Fourth Circuit dismisses breach-of-lease claim by Zoroastrian Center

Zoroastrian Ctr. v. Rustam Guiv Found. of N.Y., No. 14-1841 (4th Cir. May 4, 2016).

A bas relief depicting the Roman Emperor Valerian bowing down before Emperor Shapur of Persia. Valerian was taken prisoner after the Battle of Edessa. His ultimate fate is disputed.

A bas relief depicting the Roman Emperor Valerian bowing down before Emperor Shapur of Persia. Valerian was taken prisoner after the Battle of Edessa. His ultimate fate is disputed.

I, the Mazda-worshipping lord Shapur, king of kings, whose lineage is from the Gods, son of the Mazda-worshipping divinity Ardashir, king of kings, whose lineage is from the Gods, grandson of king Papak, am ruler of Iranshahr. . . . 

When at first we had become established in the empire, Gordian Caesar raised in all of the Roman Empire a force and marched against us. On the border of Babylonia a great frontal battle occurred. Gordian Caesar was killed. . . . And the Romans made Philip Caesar. Then Philip Caesar came to us and became tributary to us. . . . 

And Caesar lied again and did wrong to Armenia. Then we attacked the Roman Empire and annihilated at Barbalissos a Roman force of 60,000, and Syria and the environs of Syria we burned, ruined, and pillaged. . . . 

– From the Res Gestae Divi Saporis, ca. AD 260 (slightly altered). 

Zoroastrianism was the religion of ancient Persia, ruled in the third century by the Sassanian dynasty, whose scion, Shapur, gloried in his accomplishments in the inscription quoted above. Zoroastrianism is still practiced—most famously by the Parsis, a community descended from Persian refugees who fled to India after the Arab conquest. 

Zoroastrianism is also practiced in America. Here, the Zoroastrian Center leased land in Virginia from the Rustam Guiv Foundation for 99 years at a rate of one dollar a year. These favorable terms perhaps stem from the fact that both entities are dedicated to advancing Zoroastrianism. In any event, the parties also agreed that the Center would start building a religious center on the property by a date certain and complete it within three-and-a-half years. But the Zoroastrian Center didn’t meet the deadlines, and the Rustam Guiv Foundation terminated the lease. The Center sued for breach. 

The district court dismissed the suit on summary judgment, and the Fourth Circuit now affirms.

Summary judgment can’t be granted when there’s a genuine dispute about a material fact. This case shows how important that it is that the disputed fact actually be material. The Zoroastrian Center points to genuine disputes over certain facts: who drafted an amendment to the lease, for example, and whether a particular witness was credible. These facts don’t actually make a difference, though; what matters is that the Zoroastrian Center clearly didn’t abide by the written terms of the lease. Nor can the Center claim equitable estoppel, because it didn’t detrimentally rely on anything that the Rustam Guiv Foundation said.