The Ninth Circuit’s Muddled Comity Analysis in Mujica
Last week the Ninth Circuit issued a controversial opinion in Mujica v. Airscan, Inc., that sharply limits the scope of human rights litigation. The claims in Mujica arose in Colombia and allegedly implicate corporate collusion with the Colombian military. Following Kiobel the common consensus was that Alien Tort Statute litigation would be severely curtailed based on the presumption against extraterritoriality. Not surprisingly, the Ninth Circuit rejected the Plaintiffs’ claims, finding that where the only connection to the United States was the Defendants’ nationality, the claims do not “touch and concern” the territory of the United States with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application.
What is extremely surprising is that the court dismissed the state law claims. Because the court was not exercising supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims, it could not simply dismiss them without prejudice to be filed in state court. As with almost every other common law tort claim brought in federal district court based on diversity jurisdiction, I fully expected the Ninth Circuit in Mujica to apply California choice of law principles to resolve the claim. (For a detailed analysis of choice of law in the human rights context, see my article here).
As set forth by the California Supreme Court in Kearney, California’s comparative impairment analysis considers whether there is a true conflict between the affected states and applies “the law of the state whose interest would be the more impaired if its law were not applied.” California courts generally favor forum law when (1) the forum has an interest in the dispute and the laws of other affected jurisdictions are not different or (2) when the laws are different and the interests of the forum would be more impaired than the interests of the other jurisdiction. Otherwise they apply foreign law. Applying California choice of law, the Ninth Circuit exercising diversity jurisdiction ordinarily would retain jurisdiction of the state law claims and resolve them under Colombian law (as the government with the greatest interests at stake). The whole purpose of Brainerd Currie’s government interest approach (adopted by the California courts) is to exercise jurisdiction in a manner consistent with the legitimate government interests of the relevant stakeholders.
That is not what the court in Mujica did. Instead it relied on a novel prudential comity analysis to dismiss the claims. It first distinguished between prescriptive and adjudicatory comity, and concluded that Hartford Fire’s “true conflict” approach was inapplicable. Fair enough. But then it applied the comity factors enunciated in Restatement Section 403, which also applies to prescriptive comity. So the “true conflict” approach in Hartford Fire does not apply because that is relevant only for prescriptive jurisdiction, but the limitations on prescriptive jurisdiction in Section 403 do apply in balancing factors under adjudicatory comity. Very strange.
With due credit to my conversations with Trey Childress and Bill Dodge yesterday, if the court was going to invoke adjudicatory comity, it should have relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in Colorado River and appellate court decisions such as Royal and Sun Alliance, Ungaro-Benages, and AAR International. Indeed, the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Neuchatel Swiss General specifically addressed adjudicatory comity and held that courts should not dismiss on the basis of adjudicatory comity except in “exceptional circumstances.” Those cases strongly suggest that adjudicatory comity applies only in exceptional circumstances and only when there is a pending foreign proceeding. The Ninth Circuit in Mujica completely ignored binding Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit precedents.
So what the court should have done in a case of diversity jurisdiction with significant foreign contacts is apply California’s choice of law principles to resolve the common law claims. That almost certainly would have resulted in the application of Colombian law, especially Title XXXIV of the Colombian Civil Code. (The Court could not dismiss the case based on forum non conveniens because the district court already determined that there was not an adequate alternative forum, and that question was not on appeal.) With no other avenues for dismissal, the Ninth Circuit dismissed the claims on the basis of a muddled application of adjudicatory comity, leaving the plaintiffs with no obvious means of redress anywhere.
I have written at length about the rise of transnational tort litigation and the application of choice-of-law principles as the logical response to Kiobel. The Ninth Circuit’s decision in Mujica seems to suggest that that approach is perfectly fine for the typical wrongful death claim involving foreign contacts or parties. But if it is a human rights claim dressed up in the guise of a wrongful death claim, then at least two members of the Ninth Circuit will bend over backwards to dismiss it.
I would be quite surprised if this case is not reconsidered by the Ninth Circuit en banc.