The Supreme Court this week let stand a U.S.Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decision reinstating an Alien Tort Statute lawsuit alleging corporate complicity in the use of child slave labor in various African countries from which they purchased cocoa products.
The high court left in place a December 2014 ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that refused to dismiss a lawsuit against Nestle, Archer-Daniels-Midland Co and Cargill Inc filed by former victims of child slavery.
The plaintiffs, who were originally from Mali, contend the companies aided and abetted human rights violations through their active involvement in purchasing cocoa from Ivory Coast. While aware of the child slavery problem, the companies offered financial and technical assistance to local farmers in a bid to guarantee the cheapest source of cocoa, the plaintiffs said.
The arguments in favor of, and against, Supreme Court review are amply discussed by John Bellinger here. In essence, the corporate defendants argued that the Ninth Circuit had misapplied the Supreme Court’s 2013 landmark ATS decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell. That decision had imposed a “touch and concern” extraterritoriality case before permitting such an ATS lawsuit in U.S. courts. The defendants also argued that the Supreme Court should clarify the intent standards required for determining corporate aiding and abetting liability, and that there is a split between circuits over whether corporations can be held liable for violations under the ATS.
I am not sure about whether this case was “cert-worthy”. The Kiobel issue seems mostly about whether the plaintiffs should be allowed to amend their complaint. There is a question of how Morrison interacts with the Kiobel standard, but the split with other circuits isn’t quite as developed as it could be. I think the corporate liability issue is a circuit split, but where the Second Circuit stands on that issue is still a little up in the air. I do think the Ninth Circuit is mistaken on the intent standard, but again, I am not sure how broad that standard is yet.
But it is certainly true that by letting this Ninth Circuit decision stand, the Supreme Court is passing up an opportunity to shut down corporate ATS litigation in a more definitive way than it did in Kiobel. So corporate ATS cases are mostly dead, but not quite.