Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label FSIA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label FSIA. Show all posts

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Shoe on other foot as US claims sovereign immunity in foreign court for firing Malaysian embassy worker

The U.S. Embassy in KL commemorates flight MH17 in 2014.
(Embassy photo, public domain, via Flickr)
Malaysian courts have been wrestling with the big bear of foreign sovereign immunity in an ursa minor case arising from the dismissal of a security guard from the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

As a torts and comparative law teacher, I'm interested in how courts manage foreign sovereign immunity. But most of the cases I read are about foreign-state respondents in U.S. courts. I suppose the inverse, the United States as respondent in a foreign court, happens often. But it doesn't often make my newsfeed.

Well, this story did. The shoe is on the other foot with the United States seeking to evade the hearing of an employment grievance in Malaysian courts.

Consistently with international norms, in the United States, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) (on this blog) generally codifies sovereign immunity for foreign states in U.S. courts. But an exception pertains for "commercial activity." 

The commercial exception, also consistent with international norms, only makes sense. When a foreign country is acting like any other commercial actor, say, buying toilet paper for the mission restroom, it should not be able to claim sovereign immunity to override its obligation to pay for the toilet paper (contract), nor to escape liability for its fraud in the transaction (tort). Sovereign immunity is rather reserved for when a state acts as a state, doing things only states can do, such as signing treaties and, however unfortunately, waging war—usually.

The exception is easier understood in the abstract than in application. In a case bouncing around the Second Circuit, and reaching the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 on a related but different question, Chinese vitamin makers claim immunity from U.S. antitrust law. The respondent makers say that they are agents of the Chinese state insofar as they are compelled by Chinese economic regulations to fix prices. U.S. competitors see the cut-rate pricing as none other than anti-competitive commercial activity. The question arises under trade treaty, but the problem is analogous to the FSIA distinction.

Also regarding China, the commercial activity exception was one of the ways that state lawsuits against the People's Republic over the coronavirus pandemic tried to thread the needle on sovereign immunity. In the lawsuit filed in 2020 by the State of Missouri against the PRC filed in 2020, the Missouri Attorney General characterized the Chinese lab in Wuhan as a commercial healthcare enterprise. The district court disagreed in July, and the AG is appealing.

In the Malaysian case, according to the allegations, the U.S. Embassy gave no reason when it terminated a security guard in 2008 after about a decade's service. The security guard probably would not be owed any explanation under U.S. law. But the Malaysian Industrial Relations Act is not so permissive, authorizing complaints to the labor authority upon dismissal "without just cause or excuse."

The opinion of the Malaysian Court of Appeal in the case hints at some bad blood in the workplace and a bad taste left in the mouth of the dismissed guard: "He said he had been victimised by another staff named Rama who had tried to tarnish his good record as he had raised the matter of unreasonable management of the security post.... He said he could not believe that the US Embassy that is recognised the world over as the champion of human rights could have done this to a security guard like him."

Inexplicably, "a long languishing silence lasting some 10 years" followed the administrative complaint, the Court of Appeal observed. "Nobody involved and interested in this case heard anything from anyone. It is always difficult to interpret silence. That silence was broken with a letter from the DGIR [labor authority] calling for a conciliation meeting [in] September 2018.... There was no settlement reached.

"Unbeknown to the workman, the Embassy had [in] March 2019 sent a representation to the DGIR arguing that sovereign immunity applied and that the matter should not be referred at all to the Industrial Court." The United States thereafter succeeded in having the case removed to the Malaysian high court, a general-jurisdiction trial court.

The high court dismissed the case on grounds of U.S. foreign sovereign immunity. The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the case should not have been removed. The Court of Appeal remanded to the Industrial Court, a specialized labor court, to take evidence on the immunity question. The Malaysian Federal Court recently affirmed the remand, lawyers of Gan Partnership in Kuala Lumpur have reported (Lexology subscription).

Like the FSIA, Malaysian law on foreign sovereign immunity distinguishes commercial activity, jure gestionis, from state action, jure imperii. The dismissed guard argues that his was a simple employment contract, so the United States was acting in a commercial capacity and is not entitled to sovereign immunity. The United States argues that the security of its embassy is a diplomatic matter entitled to the exercise of sovereign discretion.

The case in the Court of Appeal was Letchimanan v. United States (May 18, 2021). Gan Khong Aik and Lee (Ashley) Sze Ching reported the Federal Court affirmance to the International Law Section of the American Bar Association for Lexology on August 30 (subscription). Khong Aik and Sze Ching wrote about the Court of Appeal decision, United States v. Menteri Sumber Manusia (Minister of Human Resources) Malaysia, in July 2021 (Lexology subscription), and with Foo Yuen Wah, they wrote about the high court decision in August 2020 (Lexology subscription).

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Judge Jackson Media Law, Torts Tour: From Big Meat 'COOL' to 'A Love of Food' and 'Everlasting Life'

[A revised version of this post is available to download as a paper on SSRN.]
The Hon. KBJ (Wikicago CC BY-SA 4.0)

Profiles of U.S. Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson have proliferated since her announcement as a leading contender for the U.S. Supreme Court seat vacated by Justice Breyer, and President Biden announced her nomination yesterday.

Judge Jackson has practiced in both criminal and civil environments, and in public and private sectors.  She focused in different practice roles on criminal law and appellate litigation, and she served on the federal bench at the trial and appellate levels.  So much of her work, and that which has garnered the most attention, for example in the excellent SCOTUSblog profile by Amy Howe, interests me as a citizen in general more than as an academic and media-law-and-torts aficionado.

Nevertheless, I compiled here cases of interest to me, which I found whilst poking around in her trial-court record on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (D.D.C.).  You might not see these discussed elsewhere, but they might be of interest to comparative-bent, media-law types like me, if that's even a thing.  In my ordinary-joe capacity, I am not in step with Judge Jackson's inclinations in some other areas of law.  But any Supreme Court Justice, just like any political candidate, is going to be a mixed bag, especially in a compulsorily two-party system.

In the cases below, a decidedly unscientific sample, I like some of what I see, especially skeptical diligence in access-to-information cases, sound reasoning in intellectual property law, careful application of preemption doctrine in medical-product liability, and a couple of thought-provoking First Amendment entanglements.  I see a mixed record on venue for transnational cases, something I've been worrying about lately, but the outcomes are defensible as consistent with lousy U.S. law.


Main topics:
● Civil procedure/statute of limitations:
WMATA v. Ark Union Sta., Inc. (2017)
Copyright/music royalties: Alliance of Artists & Recording Cos. v. Gen. Motors Co. (2018)
Defamation, false light/actual malice: Zimmerman v. Al Jazeera Am., LLC (2017)
First Amendment/child pornography: United States v. Hillie (2018)
First Amendment/commercial speech, compelled speech: Am. Meat Inst. v. U.S. Dept. Agric. (2013)
FOIA/national security, law enforcement: Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. v. U.S. Dept. Justice (2017)
FOIA/Vaughn index, trade secrets, deliberative process: McKinley v. FDIC (2017)
FOIA/deliberative process/personal privacy: Conservation Force v. Jewell (2014)
FSIA/CCFA, forum non conveniens: Azima v. RAK Invest. Auth. (2018)
FSIA/torture: Azadeh v. Iran (2018)
Insurance/settlement: Blackstone v. Brink (2014)
Product liability/causation, preemption, learned intermediary: Kubicki v. Medtronic (2018)
Trademark/infringement: Yah Kai World Wide Enter. v. Napper (2016)
Wrongful death/sovereign immunity, contributory negligence: Whiteru v. WMATA (2017)
Wrongful death, product liability/forum non conveniens: In re Air Crash ... So. Indian Ocean (2018)

Quirky pro se claims:
Defamation/litigation privilege/statute of limitations: Ray v. Olender (2013)
Copyright/infringement: Buchanan v. Sony Music Ent. (2020)
Copyright/pleading: Butler v. Cal. St. Disbursement Unit (2013)
Copyright/subject-matter jurisdiction: Miller v. Library of Congress (2018)
FTCA/FOIA, civil rights: Cofield v. United States (2014)
Legal profession/sovereign immunity, absolute immunity: Smith v. Scalia (2014)

And the case with the best name:
A Love of Food I v. Maoz Vegetarian USA (2014)


WMATA (D.C. Metro) (Max Pixel CC0)
Civil procedure/statute of limitations.  WMATA v. Ark Union Sta., Inc., 269 F. Supp. 3d 196 (D.D.C. 2017).  The transit authority of the District of Columbia alleged that negligent maintenance by the Union Station America Restaurant, defendants' enterprise, resulted in a burst sewer pipe that severely damaged the Metro Red Line in 2011.  Judge Jackson opened the opinion cleverly, with what could almost be a dad joke: "This is a case about whose interests the [WMATA] serves when it spends money to repair damaged transit infrastructure in the Metrorail system—a proverbial third rail of this region's politics."  (My emphasis.  How could I not?)

D.C. has a generous five-year statute of limitations, but even that time had run.  Determining that the corporate-body WMATA remained a creature of government for relevant purposes, evidenced by its operational subsidies—cf. WMATA, infra, in negligence/sovereign immunity—Judge Jackson applied "the common law nullum tempus doctrine, which dates back to the thirteenth century," to exempt WMATA, as sovereign, from the statute of limitations.  The court explained: "Although the nullum tempus doctrine originated as a 'prerogative of the Crown[,]' the doctrine's 'survival in the United States has been generally accounted for and justified on grounds of policy rather than upon any inherited notions of the personal privilege of the king.' .... Specifically, 'the source of its continuing vitality ... is to be found in the great public policy of preserving the public rights, revenues, and property from injury and loss, by the negligence of public officers'" (citations omitted).

Pixabay
Copyright/music royalties.  Alliance of Artists & Recording Cos. v. Gen. Motors Co., 306 F. Supp. 3d 422 (D.D.C. 2018).  Judge Jackson dismissed a trade-group-plaintiff claim against automakers that their in-car CD hard drives created digital music recordings (DMRs) within the meaning of the federal statute, the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 (AHRA), entitling copyright holders to royalties.  The AHRA was intended by Congress to protect the music industry against the alarming ease of creating high-fidelity copies of digital music by requiring manufacturers, importers, and distributors to employ copy-control technology.  Though having earlier allowed the claim to proceed against other technical challenges under the AHRA, the court decided, with the benefit of the first phase of discovery, that the defendant automakers' devices were not digital audio recording devices within the meaning of the statute.  In a methodical analysis, Judge Jackson explained that the content of the hard drives was excluded from the statutory definition of a DMR because of the coordinate presence of play software and other data.  The court rejected industry's theory that the appropriate frame of analysis was a particular partition of the drive, where music code might be located more readily.  The D.C. Circuit affirmed, 947 F.3d 849 (2020).

Zimmerman
(All Pro Reels CC BY-SA 2.0)
Defamation, false light/actual malice.  Zimmerman v. Al Jazeera Am., LLC, 246 F. Supp. 3d 257 (D.D.C. 2017).  Two professional baseball players, both called Ryan (a Zimmerman and a Howard), sued Al Jazeera America over a documentary, The Dark Side: Secrets of the Sports Dopers (2015), in which an interviewee linked the pair to performance-enhancing drugs.  The plaintiffs were clearly public figures, so actual malice was at issue.  In a thorough explication of the making of the film followed by a straightforward recitation of the media torts, Judge Jackson narrowed the plaintiffs' claims to allegations stated in the film, excluding liability for promotional content.  The court found it plausible, upon "contextual clues," that a reasonable viewer could attribute the interviewee's statements to the filmmakers: "The film weaves [the source's] statements into a broader narrative about doping in sports that the producers themselves have purportedly confirmed through their own investigation."  Judge Jackson then explicated the actual malice standard and its amped up, St. Amant, iteration of recklessness.  Critically, the plaintiffs alleged that the source had recanted his claims about the Ryans during a subsequent, yet pre-publication, interview, giving Al Jazeera serious cause to doubt the source's veracity, if not actual knowledge of falsity.

Naturally, this case might be of interest to Court watchers, given the present hubbub over the Sullivan actual malice standard.  I'm no fan, and I'll have more to say about that in the future.  Zimmerman hardly depicts a Judge Jackson ready to pitch in with Justices Thomas and Gorsuch to upend the status quo.  But she understands the standard and at least might be amenable to a semantically sincere construction of "reckless disregard."

First Amendment/child pornography.  United States v. Hillie, 289 F. Supp. 3d 188 (D.D.C. 2018).  Criminal cases are not usually my jam, but this one had a First Amendment angle.  Judge Jackson allowed conviction of a defendant for sexual exploitation of a minor and possession of images of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.  On the facts as explicated by the court, that sure seems like it was the defendant's intent: "carefully placing and positioning the camera in hidden locations in J.A.A.'s bedroom and bathroom" and "succeed[ing] in capturing several extended images of J.A.A.'s exposed genitals."  Missing, though, was the express "lasciviousness" required by federal statutes, a fatal flaw for the prosecution, the D.C. Circuit ruled.  14 F.4th 677 (2021).  The defendant relied on statutes, not the First Amendment, but the D.C. Circuit referenced First Amendment case law extensively to support its interpretation of what Congress required.  Despite the substantial latitude to which the government is entitled to prosecute child pornography, beyond the legal constraints of outlawing obscenity as to adults, the appellate court concluded that Judge Jackson erred in permitting the jury to infer the defendant's lascivious objective.  One might expect that social conservatives would side with Judge Jackson on this case. 

Labeled French beef
(by Yuka for Open Food Facts CC BY-SA 3.0)
First Amendment/commercial speech, compelled speech.  Am. Meat Inst. v. U.S. Dept. Agric., 968 F. Supp. 2d 38 (D.D.C. 2013).  This must have been a grilling initiation to the federal bench for Judge Jackson.  A meat industry trade association challenged "country of origin labeling" regulations (truly, "the COOL Rule") promulgated by the Department of Agriculture, on, as one might expect from Big Meat, any legal theory that might stick to the cast iron: namely, the statutory authority of the Agricultural Marketing Act, promulgation under the Administrative Procedure Act, and the First Amendment.  The first two make my eyes glaze over; it's the First Amendment that grabbed me.  Meat and the First Amendment are, of course, long-time frenemies, going back to the heyday of The Jungle, and on through the secret grocery workers of journalism ethics fame.  Then there was the whole pink slime era, and animal-welfare activists came trespassing through to take pictures.  Oh how we laughed until we cried.

Anyway, in this case, Judge Jackson capably explicated the niche case law of compelled commercial speech and charted the fine if squiggly line separating free speech and business regulation.  The risk of deception was more than merely speculative here, she opined, and consumers were demonstrably confused.  Industry mistakenly claimed a burden on its pocketbook, rather than its speech rights, Judge Jackson admonished.  The COOL Rule was reasonable and hardly burdensome for its expectation of truthful and uncontroversial disclosure.  Preliminary injunction was denied.

Big Meat was not easily deterred; the case went for a rodeo ride the following year.  The D.C. Circuit affirmed, 746 F.3d 1065 (Mar. 28, 2014), vacated upon granting rehearing en banc, No. 13-5281 (Apr. 4, 2014), and then reinstated affirmance (July 29, 2014).

U.S. Defense Department image (C)
FOIA/national security, law enforcement.  Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr. v. U.S. DOJ, 296 F. Supp. 3d 109 (2017).  Privacy advocate EPIC sued DOJ under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to learn more about past wiretap spying under the post-9/11 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  EPIC was especially keen to see how the government had justified surveillance requests it set before the famously amenable Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).  Namely, EPIC sought: "(1) Westlaw printouts that were attached to a certain brief that the government submitted to the [FISC], and (2) portions of certain reports that DOJ issued to Congress, consisting of summaries of FISC legal opinions, descriptions of the scope of the FISC's jurisdiction, and discussions of process improvements."  DOJ produced a Vaughn index.  Ex parte and in camera, Judge Jackson reviewed the materials and adjudged them properly withheld under exemptions 1 (national security as to the congressional reports), and 3 and 7(E) (national security statutes and law enforcement techniques, as to everything else), with some nitpicks as to redactions and notations.  I'm sure EPIC did not care for the result, but the transparency problem seems to be a statutory one.  Judge Jackson did a pretty deep dive on the docs.

FOIA/Vaughn index, trade secrets, deliberative process.  McKinley v. FDIC, 268 F. Supp. 3d 234 (D.D.C. 2017), then No. 1:15-cv-1764 (D.D.C. Sept. 30, 2018).  Judicial Watch, per experienced FOIA-requester attorney Michael Bekesha, represented a plaintiff against the FDIC.  In the reported opinion in 2017, the court compelled the FDIC to produce a Vaughn index. The Judicial Watch plaintiff was investigating FDIC placement of Citibank into receivership in 2008 and 2009.  The FDIC sought to protect 12 documents as trade secrets and eight documents as deliberative process.  The court faulted the FDIC for failing to support either claim of exemption with any contextual explanation, including the nature of its decision-making authority on the latter claim.

I note that Judge Jackson's reasoning on the trade-secret analysis might have been undermined subsequently by the Supreme Court's industry-deferential ruling on exemption 4 in Food Marketing Inst. v. Argus Leader Media (U.S. 2019).  (I signed on to an amicus on the losing side in FMI.)  In an earlier FOIA case, Government Accountability Project v. FDA, 206 F. Supp. 3d 420 (D.D.C. 2016), Judge Jackson similarly relied on pre-FMI doctrine to reject, as unduly conclusory, FDA resistance, at the behest of a pharma trade association, to production of records on antimicrobial medications.

Vaughn index in hand on remand, plaintiff persisted in challenging the adequacy of the FDIC search and "whether withheld information 'has already been made public through an official and documented disclosure.'"  Judge Jackson rejected both claims in a short opinion in 2018.  She found the first merely speculative.  As to the second, the plaintiff "argued that the FDIC's withholdings were improper because the requested information was 'officially' acknowledged by Former FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair in the book Bull by the Horns—a book that Bair published after leaving office."  Judge Jackson held that "that contention, too, must be rejected. A book or other material that a former government official publishes in her personal capacity does not qualify as an 'official acknowledgment' of the information contained therein for the purpose of FOIA."

Bison trophy at Beaty Biodiversity Museum, Vancouver, B.C.
(by Nikkimaria CC BY-SA 3.0)
FOIA/deliberative process, personal privacy.  Conservation Force v. Jewell, 66 F. Supp. 3d 46 (D.D.C. 2014).   A nonprofit foundation that promotes big-game hunting sued U.S. Fish and Wildlife, in the Department of Interior, under the FOIA to obtain records related to denials of permits that would allow the import into the United States of hunting trophies of Canadian bison.  For the record, I'm fine with denying those permits, and I could be persuaded to block importation of the hunters, too.  Nevertheless, transparency....  

Judge Jackson authored a workmanlike exploration of various exemption theories asserted by Interior: accepting attorney-client privilege (exemption 5) and personal-information exemption (6); rejecting deliberative-process exemption, crime-fraud exception to attorney-client privilege, and work product privilege (all exemption 5).  She cited House reports to bolster her interpretations of what exemptions 5 and 6 require.  In a pattern that became familiar, or maybe just speaks to agency neglect, she faulted Interior for a conclusory ("woefully short") Vaughn index that failed to support exemption.  As to exemption 6, which has been aggressively enlarged by federal courts in furtherance of the privacy rage, Judge Jackson accepted Interior's redaction of employee personal information as more or less immaterial to the sought-after accountability.  The D.C. Circuit affirmed summarily in No. 15-5131 (Dec. 4, 2015).

FSIA/CFAA; forum non conveniens.  Azima v. RAK Invest. Auth., 305 F. Supp. 3d 149 (D.D.C. 2018).  Judge Jackson was reversed in this one, 926 F.3d 870 (D.C. Cir. 2019), but I prefer her analysis.  Under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and for common law conversion and unfair competition, plaintiff, a Kansas City, Mo., businessman, sued a business partner, a public investment authority (RAKIA) of the United Arab Emirates (UAE, specifically the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah), after their business relationship soured, alleging that RAKIA "commissioned the repeated surreptitious hacking of his personal and business laptops ... and then published disparaging material that was illicitly gleaned from Azima's computers...."  RAKIA sought dismissal under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) on grounds of sovereign immunity, under a contractual forum selection clause, and, relatedly, under the common law venue doctrine of forum non conveniens.

Judge Jackson rejected all three grounds.  The plaintiff plausibly portrayed RAKIA, an investor rather than governing entity, as a commercial actor and alleged tortfeasor, bringing into play the FSIA commercial and tort exceptions.  As alleged, the hacking would have inserted malware into the plaintiff's computer systems, even if the insertion occurred abroad, so the locus of alleged tortious injury was Kansas City, bolstering the FSIA analysis.  The forum selection clause did not pertain, Judge Jackson reasoned, because it was articulated in the parties' contract for a prior commercial venture; the contract hardly covered subsequent hacking.

As to venue, Judge Jackson faulted RAKIA for failing to meet its "heavy burden" to show that Azima would get a fair shake in RAKIA's preferred venue of London, where RAKIA might have hoped for a more favorable outcome on immunity.  I like that analysis—but cf. infra, re wrongful death/forum non conveniens.  My comparative law class just read Professor Vivian Curran's masterful recent work on foreign law in U.S. courts, in which she convincingly demonstrated U.S. federal judges' penchant to over-employ forum non conveniens and thus shirk their responsibility to adjudicate.  

Perhaps proving Prof. Curran's thesis, the D.C. Circuit disagreed, holding that the forum selection clause burdened the plaintiff with having to show why London would not work as an appropriate venue, else face dismissal for forum non conveniens.  I would be remiss not to mention also: Prof. Curran further faulted the courts for lazy reliance on partisan evidence (my words) when foreign law is concerned, and both Judge Jackson and the D.C. Circuit declared a lack of any responsibility to investigate themselves the adequacy of London as a forum.

FSIA/torture.  Azadeh v. Iran, 318 F. Supp. 3d 90 (D.D.C. 2018).  Plaintiff was an inmate of an Iranian jail and alleged torture and intentional torts at the hands of the republic.  A U.S. court ruling in such a matter is principally symbolic.  Iran will not respond; a plaintiff might hope to recover against a U.S. government claim on frozen assets.  Accordingly, in this case, a magistrate judge recommended entering default judgment in favor of the plaintiff.  I have here omitted cases in which Judge Jackson adopted in toto a magistrate's report; in this case, she did not.

Relying on a manual of the U.S. district courts, the plaintiff had effected service on the state of Iran erroneously, under the wrong order of process under the FSIA.  Judge Jackson wrote: "Judges are sometimes called upon to set aside heart-wrenching and terrible facts about a claimant's treatment at the hands of a defendant and enforce seemingly draconian, technical mandates of law. This is an especially difficult duty when the machinery of the judicial system itself appears to have played a role in the claimant's mistaken view of the applicable legal requirements. The somber circumstances of the instant case present one such scenario...."  The court put the default judgment on hold and gave the plaintiff a second crack at proper service.  Judge Jackson subsequently entered default judgment against Iran, in the sum of $36,411,244, in No. 1:16-cv-1467 (D.D.C. Sept. 5, 2018).  Reproduced therein, the magistrate's report detailed the plaintiff's ordeal.

Insurance/settlement.  Blackstone v. Brink, 63 F. Supp. 3d 68 (D.D.C. 2014) (D.C. law).  In an insurance dispute arising from the alleged wrongful death of a pedestrian, plaintiffs and their attorney apparently changed position on whether to settle with defendant-driver's insurer, State Farm, for the defendant's $100,000 policy limit.  After a telephone conversation, State Farm sent a check and a release form to the plaintiffs' attorney.  The check crossed in the mail with a letter from the attorney rejecting the offer.  Applying D.C. law, Judge Jackson determined that the parties had reached an enforceable agreement on the telephone, evidenced by the specificity of the attorney's instructions on how and where to send the check.  The court wrote of the parties' competing narratives: "On this record, it is far more plausible that [plaintiff counsel] accepted [State Farm's] offer on behalf of his clients [plaintiffs], intended that it be final and binding, and later had misgivings about his earlier decision to accept. Unfortunately for Plaintiffs, courts have long held that such buyer's remorse does not vitiate a demonstrated initial intent to be bound by the settlement agreement" (original emphasis).

A Medtronic product (Alan Levine CC BY 2.0)
Product liability/causation, preemption, learned intermediary.  Kubicki v. Medtronic, 293 F. Supp. 3d 129 (D.D.C. 2018) (D.C. law).  Parents of a diabetic consumer who suffered traumatic brain injury as a result of low blood-sugar levels sued the manufacturers of an insulin pump, alleging various theories of product liability.  Judge Jackson threw out some claims, against one manufacturer and upon one theory, as time barred, because plaintiffs had added them to the complaint too late for the District's three-year statute of limitations.  Judge Jackson navigated the tricky shoals of preemption doctrine to find some but not all liability theories expressly preempted, and the remainder not impliedly preempted, by FDA medical-device approval.  A sliver of remaining plaintiff theories survived summary judgment for presenting triable questions of fact on causation and on the learned intermediary doctrine relative to alleged failure to warn.

Trademark/infringement.  Yah Kai World Wide Enter. v. Napper, 195 F. Supp. 3d 287 (D.D.C. 2016).  The defendant ran the Everlasting Life Restaurant & Lounge as an enterprise of the African Hebrew Israelite community, "who claim to be descendants of biblical Israelites and who follow a strict vegan diet," until their relationship soured.  The plaintiff-community sued when the defendant persisted in doing business as "Everlasting Life," which a community leader had registered as a service mark (pictured).  Trial did not go well for the defense; Judge Jackson wrote that the defendant "displayed some signs of dissembling, such as the evasive nature of his answers with respect to the existence of a purportedly independent and unincorporated food business that he claimed to have created by himself in his home garage prior to the Community's formation of its restaurant businesses."  The court found likelihood of confusion and, accordingly, infringement.  If only defendant had partnered with Big Meat to serve litigious hungry hunters returning from Canada.

Wrongful death/sovereign immunity, contributory negligence.  Whiteru v. WMATA, 258 F. Supp. 3d 175 (2017).  This time the WMATA, the D.C. transit authority, was a negligent defendant rather than plaintiff—cf. WMATA, supra, in civil procedure/statute of limitations—and this time, the authority was ruled not sovereign for purposes of immunity.  In what was essentially a slip-and-fall, the plaintiff-decedent's estate and parents blamed the WMATA for not discovering the decedent—a lawyer, by the way—injured on a train platform, in time to provide life-saving medical treatment.  A creature of state compact and D.C. statute, the WMATA enjoys an immunity analogous to that of federal defendants under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).  Borrowing the FTCA rule of immunity for discretionary governmental functions, which often presents a frame-of-reference problem in its granular application, Judge Jackson rejected the WMATA theory that officials' conduct was discretionary.  Rather, properly, I think, the court accepted the plaintiff's framing of the case as alleging unreasonable comportment with the WMATA standard operating procedures for platform inspection.

At that time in 2017, factual questions in the case precluded summary judgment.  However, in 2020, Judge Jackson awarded the WMATA summary judgment upon the plaintiff's contributory negligence.  480 F. Supp. 3d 185.  The District is not a comparative fault jurisdiction.  The plaintiff's heavy intoxication when he fell was undisputed, and, Judge Jackson opined, video evidence plainly showed that the plaintiff fell because he over-relied on a low wall for support.  Just this month, the D.C. Circuit reversed and remanded,  ___ F.4th ___ (Feb. 11, 2022), holding that under D.C. law for common-carrier liability, contributory negligence is not the complete defense that it usually is in negligence in the District.

Suggested search area for MH370 debris
(Andrew Heneen CC BY 4.0)
Wrongful death, product liability/forum non conveniens.  In re Air Crash Over the Southern Indian Ocean, 352 F. Supp. 3d 19 (D.D.C. 2018) (multi-district litigation).  This case marks a tragic disappointment.  Judge Jackson dismissed for improper venue, forum non conveniens, the claims of families of passengers of missing airliner MH370 against defendants including Malaysia Airlines and Boeing.  The claims arose under the Montreal Convention on international air carriage, common law wrongful death, and product liability.  The thrust of the problem is that what happened to MH370, including the final resting place of the fuselage and an understanding of what went wrong, remains a mystery, and even less was known in 2018.  My money is on pilot hijacking, by the way; read more in the definitive account to date by the incomparable William Langewiesche for The Atlantic. 

Judge Jackson opined:

All told, the Montreal Convention cases in this MDL involve only six U.S. citizens with a direct connection to the Flight MH370 tragedy, as either plaintiffs or decedents. Among the hundreds of passengers on that flight, only three were citizens of the United States, and while the United States undoubtedly has a strong public interest in the claims involving their deaths, its interest pales in comparison to Malaysia's interest in litigating these claims. Malaysia's public interest includes not only an interest in the untimely deaths of the Malaysian pilot and crew, but also an interest in determining precisely what happened to Flight MH370, given that a Malaysian airline owned, operated, and maintained the aircraft; the flight took off from an airport in Malaysia for a destination outside the United States; and it disappeared from radar when Malaysian air traffic controllers were handing off the flight. And Malaysian authorities made substantial investments of time and resources in the wake of this disaster: Malaysia conducted extensive civil and criminal investigations, and changes in Malaysian law led to the creation of a new national Malaysian airline. It is Malaysia's strong interest in the events that give rise to the claims at issue here that makes this a distinctly Malaysian tragedy, notwithstanding the presence of the few Americans onboard Flight MH370. 

I really want to lash out against this reasoning.  But probably it would be like when I was a little kid fed up with allergy-testing shots and kicked my doctor.  Despite my reservations about forum non conveniens, see Prof. Curran, supra, I admit that my frustration stems from doubt that the case could be fairly prosecuted in Malaysia, even if the plane is found, rather than a confidence that the United States is a logical venue.  It might not even matter, as the Montreal Convention probably would curb recovery even in U.S. courts.  Insofar as I have any legitimate gripe, it's in part that forum non conveniens is just a witless rule out of step with a globalized world, and in part that Judge Jackson should have done some independent investigation of the adequacy of Malaysia as a forum.

The aftermath of the MH370 disappearance revealed concerning deficits in transparency, and, thus, potentially in accountability, in the Malaysian investigative process.  And while I don't think Boeing is to blame, having watched Downfall: The Case Against Boeing (2022) on Netflix just last weekend—Langewiesche wrote about the 737 MAX for The New York Times—leaves me distrustful.  Indeed, however relying upon precedent, Judge Jackson declined MH370 plaintiffs' last-ditch demand that, at least, Boeing be compelled to promise to abide by U.S. discovery in connection with any subsequent litigation abroad.

The D.C. Circuit affirmed, 946 F.3d 607, and the Supreme Court denied cert., 141 S. Ct. 451, in 2020.

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Here are some quirky pro se claims, just to stimulate the noggin.

Defamation/litigation privilege/statute of limitations.  Ray v. Olender, No. 13-1834 (D.D.C. Nov. 21, 2013).  Judge Jackson dismissed an odd $5m pro se defamation claim against an attorney, apparently based on a 1965 suit for copyright infringement and counter-suit.  She held the claim barred by the one-year D.C. statute of limitations and, anyway, based on statements in pleadings, protected by the litigation privilege.

Copyright/infringement.  Buchanan v. Sony Music Ent., No. 18-cv-3028 (D.D.C. May 26, 2020).  In a wide-ranging complaint, pro se plaintiff accused defendant music producers of stealing from songs he submitted for consideration.  Dismissed, because three of four songs were not registered; plaintiff could not show that any producer actually received a copy of the fourth song demo tape; and plaintiff anyway failed to allege substantial similarity, beyond allegation of "steal[ing]," between defendants' hits and the plaintiff's "I Gos Ta Roll." 

Copyright/pleading.  Butler v. Cal. St. Disbursement Unit, No. 13-1684 (D.D.C. Oct. 23, 2013).  Pro se plaintiff accused the state of copyright infringement for using his name in all capital letters.  Dismissed for failure to plead adequately.  BUTLER.

Copyright/subject-matter jurisdiction.  Miller v. Library of Congress, No. 1:18-cv-02144 (D.D.C. Nov. 5, 2018).  Judge Jackson dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction a $100m pro se copyright infringement claim by an author of "a book of songs" who alleged that the Library of Congress stole the book and allowed it to be used by others.  Held, he should have filed in the Federal Claims Court.  I'd return the book, but the fines....

FTCA/FOIA, civil rights.  Cofield v. United States, 64 F. Supp. 3d 206 (D.D.C. 2014).  A Maryland prisoner, pro se plaintiff sought billions in damages against ICANN and the Obama Administration for improper FOIA denials and race discrimination.  On the latter count, the plaintiff essentially accused the government of establishing a business monopoly in ICANN that leaves African-American persons "intentionally omitted, to be left behind when it comes to technology ... by design[.]"  An intriguing idea, but not the best spokesperson.  The court dismissed for sovereign immunity, as the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) authorizes neither FOIA complaints, which do not entitle a plaintiff to tort damages, nor constitutional claims.

Defendant-Justice Scalia (Shawn CC BY-NC 2.0)
Legal profession/sovereign immunity, absolute immunity.  Smith v. Scalia, 44 F. Supp. 3d 28 (D.D.C. 2014).  Yup, that Scalia.  The pro se plaintiff was denied admission to the Colorado Bar after "refus[ing] to submit to a mental status examination," and then sued officials, including judges who denied his appeals.  Even the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which rated among plaintiff's theories, cannot overcome federal sovereign and judicial absolute immunities, Judge Jackson held.  She declined to order Rule 11 sanctions, but did hit the frequent-filing plaintiff with a pre-filing injunction, going forward.
Maoz Falafel, Paris
(Björn Söderqvist CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Finally, I don't really care what happened in this case; I just love its name: A Love of Food I v. Maoz Vegetarian USA (D.D.C. 2014).  Plaintiff Love of Food was "a franchise of Maoz's vegetarian quick service restaurant" in D.C.  When the business failed, Love of Food blamed Maoz.  Maoz had failed to register its offering prospectus properly with the state of Maryland, but, Judge Jackson held, that omission did not give Love of Food standing.  The court issued mixed results on the, uh, meatier claims of misrepresentation, finding a material dispute of fact over the veracity of startup estimates.

Just wait 'til Big Meat hears about this.

I gos ta roll.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Christian flag, Nazi art color SCOTUS arguments this week, raising First Amendment, choice-of-law issues

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in both the Boston flag First Amendment scrap (on this blog) and the latest transnational Nazi-appropriated-art case.

My take of the transcript accords with what I'm reading from commentators (e.g., Brian Dowling (subscription required)): It looks bad for Boston.  The city seems to know that, having already pledged to rewrite its flag policy.  So I'm not sure why this dispute has been belabored into a literal Supreme Court case.

Justice Kagan seemed unsure, too.  She, and not she alone, regarded city commissioner George Rooney's refusal to raise the Christian ecumenical flag on a public pole as based on a mistaken understanding of the Establishment Clause, if "an understandable mistake."

Neutrality in the policy for "guest" flags rides to the rescue, abating any establishment-of-religion issue.  So I don't expect this case will generate establishment or free exercise jurisprudence, nor any new First Amendment principle at all.  The Court seemed willing to locate the case firmly in existing public forum doctrine.  Boston just did a lousy job of defining the forum, creating for itself the "risk of being forced to fly the swastika," in the words of city counsel.

At least the case might yield a neat demonstration-of-principle opinion for law school casebooks.

The same day, the Court heard argument in the latest art appropriation (and expropriation) case.  In the "Woman in Gold" vein, heirs of a Jewish family are trying to recover a Camille Pissarro painting, Rue St Honoré, Apres-midi, Effet de Pluie (1897) (pictured), that came into the possession of respondent Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.

In its present iteration, the case involves a choice-of-law problem.  Because the Spanish museum is a public entity, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act is implicated; claimants are threading the immunity needle through the FSIA "expropriation" exception.  Ownership subsequently hinges on the substantive law of California or Spain.  The district court used federal common law to choose Spanish law and reach a conclusion in favor of the museum.  The claimants assert that California choice-of-law rules should pertain—though it remains arguable that California choice-of-law rules would render a different outcome.

The U.S. Solicitor General is favoring the claimants' position, which generated a curious exchange in oral argument.  Chief Justice Roberts admitted "surprise" that the government wasn't worried about a potential conflict between the federal prerogative in foreign affairs and the application of state choice-of-law rules.  Assistant to the S.G. Masha Hansford responded that if a federal interest were implicated, that problem could be dealt with upon the application of substantive law; and that, meanwhile, state choice-of-law rules employed in other cases have proven fair in choosing between foreign and domestic law.

Boston-based lawyer and writer Martha Lufkin wrote a superb review and analysis for The Art Newspaper (free account after limited access) (HT @ James Romoser). 

The Boston flag case is Shurtleff v. City of Boston, No. 20-1800 (U.S. argued Jan. 18, 2022).  The Pissarro case is Cassirer v. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation, No. 20-1566 (U.S. argued Jan. 18, 2022).

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Alien tort animates U.S. lawsuit in abduction of 'Hotel Rwanda' hero, threatens immunity of social media

Paul Rusesabagina at the University of Michigan in 2014
The alien tort statute has turned up more than usual lately in my newsfeed.  In two compelling appearances, the law is implicated in the criminal prosecution now underway in Kigali of "'Hotel Rwanda' hero" Paul Resesabagina, and it has a cameo in the section-230-reform show now playing on Capitol Hill.

Last week, Professor Haim Abraham, of the University of Essex School of Law, spoke to the Obligations Discussion Group, organized by the University of Oxford Faculty of Law, on his current working paper, "Holding Foreign States Liable in Tort."  Working at the intersection of torts and human rights, Professor Abraham is passionate about the problem of accountability for wrongs perpetrated by state actors.  His present work means to outline a policy framework to support state liability, and he made a reference in passing to the American alien tort statute (ATS).

Dating to 1789, the ATS, complemented by the Torture Victims Protection Act of 1991 (TVPA), is a principal legal avenue to liability for torts committed abroad.  ATS liability, though, runs up against serious hurdles, namely, the law's own vague scope, and foreign sovereign immunity.  On its own terms, the ATS only pertains when a wrong rises to a violation of international law or treaty, often imprecise benchmarks.

The enigmatic 18th-century enactment says little else.  Especially in recent decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has grown fastidious in its interpretation of the law, rejecting claims without sufficient nexus to the United States.  Meanwhile, ATS plaintiffs must take care to pursue wrongdoers as rogues, lest defendants present as state actors entitled to foreign sovereign immunity.  The TVPA was a mitigation of that latter limitation.

Sharing Professor Abraham's appetite for accountability, not to mention my self-interest in full employment for torts professors, my attention is captured anytime the ATS turns up in a way that might yield fresh fruits.  And so it has.

Graves of genocide victims in Rwanda in 1995
(photo by Gil Serpereau CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The New York Times, among others, has reported on the shady chain of events that led to the presently ongoing criminal trial in Kigali of Paul Resesabagina, the man who saved some 1,200 lives during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and whose story was turned into a major motion picture starring Don Cheadle.  Living outside Rwanda first in Belgium and then in the United States, Resesabagina has been an outspoken critic of Rwandan authorities, both as to the genocide and as to subsequent Rwandan foreign policy, including alleged involvement in war crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  He knew better than to return to Rwanda, but, reports state, Resesabagina thought he was on a plane to Burundi for a speaking engagement when the plane landed in Kigali, and he was placed under arrest on terrorism charges.

There's plenty to debate about the criminal matter in Rwanda, but my focus here is on events back home.  Rusesabagina's family in San Antonio, Texas, in December 2020, sued GainJet and Constantin Niyomwungere in federal district court under the ATS and TVPA, and in Texas tort law on counts of fraud, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy.  GainJet is the company that conveyed Rusesabagina from his Dubai layover to Kigali, and the family alleges that Niyomwungere, a purported pastor who invited Rusesabagina to to speak in Burundi, was in fact a secret operative of the Rwandan government.

The pleadings mean to represent the abduction as a violation of international law, besides common law torts, and to bring the case within the scope of the TVPA, too.  The complaint characterizes the abduction of Rusesabagina as "extraordinary rendition" and charges the defendants with torture of Rusesabagina upon or after his landing in Kigali, stating that he was kept bound, blindfolded, and gagged for days and "physically and psychologically tortured" in interrogation.

GainJet B757 ascending from Coventry, England, in 2015
Niyomwungere is characterized alternatively as a state actor or a free agent working with the state, to deal with immunity on that front.  Either he was a state actor, in which case the state would have to concede its role in the abduction, or he was a rogue, subject to tort liability (if he can be brought within U.S. jurisdiction).  The complaint furthermore alleges that GainJet, a private charter company based in Athens, Greece, was a knowing co-conspirator with the Rwandan government, so the GainJet pilot and co-pilot, knowing what was afoot, failed to signal an emergency in the air.  The complaint catalogs GainJet commercial outreach to Rwanda and speculates that the firm was anxious for work amid the Greek economic debacle.

The complaint asserts that the matter in sum sufficiently "touches and concerns the United States" to satisfy Supreme Court requirements, because the defendant-conspirators reached out to Rusesabagina at his Texas residence to lure him abroad.  That by itself is a thin reed, but the U.S. residency of the plaintiffs bolsters the nexus.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Senate Democrats are circulating a proposed bill that would carve out some slices of Internet service providers' infamous tort immunity under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.  Section 230 reform has become a bipartisan cause since both Democrats and Republicans, often for different reasons, have sought to blame social media companies for our present national discontent, whether for not censoring enough or for censoring too much.

The proposal does not represent a wholesale repeal and reinstatement of conventional publisher liability in tort, as some congresspersons called for.  Among proposed new immunity exceptions are actions in civil rights law, antitrust law, "stalking, harassment, or intimidation laws," wrongful death, and, lo and behold, "international human rights law," specifically, the ATS.

The theory behind the proposal as to the ATS is that social media companies over which the United States has jurisdiction could be held liable for having facilitated human rights violations abroad.  As Lauren Feiner observed for CNBC, this measure

could be particularly risky for Facebook, which acknowledged in 2018 that it was “too slow to prevent misinformation and hate” on the platform as Myanmar military officials sought to weaponize it in what became characterized as a genocide against the minority Rohingya Muslims. The SAFE TECH Act would clarify that Section 230 immunity should not bar suits under the [ATS], which could allow survivors of the genocide in Myanmar to bring cases against the platform in the U.S.

People displaced by violence in Myanmar in 2012
(photo by UK Department for International Development CC BY-SA 2.0)
Myanmar would be only a starting point, as social media, including Facebook's WhatsApp, have been blamed for eruptions of violence around the world, notably including mob violence in India (which I talked about at a Dubai event in 2019 sponsored by India-based Amity University).  Plaintiffs would face the usual high hurdles of the ATS, including the international law requirement and the requisite U.S. nexus, as well as hurdles in conventional tort law, such as duty and proximate causation.  But it's not hard to imagine plaintiffs surviving dismissal to see discovery.  Even without further process, discovery would be a boon to human rights advocates.

Over its centuries of life on the books, the alien tort statute has been counted out as a dead relic, resurrected as a reputed redeemer, and wrangled as a menacing mischief-maker.  What seems certain now, whether under the ATS, TVPA, or instruments yet to be devised, is that in our smaller world, the challenges of legal accountability for both states and corporations for transnational misconduct cannot be written off easily as beyond the scope of national concern or domestic jurisdiction.

The case in Texas is Rusesabagina v. GainJet Aviation, S.A., No. 5:20-cv-01422 (W.D. Tex. filed Dec. 14, 2020).  At the time of this writing, PACER shows no activity since filing.

The section 230 reform bill was introduced in the Senate, 117th Congress (2021-2022), on February 8, 2021, as S.299.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Tort liability brakes U.S. policy shift on Sudan, marks crossroads of past, future where Africa meets Arabia

Street corner in the Arabian Market district of Khartoum
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

With economic sanctions exacting an intensified toll amid the pandemic and humanitarian crises fraying the peace at political borders, 40 million people in the East African Republic of Sudan may hope that long awaited normalization of relations with the United States will bolster stability and produce prosperity.  Meanwhile, in Washington, American tort claims have thrown a wrench into the diplomatic works.

Smaller Sudan after 2011 (LouisianaFan CC BY-SA 3.0)

Unending War

Before its 2011 division into north and south, Sudan was the largest country in Africa.  Its location is strategically important.  Sudan borders Libya and Egypt to the north, the lifeline of the Nile flowing into the latter.  The country's Red Sea coast positions Port Sudan opposite Jeddah and Mecca.  Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR) sit to the west, and Eritrea and Ethiopia to the east—where more than 40,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled conflict and now strain Sudan's thin resources.  Tumultuous northern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda, the latter yielding the Nile, lie in reach of South Sudan's capital, Juba, along with a disputed stretch of border with Kenya.

At last abandoning imperial ambition in 1953, the British left Sudan to the tempest of regime rise-and-fall that tragically characterized post-colonial power vacuum in Africa.  The country declared itself independent in 1956, but for a quarter century, no one form of government would stick.  An Islamic state brought about some political consistency in 1983, but plenty of ills, too: reigniting civil war between north and south, and paving the path of three decades' dictatorship and an abysmal human rights record under President Omar al-Bashir, from 1989 to 2019.

Part of embassy bombing memorial in Dar es Salaam
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Relations with the United States went from bad to worse after Sudan backed Iraq in the 1990-91 Gulf War.  Osama bin Laden took up residence in Khartoum for five years at that time.  He built a favorable reputation for philanthropy by building legitimate businesses and financing infrastructure projects, such as the main highway, named for him, linking Khartoum to Port Sudan.  In 1993, the United States listed Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism.  Under U.S. pressure, Sudan expelled bin Laden in 1996.  But Sudan was not spared blame when al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, killing 224 people, including 12 U.S. citizens, and injuring thousands.  U.S. retaliation included a cruise-missile strike against a Khartoum chemical plant—unfortunately and very likely a target accused erroneously of complicity in chemical weapons manufacture.

Ironically, the bin Laden-orchestrated terror attacks of September 11, 2001, set Sudan and the United States on a winding road of fits and starts toward reconciliation.  U.S. President George W. Bush recognized the need for American allies on the East African doorstep to the Middle East.  U.S. policy leveraged austere sanctions to incentivize Sudanese cooperation in counter-terrorism, and the Bashir regime was supportive.

Sudan needed help, too.  The civil war between the Islamic government in Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), started in 1983, had never ended.  The exhausting conflict, which ultimately cost more than 2 million civilian lives, was dragging into one of the longest civil wars in modern history—besides that it was really a sequel to the never-quite-resolved first Sudanese civil war of 1955 to 1972, another tragically typical consequence, in part, of arbitrary colonial political borders.  Multi-national diplomatic interventions helped at last to draw the war to a close in 2005.  The peace agreement led to the secession of South Sudan in 2011, a development that seemed promising at the time, but since has seen the two states teetering ceaselessly on the brink of combustion.

A spellbinding sampling of the human toll of the civil war can be found in Dave Eggers's What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006).  Spanning events from 1983 to 2005, the book is an artfully novelized memoir of a real child refugee among Sudan's "lost boys."

In 2017, the Obama Administration further loosened sanctions on Sudan.  A coup in 2019 sent Bashir from office the same way he came in, and in 2020, Sudan reconstituted itself as a secular state.  Al-Bashir, 76, is now in prison for corruption.  Marking a significant policy reversal, the government has signaled that it might be willing to turn Bashir over to the International Criminal Court for prosecution in connection with the genocide in Darfur during the second civil war.  In October, the Trump administration moved to clear the way for U.S. businesses to reenter Sudan, bargaining the country's de-listing as a state sponsor of terrorism in exchange for Sudanese recognition of Israel.  The administration was accused of too-little-too-late effort to bolster its foreign policy portfolio in the run-up to the 2020 election, but, at this point, the end means more than the motive.

Persistent Perseverance

In short order, Sudan has transformed from war-torn religious state, ruled by a dictator accused of crimes against humanity, to secular constitutional democracy, pivotal in Middle East peace and primed for western commercial investment.  In other words, Sudan might be in the midst of a remarkably rapid transition from paradigmatic problematic state to African success story.

View of Khartoum and the Nile from Corinthia observation level
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Long acquainted with the hardships of war and sanctions, the Sudanese have persevered, developing a resilient infrastructure and an enviable standard of living, especially relative to neighbors such as the CAR, the DRC, and Eritrea.  Sudanese teens wield smartphones in the dustiest of wayside villages.  Sudan has oil and refining capacity, though the division of natural resources between north and south remains a key cause of simmering contention.  The Khartoum skyline is dotted with structures infamously financed by deliberate defiance of sanctions.  Representative is the Corinthia Hotel: opened in 2008, the oval-shaped building is called "Gaddafi's egg," because Libya paid for its €80m construction.

Wayside fuel and rest area, Shendi-Atbara Road, Al Buqayr
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

At present, Sudan has one arm tied behind its back.  Trucks sit idle in fuel queues.  Western credit cards don't work; cash is king.  For better and worse, local products, mostly MENA-manufactured, substitute for the usual globalized glut of soda and snack options in the convenience stores, excepting the universe's inexplicably irreducible constant, Coca-Cola.

If sanctions go away, an energizing flow of auto parts, industrial equipment, transnational banking services, and development of telecommunication and physical infrastructure will irrigate Sudan's thirsty landscape.  The new constitutional government will be boosted to a threshold on prosperity unprecedented in the nation's history.  Already in June, the UK announced a £150m commitment to ease democratic transition and coronavirus impact by combating inflation and poverty.  Sudan unbound stands poised to achieve African development in a region that's long been starved of a win.

But There's a Hitch

Tort liability in U.S. courts is presently a sticking point in negotiations over normalization of U.S.-Sudanese relations and the entry of American enterprise in Sudan.  In 1996, Congress amended the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) to allow civil lawsuits against foreign state actors for support of terrorism.  Survivors and families of victims of the 1998 embassy bombings sued Sudan in 2001.  The lawsuits floundered in the 20-aughts amid confusion over what plaintiffs, defendants, and causes of action Congress intended to authorize.  In 2008, Congress clarified the law on those questions and revived the earlier suits.

Subsequently, plaintiffs, numbering more than 700, won an award in federal court of $10.2bn, including $4.3bn in punitive damages.  The D.C. Circuit struck the punitive damages, doubting that Congress intended to authorize punitive recovery retroactively.  In May 2020, in Opati v. Republic of Sudan, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, vacating the striking of punitive damages and remanding for the lower courts to reconsider.  Litigation questions remain on remand.  The defense might yet challenge the constitutionality of the retroactive authorization of punitive damages, and it's not clear whether Congress intended foreign plaintiffs to be eligible for punitive awards.  Still, the massive compensatory award stands ripe for harvest.

Sen. Schumer in October (Senate Democrats CC BY 2.0)
All that litigation might, however, amount to naught if Congress acts again.  As a condition of the current agreement over sanctions and Israel, Sudan wants free of the Opati judgment.  In October, the State Department indicated willingness to negotiate immunity for Sudan against liability for past acts.  But that immunity would require another change of law, and Congress is not yet on board.

According to a report in Tuesday's New York Times, Sudan has offered a settlement of $335m, undoubtedly a more realistic number than multiple billions.  But Sudan has threatened to exit the agreement in whole if Congress doesn't authorize immunity by year's end.  Deadlocked legislators are trying to broker a compromise through a military spending bill in these first weeks of December.  To the displeasure of some in Congress, the working proposal would compensate U.S. citizens naturalized subsequently to the 1998 attacks less than those who were citizens at the time—working a de facto racial disparity.

Even if the 1998 claims can be resolved, a bigger hurdle looms in the prospect of blanket immunity-to-date for Sudan.  While Sudan did defend the embassy-bombing lawsuits on grounds of FSIA interpretation, it has not responded to the legal claims of, The Hill estimates, about 3,000 family members of September 11 victims who blame Sudan for bin Laden's five-year safe harbor there.  According to the New York Times story, those plaintiffs have the support of Senate leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to see that their claims are not extinguished.  It seems unlikely that a closely divided Congress would have any appetite to favor foreign tranquility over September 11 victims, no matter how much U.S. businesses are chomping at the bit to trade in Sudan.

Local heroes (with a smartphone) atop Jebel Barkal
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Last Week in Sudan

Here in the United States, if we hear about Sudan, it's likely to be in the context of civil war atrocities, the human rights abuses of the Bashir regime, or Middle East tensions.  Yet last week in Sudan, I saw little evidence of those worldly matters.  On the roads of Khartoum, in the markets, and in the countryside, I found only a gracious and warm people, a rich Nubian cultural tradition, and a stunning archaeological record of our shared human heritage.

Your interpid blogger at the Nuri Pyramids
(Steven Mueller CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Both of those views, the ugly and the beautiful, the grim and the genial, are Sudan.  We disregard the former at our hazard.  But to disregard the latter, we risk much more.

Sudan is the beating heart of the African continent.  Sudan will not forever be deterred by colonial legacy and the politics of aging superpowers.  However we manage to balance redress for past wrongs with a way forward, America will have to decide how to be a part of Sudan's future.  The only alternative will be to join the crumbling desert relics of Sudan's past. 

UPDATE, Dec. 13, 2020: See Conor Finnegan, Trump admin offered $700M to 9/11 victims to save Sudan deal, ABC News, Dec. 11, 2020.  UPDATE, Dec. 20, 2020: Sudan's Listing as Sponsor of Terrorism Ended by US, BBC, Dec. 14, 2020.