UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. $215,587.22 IN U.S. CURRENCY SEIZED FROM BANK ACCOUNT NUMBER 100606401387436 HELD IN THE NAME OF JJ SZLAVIK COMPANIES, INC. AT CITIZENS BANK et al
OPINION AND ORDER granting 11 Motion for Protective Order. See full Opinion and Order for details. Signed by Judge Christopher R. Cooper on 10/11/2017. (lccrc3)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
United States of America,
Case No. 17-cv-00853 (CRC)
$215,587.22 in U.S. Currency et al.,
OPINION AND ORDER
Claimants in this civil forfeiture action, Joseph and Andrea Szlavik, have moved for a
protective order to shield them from answering special interrogatories issued by the Government
pursuant to Rule G(6) of the Supplemental Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for Admiralty or
Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions. The Government routinely propounds Rule G(6)
interrogatories in forfeiture cases to explore whether putative claimants have standing to challenge
the forfeiture. The Szlaviks argue that (1) the special interrogatories are improper in this case
because their standing has already been established through sworn facts contained in both the
Government’s verified complaint and their own verified ownership claims; and (2) the
interrogatories are overly broad and burdensome. The Court will grant the motion. Although the
Government has identified two colorable concerns regarding the Szlaviks’ present standing to
challenge the forfeiture, the interrogatories as drafted go beyond the standing issues the
Government has identified. The Court will therefore quash the propounded interrogatories but will
permit the Government to re-issue interrogatories that are more tailored to the standing issues
identified. The Government may do so at any time before discovery closes, as authorized by
Supplemental Rule G(6).
The Government initiated this forfeiture action on May 9, 2017 by filing a verified
complaint for forfeiture in rem against $475,405.21 in U.S. currency. Verified Complaint
(“Compl.”) ¶ 1. According to the verified complaint, the Government seized these funds from nine
separate bank accounts “held in the name of” Joseph Szlavik or, in the case of two of the accounts,
businesses which he operated and controlled. Id. ¶¶ 2, passim. One of the personal accounts, held
at Wells Fargo, is alleged to be owned jointly by Joseph and his ex-wife Andrea Szlavik. Id. ¶ 3.
The complaint goes on to allege that between 2010 and 2013, Joseph Szlavik used some of these
accounts to run an “unlicensed international money transmitting business” in violation of 18 U.S.C.
§ 1960; that he charged clients for that service (most notably the President of Gabon and his
family); and that the monies in all of the accounts constitute proceeds from the illegal business. Id.
¶¶ 1, 13-19. The funds were originally seized by the Department of Homeland Security in 2013.
On June 14, 2017, both Joseph and Andrea Szlavik asserted an interest in the defendant
property by filing verified ownership claims, and on July 5, 2017, they moved to dismiss the
verified complaint. About two weeks later, instead of responding to the Szlaviks’ motion to
dismiss, the Government filed a notice of intent to serve a set of special interrogatories pursuant to
Rule G(6) of the Supplemental Rules. The interrogatories request information about each of the
nine accounts, including facts supporting ownership, explanations of how and why the funds were
obtained, and numerous other questions about the Szlaviks’ relationship with various business
entities and associates. Rather than responding to the interrogatories, the Szlaviks filed the present
motion seeking protection “from the unnecessary and unduly burdensome special interrogatories the
government served on them.” Mot. Protective Order 18.
Standard of Review
Supplemental Rule G establishes the procedures for forfeiture actions in rem arising from a
federal statute. Fed. R. Civ. P. Supplemental Rule G(1). Rule G(6)(a) provides that “[t]he
government may serve special interrogatories limited to the claimant’s identity and relationship to
the defendant property without the court’s leave at any time after the claim is filed and before
discovery is closed.” The advisory committee notes explain that Rule G(6) allows “the government
to file limited interrogatories at any time after a claim is filed to gather information that bears on the
claimant’s standing.” 2006 Advisory Committee Notes to Fed. R. Civ. P. Supplemental Rule
G(6)(a). Answers or objections to the interrogatories must be served within 21 days. Fed. R. Civ.
P. Supplemental Rule G(6)(b).
The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure apply to proceedings governed by the Supplemental
Rules. Fed. R. Civ. P. Supplemental Rule A(2). Rule 26(c) allows the Court to issue protective
orders to “protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden
or expense.” A district court can enter a protective order upon a showing of “good cause.” United
States v. Microsoft Corp., 165 F.3d 952, 953 (D.C. Cir. 1999).
Claimants in a civil forfeiture action must establish both Article III and statutory standing.
United States v. Seventeen Thousand Nine Hundred Dollars ($17,900.00) in United States
Currency, 859 F.3d 1085, 1089–90 (D.C. Cir. 2017). A claimant establishes statutory standing
simply by complying with the jurisdictional procedural requirements of Rule G(5).1 For Article III
The Government argues that a claimant only has statutory standing if he complies with
both Rule G(5) and Rule G(6). Opp’n Mot. Protective Order 6. Courts tend to focus on claimants’
compliance with G(5)—the filing of a verified claim—as the crux of statutory standing. See United
States v. 17 Coon Creek Rd., Hawkins Bar California, Trinity Cty., 787 F.3d 968, 972 (9th Cir.
2015) (failure to comply with Rule G(6) did not “vitiate [claimant’s] statutory standing.”)
standing, the bar “at the initial stages of a civil forfeiture proceeding is low.” United States v. Any
& All Funds on Deposit in Account No. XXXXX-XXXXXXXX at HSBC Bank PLC, 55 Corp. St.,
Coventry, United Kingdom, 87 F. Supp. 3d 163, 167 (D.D.C. 2015). Claimants need only allege a
“colorable claim on the property,” $17,900.00, 859 F.3d at 1090 (internal citation omitted), and
facts alleging an ownership interest either in the verified complaint or in the verified claim are
sufficient, see HSBC Bank, 87 F. Supp. 3d at 167; United States v. $196,969.00 U.S. Currency, 719
F.3d 644, 646 (7th Cir. 2013).
While minimal at the pleading stage, however, the standing requirement escalates somewhat
as the case progresses. To survive a motion for summary judgment, for example, claimants must
“present some evidence of ownership beyond the mere assertion.” $17,900.00, 859 F.3d at 1091
(quoting United States v. $133,420, 672 F.3d 629, 639 (9th Cir. 2012)) (internal quotation marks
omitted); see also United States v. $239,400, 795 F.3d 639, 642–43 (7th Cir. 2015) (same); United
States v. $148,840, 521 F.3d 1268, 1276 (10th Cir. 2008) (same). Additionally, by the summary
judgment stage, the claimant “can no longer rest on  ‘mere allegations,’ but must ‘set forth’ by
affidavit or other evidence ‘specific facts,’ which for purposes of the summary judgment motion
will be taken to be true.” $17,900.00, 859 F.3d at 1091 (quoting Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife,
504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992)).
(emphasis added). On the other hand, courts have said that the “term ‘statutory standing’ relates to
a claimant’s ability to show that he has satisfied whatever statutory requirements Congress has
imposed for contesting a civil forfeiture action in federal court.” United States v. 8 Gilcrease Lane,
Quincy Florida 32351, 641 F. Supp. 2d 1, 5-6 (D.D.C. 2009). Neither party disputes that Claimants
have complied with Rule G(5), and the Court need not yet decide whether they will still have
statutory standing if they fail to comply with the interrogatory-response requirements of Rule G(6).
Again, the Government propounded its G(6) interrogatories in lieu of opposing the
Szlaviks’ motion to dismiss. The Szlaviks contend that they have met the low burden of
establishing standing at the pleading stage because the Government alleges in its verified complaint,
and Claimants confirm in their verified claim, that assets were seized from accounts opened, owned
and controlled by Claimants. Mot. Protective Order 4. As a result, they argue, Rule G(6)
interrogatories, which are solely intended to uncover standing issues, are unnecessary and
answering them would be unduly burdensome. The Government responds that whether the
Szlaviks have met the low burden of standing at the pleading stage is irrelevant to the propriety of
its Rule G(6) interrogatories because, under the rule, the Government may propound them “at any
time after a claim is filed and before discovery in closed.” The Court agrees. Because the
Government is not limited to when it may issue Rule G(6) interrogatories, having standing to
challenge a forfeiture case with a motion to dismiss does not preclude the Government from issuing
G(6) interrogatories early in the case to test whether a claimant has standing on the merits.
Claimants cite no contrary authority.
But that does not end the story. The Szlaviks also contend that their standing has been
established under the somewhat more stringent “some evidence” standard that applies at the
summary judgment stage of forfeiture actions. $17,900.00, 859 F.3d at 1092. This argument is
more persuasive. Through its verified complaint, the Government avers that Joseph Szlavik
established, owns, and controls each of the nine accounts. See, e.g., Compl. ¶¶ 2, 10. The Szlaviks
confirm their dominion over the accounts in their verified claim. Ownership and control of funds
are hallmarks of standing in forfeiture cases. See HSBC Bank, 87 F. Supp. 3d at 166–67.2 And
This is not a case like HSBC Bank where the Government alleges that the nominal account
holder is a straw owner for a third party who actually controls the funds. See id. The theory of the
there appears to be no factual dispute as to whether the Szlaviks owned and controlled the funds at
issue here. With their ownership and control acknowledged by Government, asking Claimants
about, for example, the source of the funds and the circumstances of their ownership is unnecessary
for the purpose of testing standing. 3 Such questions are therefore properly stricken from the
The Government has nevertheless identified two relevant areas of inquiry about the
Szlaviks’ standing that justify at least some discovery through Rule G(6) interrogatories. The first
involves the timing of the Government’s complaint, which only discusses the Szlaviks’ ownership
interest in the property up until 2013. At oral argument, Government counsel explained the need to
verify that Claimants currently have an ownership interest in the property. 9/13/17 Hearing Tr. at
22 (“The complaint was not updated to reflect any sort of current ownership interest . . . .). Second,
the Government is interested in whether any agreements between the Szlaviks stemming from their
apparent divorce may have affected their respective ownership interests in the funds. Id. at 24.
This concern is implicated by the one account the Szlaviks jointly own, but could in theory affect
ownership of the other accounts as well. The Court will therefore permit the Government to
propound a new set of interrogatories that are tailored to exploring these specific standing issues.
Government’s case, rather, is that the funds represent the profits of illegal activity, which Mr.
Szlavik controlled and used freely for his personal benefit.
Specifically, the Government’s special interrogatory number 1 with respect to Claimant
Joseph Szlavik contains subparts (b)-(d), which ask about how the relevant funds were obtained and
why they were obtained—two issues that do not implicate standing in this case. The same is true
for interrogatories that ask about Claimants’ employment history (number 13) and relationships
with various companies (numbers 10 through 12 and 14 through 19).
For the foregoing reasons, it is hereby ORDERED that  Claimant’s Motion for a
Protective Order is GRANTED.
CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER
United States District Judge
Date: October 11, 2017
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