Opinion

Alison Frankel

N.Y. state appeals ruling opens courthouse door to foreign victims

Alison Frankel
Sep 18, 2013 20:06 UTC

In the last few months, the victims of supposed overseas human rights atrocities have begun to feel the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last April in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum. As you know, the Supreme Court held that Alien Tort Statute cases cannot proceed in U.S. courts unless they have a significant connection to the United States. As a result, ATS claims by foreign citizens accusing international corporations of abetting torture and murder on foreign soil have since been dismissed against Daimler, Arab Bank, Rio Tinto and KBR. Some ATS cases have survived post-Kiobel scrutiny, as my friend Michael Goldhaber reported for The American Lawyer in August, and alleged victims can still assert claims under Other U.S. laws that specifically apply to conduct abroad. But without a doubt, Kiobel has extinguished the jurisdiction of U.S. courts over a wide swath of human rights litigation.

New York state courts, on the other hand, are ready and willing to hear the cases. Or, at least, that’s the implication of a comprehensive decision Tuesday by the state Appellate Division, First Department, that permits 50 Israeli citizens to proceed with claims that Bank of China is liable under Israeli law for facilitating bombings and rocket attacks in Israel by Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad. The state appeals court expressly broke with the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in holding that Israeli law should apply to the alleged victims’ claims because that’s where they were injured, rejecting the 2nd Circuit’s 2012 decision in a parallel terror-finance case that the laws of the defendant’s home jurisdiction should apply because those courts have the greatest interest in regulating the defendant’s conduct.

According to Robert Tolchin of The Berkman Law Office, who represents the plaintiffs in both the 2nd Circuit and New York state-court cases, the Appellate Division’s ruling opens the door to claims in New York courts by foreigners asserting the laws of their own countries against international defendants. “The Supreme Court in Kiobel knocked out the Alien Tort Statute, but here comes New York negligence law,” he said.

Bank of China and its lawyers at Patton Boggs had argued that New York isn’t the proper forum for a case pitting Israelis against a Chinese bank, particularly because most of the alleged conduct took place in China. The bank also said that under the laws of New York or China, it is not liable to the alleged victims of its customers’ wrongful actions. It argued that if Israeli law conflicts, the appeals court must apply New York or Chinese law.

The trial judge in the case, New York State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Kapnick, hadn’t specified whose laws she used when she denied the bank’s motion to dismiss in July 2011. So the appeals court, according to the opinion by Judge Paul Feinman, first analyzed whether the outcome of the case might be affected by the choice of law. It concluded that it very well could be because Israeli negligence laws impose duties beyond New York law, requiring a determination of whether a reasonable person ought to have foreseen the wrongful consequences of his actions. (In this case, the Israelis argued that Bank of China is one of the few financial institutions in the world that continues to do business with groups the U.S. has designated at Foreign Terrorist Organizations and should have known it was facilitating their attacks on civilians.)

Kiobel brief shows State/DOJ split over human rights litigation

Alison Frankel
Jun 15, 2012 04:00 UTC

When John Bellinger of Arnold & Porter was the legal adviser to the State Department in the administration of George W. Bush, the Justice Department filed about a dozen amicus briefs addressing the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law that has become a modern vehicle for international human rights litigation. Bellinger told me on Thursday that he signed every one. When foreign nationals use the ATS to bring cases in U.S. courts for conduct that took place overseas, foreign policy is implicated, and the State Department wants a voice. That’s why Bellinger believes it’s so significant that when the Justice Department filed its new amicus brief in the reformulated Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum case at the U.S. Supreme Court, State Department legal adviser Harold Koh did not sign it.

“That seemed to be a not-so-subtle message — more to the human rights community than the Supreme Court — that State did not agree with the Justice Department position,” said Bellinger, who blogged about the DOJ brief on Wednesday night at Lawfare. “The Obama administration was in a tight spot in this one.”

The DOJ brief, signed by Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, argues, tepidly, against the application of the Alien Tort Statute against Shell by Nigerian nationals who claim the oil company was complicit in state-sponsored torture and murder in their country. That’s a switch in sides for the government, which had supported the Nigerians in Kiobel‘s first trip to the Supreme Court, when the issue was whether corporations could be liable under the Alien Tort Statute. The Justice Department said they could, in an amicus brief that State Department adviser Koh signed.

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