Is This the Model of a Viable Post-Kiobel ATS Lawsuit?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Baher Azmy, the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), has flagged a very interesting ATS case that is due to be re-argued in light of the Supreme Court’s recent — and much discussed here at Opinio Juris — decision in Kiobel. Here is CCR’s description of the case, Al Shimari v. CACI:

Al Shimari  v. CACI was originally brought against L-3 Services Incorporated (formerly Titan Corporation), CACI International Inc., and Timothy Dugan, a former employee of CACI.  CACI and L-3 Services were the U.S. government contractors responsible for interrogation and translation services, respectively, at Abu Ghraib prison and other facilities in Iraq. L-3 Services and Timothy Dugan have since been dismissed as Defendants in the case. The complaint alleges that CACI directed and participated in illegal conduct, including torture, at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq where it was hired by the U.S. to provide interrogation services.   The four Plaintiffs had all been held at the “hard site” in Abu Ghraib prison.

The suit, brought under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and federal question jurisdiction, brings claims arising from violations of U.S. and international law including torture; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; war crimes; assault and battery; sexual assault and battery; intentional infliction of emotional distress; negligent hiring and supervision; and negligent infliction of emotional distress. There are also civil conspiracy and aiding and abetting counts attached to most of these charges.  Through this action, Plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages.

Among the heinous acts to which the four Plaintiffs were subjected at the hands of the Defendant and certain government co-conspirators were: electric shocks; repeated brutal beatings; sleep deprivation; sensory deprivation; forced nudity; stress positions; sexual assault; mock executions; humiliation; hooding; isolated detention; and prolonged hanging from the limbs.

All of the Plaintiffs are innocent Iraqis who were ultimately released without ever being charged with a crime. They all continue to suffer from physical and mental injuries caused by the torture and other abuse.

CCR makes a strong argument in the relevant brief that Al Shimari is precisely the rare ATS lawsuit that can survive Kiobel. First, CCR argues that Kiobel‘s presumption against extraterritorial application of the ATS should not even apply in Al Shimari, because the conduct in question occurred in Iraq during the US occupation, a period in which (quoting Rasul) the US had “complete jurisdiction and control” over Abu Ghraib (recall that the Coalition Provisional Authority had “all executive, legislative, and judicial authority” over Iraq at this time), making it effectively US territory. The fact that the US was functioning as the sovereign in Iraq at the time of the relevant conduct, CCR also points out, means that allowing the lawsuit to proceed would be unlikely to result in “international discord” between the US and Iraq.

Second, CCR argues that the relevant conduct does indeed “touch and concern” the US “with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application.” It notes that CACI is a US corporation headquartered in the US; that CACI’s immunity from Iraqi legal process made it subject to US law; and that the conduct in question was directed from the US. It also notes that the US’s control over Abu Ghraib is — or should be — relevant to the “touch and concern” analysis.

Third, and finally, CCR claims that ATS lawsuits involving war crimes and torture should always be deemed to satisfy Kiobel, especially where — as in Al Shimari — the perpetrators of those crimes are present in the US. It argues that the potential for “international discord” is minor in such lawsuits, because war crimes and torture are types of conduct that all states are obligated to prevent and punish.

I am skeptical that CCR’s third argument will convince many federal courts post-Kiobel. Its first and second arguments, however, seem very compelling. I hope our resident and extraterritorial experts on the ATS will weigh in.

2 Responses

  1. Interesting.  I wonder if the Boumediene “de facto sovereignty” analysis of territoriality might be relevant here. For a discussion of de facto sovereignty, see here and here.

    The other interesting wrinkle about this case is that Iraqi law may mandate the application of United States law.  Section 18 of Order 17 of the Coalition Provisional Authority stipulates that:

    “[T]hird-party claims including those … for personal injury, illness or death … arising from or attributed to acts or omissions of … Contractors or any persons employed by them for activities relating to performance of their Contracts, … shall be submitted and dealt with by the Sending State whose personnel … are alleged to have caused the claimed damage, in a manner consistent with the Sending State’s laws, regulations, and procedures.”

    It appears that during the period of occupation Iraqi law makes contractors who commit torts in Iraq subject to the Sending State’s laws, which presumably would include state tort laws as well as federal law (including the ATS?).  There is a choice of law issue that might require the application of Iraqi law nonetheless, see here, but I’m not aware of any court wrestling with the relationship between the ATS and CPA Order 17.   

    Roger Alford

  2. No argument from me that the US military has become the “common enemy of mankind” and its tortures should have no safe haven anywhere. Or the private contractors doing their bidding. The sovereign immunity aspect of this case bothers me, though.  It seems like a stretch to argue that CACI breached its contract, since obviously the military / cia told them everything to do.

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