declined to do so.
Johnson did not immediately return a request for comment this morning.
Chedid’s attorney, Mary Gately of Washington’s DLA Piper, said that while the Chedid family has denied the underlying allegations, she was pleased to resolve the case on “a purely legal basis.”
“The judge made the right decision. There’s an abundance of case law that supports our side,” she said in a phone interview this morning.
Boasberg wrote that while “the Court is cognizant of the potential injustice to people in Plaintiff’s position,” the case law and precedent set in other courts does not support applying the commercial activities exception to domestic workers.
He quoted a “Statement of Interest” filed by the U.S. State Department in two similar cases, which stated explicitly that the department did not consider the hiring of domestic workers as the type of “commercial activity” exempted from diplomatic immunity.
“What may prevent parties from obtaining redress in our courts also serves to protect American diplomats and their families from what we might consider as legal abuses overseas,” Boasberg wrote. “This balancing is a policy decision this Court should not challenge.”