The Case Against Corporate Aiding and Abetting Liability Under International and Federal Common Law
Professors Samuel Estreicher, John McGinnis, Michael Ramsey, Mark Weisburd, Ernest Young and myself, in partnership with the National Association of Manufacturers, filed a brief amicus curiae today in Doe v. Nestle, a Ninth Circuit Alien Tort Statute case. In the wake of the Second Circuit’s decision in Kiobel, but also the DC and Seventh Circuit decisions, the question of whether and how corporations can be liable under the ATS is getting more and more appellate court attention. Here is our take (short version, DC Circuit and Seventh Circuit were deeply mistaken).
Plaintiffs in this case seek to hold corporate defendants liable under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), 28 U.S.C. §1350, for aiding and abetting international law violations respecting forced labor and child labor by unidentified farmers in the Ivory Coast. We believe the District Court was correct in dismissing these claims. First, Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 542 U.S. 692 (2004), directs that only violations of well-established, specifically defined, and universally agreed-upon international law rules may be recognized under the ATS. In this case, the international legal consensus required by Sosa is absent for at least two essential aspects of the Plaintiffs’ claim. There is no international consensus that aiding and abetting liability may be based on a mens rea of mere knowledge of unlawful activity by others rather than sharing in the purpose of that activity; and there likewise is no consensus that private corporations can be liable for violations of customary international law.
Moreover, even if Plaintiffs could show the necessary international consensus, recognition of an ATS action for the violations alleged here would be an inappropriate expansion of federal common law. Those violations, involving non-U.S. farmers’ infringement of alleged obligations to their own countrymen, are radically different from the violations that were the focus of the ATS at the time of its enactment — conduct that directly affronted, and thereby jeopardized relations with, other nations. Recognition of an ATS action for the entirely different violations at issue here would exceed the sharply limited authority of federal courts to expand implied rights of action, and the equally sharp limits on judicial interference in foreign affairs.
There is one issue here that I think should be interesting to our readers, even those who don’t spend much time thinking about the ATS. It surrounds the question of how to consider international law sources. Plaintiffs in this case (and others) rely heavily on ICTY and ICTR decisions to support their arguments. Defendants often point to the Rome Statute of the ICC. We take the view that none of these sources are definitive on these questions, but the Rome Statute is, on the whole, the better and more authoritative evidence of state practice. And the Rome Statute reflects states’ unwillingness to adopt looser standards for aiding and abetting and to impose liability on corporations.