So maybe the use of the Alien Tort Statute against corporations for overseas activities isn’t fully dead. Yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has revived In re South Africa Apartheid Litigation, a twelve-year-old litigation that just won’t die. A copy of the opinion can be found here.
Most of the opinion deals with whether a corporation may be sued under the Alien Tort Statute, an issue most thought was settled within the Second Circuit (the federal appeals circuit that includes New York). As a lower court within that circuit, the district court should have been bound to follow that court’s 2010 opinion Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell, which held that corporations cannot be sued under the ATS. The lower court judge, Shira Scheindlin, decided that since the Supreme Court had ended up dismissing the Kiobel plaintiffs on other grounds (e.g. extraterritoriality), the Court had sub silentio reversed the original Kiobel decision’s ruling on corporate liability. That is quite a stretch, and appears based almost solely on the Supreme Court’s reference to “mere corporate presence” as being insufficient to overcome the statutory presumption against extraterritoriality. This language, and the Supreme Court’s decision not to otherwise mention the corporate liability issue, was enough for Judge Scheindlin to revisit the corporate liability issue. I don’t really buy this sub silentio interpretation of Kiobel, but to give credit where credit is due, this argument was previewed in our Kiobel insta-symposium by Jordan Wells, a third year law student. Let’s just say Judge Scheindlin really went out of her way to re-open this question.
My views on the corporate liability issue haven’t changed since I published my full length attack on it back in 2010. In my view, the Supreme Court’s decision in Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, finding that the Torture Victim Protection Act does not allow torture claims against corporate defendants, provides an unappreciated boost to the policy rationale for limiting these kinds of lawsuits to natural persons. But other circuits, and apparently Judge Scheindlin, refuse to agree with me (I know, I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true).
Putting aside the corporate liability issue, it is perhaps more surprising that Judge Scheindlin did not simply dismiss all of the defendants on Kiobel extraterritoriality grounds. The Second Circuit appeals panel in this case held that all of the defendants (U.S. and foreign) should be dismissed because all of the alleged relevant conduct occurred in South Africa. The U.S. corporate defendants (Ford and IBM) did not overcome the Kiobel presumption because the complaints only allege vicarious liability as parent corporations to their South African subsidiaries. Yet Judge Scheindlin only dismissed the foreign defendants and will allow the plaintiffs to re-file their complaints against the US defendants to overcome the new Kiobel extraterritoriality presumption. This means that she is willing to explore in greater detail the Kiobel requirement that plaintiffs’ claims “touch and concern” the territory of the U.S. with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritoriality. Will knowledge by the US parent of the subsidiaries’ activities in South Africa be enough? Will receiving profits from the subsidiaries be enough? I assume that is the best the plaintiffs will be able to plead is knowledge by the U.S. parent.
I assume this is going back to the appeals panel in this case, and we should expect some rather testy reactions. Judge Jose Cabranes (the author of the appeals court panel decision) and Judge Scheindlin have recently tangled over a local NY case against aggressive police tactics resulting in the controversial removal of Judge Scheindlin from that case (Judge Cabranes was one of three judges involved in that removal order). This latest Scheindlin order seems a double-insult at Judge Cabranes. It “reverses” his earlier Kiobel decision on corporate liability (from a lower court no less!), and then it ignores his subsequent opinion holding that all defendants should be dismissed via a motion for judgment on the pleadings. A little tension brewing at 40 Foley Square, perhaps?