Showing posts with label September 11. Show all posts
Showing posts with label September 11. Show all posts

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.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Teachable torts: Court succinctly dismisses 'outing' case collateral to terrorism prosecution

Attendees dance during the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender mixer
hosted by Joint Task Force Guantanamo Equal Opportunity Leaders for JTF
Troopers and Naval Station Guantanamo Bay Residents to honor LGBT
Pride Month in 2018. Photo by JTF GTMO PAO Trooper.
A short decision upon compelling facts in a civil case collateral to the criminal prosecution of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused of being a September 11 architect, offers a worthwhile exercise in the study of tort law.

Semmerling, a lawyer on the defense team of Guantánamo-held Mohammed, accused the head of the defense team of outing Semmerling to Mohammed as gay.  The revelation of Semmerling's sexual orientation resulted in his removal from the team, because Mohammed would not work with a gay (or Jewish) lawyer.

Typical outing cases present some interesting problems in privacy law for several reasons.  First, they emphasize the distinction between the disclosure privacy tort and the defamation tort, because the revelation in an outing case is true.  First Amendment absolutism challenges the disclosure tort for its threat of liability upon a truthful statement, though there is little doubt that the disclosure tort would survive a direct Supreme Court challenge today.

Second, a plaintiff's homosexual (or other non-heterosexual) identity is rarely an absolute secret, disclosed to no one, but more often—and healthily—a personal datum that the plaintiff has disclosed with thought and care to different persons—parents, friends, public—at different times.  But "the secrecy paradigm" that dominates American privacy law disallows tort recovery unless intimate information remains intimately safeguarded.  (This is a critical point of difference between U.S. and European privacy law.)

Third, outing cases are complicated as a matter of social policy, for fear that a liability award might validate the view that homosexual orientation should be a source of shame, so either a truth properly kept secret (privacy tort), or a falsehood injuriously uttered (defamation tort).

This case is not typical—Semmerling's sexual orientation was only a secret to Mohammed—but its unusual facts, assuming the allegations as true for sake of argument on the motion to dismiss, left Semmerling with only less prospect of a tort remedy than usual.

Invoking the common law litigation privilege, the U.S. District Court, per Judge Robert W. Gettleman, rejected claims against the defense team leader herself. The absolute privilege ensures that an attorney has unfettered discretion in communicating with a client on matters pertaining to litigation.  The court also dismissed claims of negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) against the United States as defense counsel's employer.

Tim Jon Semmerling is a Chicago criminal-
defense attorney. In addition to his private
practice, he has worked pro bono for the
Center for Justice in Capital Cases at DePaul
University.
The negligence and IIED claims against the United States did survive dismissal under the Federal Tort Claims Act.  The FTCA on its terms disallows libel and slander claims against the United States, and the court opined that even a defamation claim disguised as IIED (or general negligence) would not survive that disallowance.  For the very fact that Semmerling complained about a truthful disclosure, his claim cannot be equated with libel or slander, and so was not a disguised defamation claim.

On tort law merits, though, Semmerling failed to state a claim, the court ruled.  He tried to predicate negligence on the defendant's one-time assurance to him that she would allow him to work on the case without disclosing his sexual orientation to Mohammed.  That was not basis enough, the court opined, to establish a duty of the United States to Semmerling for the purpose of proving negligence. The court did not wade in more deeply, but I expect that the duty requirement was especially elevated given Semmerling's lack of physical injury.

As to IIED, Semmerling sufficiently pleaded neither intent nor outrageousness.  Semmerling found out about the dislcosure only by way of hearsay and only some time after being fired.  So, the court reasoned, evidence was lacking that the disclosure was calculated to cause him emotional distress.  Also the disclosure was at worst "offensive," the court opined, and not "utterly intolerable in a civilized community," as Illinois law requires.

I wonder whether the facts would have supported a tortious interference claim; alas, that cause is expressly disallowed by the FTCA.

The case is Semmerling v. Bormann, No. 18-CV-6640 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 11, 2019).  HT@ ABA Journal.

[NOTE, Sept. 25, 2019: A generous colleague brought to my attention that the complaint in the case also pleaded defamation.  The claim failed on the litigation privilege as against lead counsel and was precluded by the FTCA as against the United States.  I ought to have marked the point that Semmerling was unable to claim disclosure in part because he guarded no intimately held secret.  The defamation claim was grounded in the allegation that lead counsel falsely suggested to the client a particular sexual interest in him.  That's an intriguing hypothetical when one considers the consequent analyses on the merits, including "capable of defamatory meaning."]

Friday, November 3, 2017

UIA Congress studies global legal issues: irresponsible journalism, anti-corruption in sport, and intellectual freedom in fashion



Just this week I returned from the annual world congress of the Union Internationale des Avocats, which did not disappoint.  Lawyers from around the world gathered in Toronto to exchange experiences and ideas on a range of cutting-edge themes.

Highlights of this year’s UIA for me included the media law and sports law panels.  The media law panel was coordinated by Emmanuel Pierrat, of Cabinet Pierrat, and Jean-Yves Dupeux, of Lussan & Associés, both in Paris.  The sports law panels were coordinated by Fernando Veiga Gomes, Abreu Advogados, Lisbon; Robert J. Caldwell, Kolesar and Leatham, Las Vegas; and Emanuel Macedo de Medeiros of the International Centre for Sport Security, an NGO based in Doha.

Liability for Journalism

The media law program asked panelists to examine how "irresponsible" and "responsible" journalism are faring in today's legal systems.  Thierry Bontinck of Daldewolf SCRL in Brussels ran through recent developments in the European Court of Human Rights.

We’ve always known that the European approach to freedom of expression is characterized more by balance than the presumption-rebuttal approach of the U.S. First Amendment.  That tension goes a long way to explain U.S. reluctance to enforce foreign libel judgments over the decades, a reluctance codified in the SPEECH Act during the Obama Administration.  But Bontinck’s analysis shows a recent trend in the ECtHR to further downplay the primacy of free speech, putting it on par with competing interests, such as privacy, fair trial, and law enforcement.

It is not clear to me whether this trend will further alienate Europe from fundamental rights analysis in U.S. constitutional law, or might be running in parallel to a trending subordination of free speech in our own courts.  Frankly I would welcome the change here were rights of reputation and privacy to elbow a little more room for themselves in our First Amendment law.  But I would be less eager to embrace a free speech trade-off with more abrupt implications of state power, such as surveillance by law enforcement.

Litigation against Saudi Arabia and the FBI

Also on the media law panel was Thomas Julin of Gunster Yoakley & Stewart, P.A., Miami.  Julin gave an expert overview of developments in American media law.  Yet most captivating was his update on the efforts of families to sue Saudi Arabia in S.D.N.Y. for September 11 losses, more than US$100bn in damages, under Congress’s remarkable waiver of the Saudis’ foreign sovereign immunity.

Julin represents the award-winning Florida journalist Dan Christensen in FOIA litigation against the FBI, now going to the Court of Appeals, for records related to 9-11 investigation of the Saudis.  Needless to say, plaintiffs in the New York litigation are carefully watching the collateral FOIA litigation, which could unlock a vault of evidence.

Julin pointed out that Saudi moves toward commercial and political liberalization, such as a planned IPO of the oil industry in New York and even the recent announcement that Saudi women would be allowed to drive cars, might be a function of U.S. liability exposure.

Whither Goes Sullivan?

In running down U.S. legal developments, Julin talked of course about the Hulk Hogan case, Bollea v. Gawker ($140m verdict, $31m settlement) and the Pink Slime settlement (Beef Products, Inc. v. ABC, Inc.).  Although the Pink Slime settlement was confidential, Julin said that SEC filings disclosed a $177m pay-out from ABC News parent Disney to the beef industry (on its $1.9bn claim), and that doesn’t include losses covered by insurance.  That might be the biggest defamation settlement in the world, ever, Julin noted.

From the audience, Jim Robinson of Best Hooper Lawyers, Melbourne, Australia, added to the mix Rebel Wilson’s record-setting A$4.57m win in Victoria.  All this led Julin to express some concern about whether New York Times v. Sullivan today carries waning cachet (a mixed blessing in my opinion).

Arbitration in Sport

In sports law, a first panel compared case outcomes across international dispute resolution systems.  Moderated by Caldwell, the panel comprised David Casserly of Kellerhals Carrard in Lausanne, Switzerland; Paul J. Greene of Global Sports Advocates, LLC, in Portland, Maine; Roman E. Stoykewych, senior counsel for the National Hockey League Players Association in Toronto; and Clifford J. Hendel of Araoz & Rueda in Madrid.

One case the panel examined involved the hit of NHL player Dennis Wideman on linesman Don Henderson in January 2016.  The video (e.g. SportsNet Canada) is not pretty, but it turns out there is much more than meets the eye.  In the video, at first blush, Wideman seems quite deliberately to hit the linesman from behind.


In context, however, Wideman was coming off of a concussive blow into the boards himself.  Stoykewych explained that Wideman was woozy, and what looks like a raising of his stick to strike Henderson can in fact be explained as a defensive maneuver whilst skating into an unidentifiable obstacle, if not a perceived opponent on the attack.  Casserly moreover suggested that Wideman’s plight might be likened to the exhausted fighter who inexplicably starts beating on an intervening referee.  The NHL rule on intentional strikes is all the more confounding, as it seems to define intent with an objective reasonableness test.

Ultimately the players’ union won reduction of Wideman’s heavy sanction to something like time served.  The case occasioned a vibrant discussion of evidentiary procedures, decision-making standards, and review standards in sport arbitration.  In the bigger picture, the case makes for a fascinating study of civil culpability standards and comparative dispute resolution mechanisms.

Integrity in Sport

Moderated by Macedo de Medeiros, the second sports law panel comprised Randy Aliment of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Seattle, Washington; Matthew Shuber of the Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Club; and Veiga Gomes.  The panel occasioned introduction of the Sport Integrity Global Alliance, a meta-organization born in 2015 to bolster integrity in global sport governance.  Not many people need to persuaded any longer, since the FIFA Sepp Blatter fiasco, of the problem of corruption in world sport.  Boston's and Hamburg’s disgruntled withdrawals from Olympic contention spoke volumes about skepticism of sporting mega-events, and I for one wonder at Eric Garcetti’s embrace of Olympic promise for Los Angeles.

Yet the corruption problem infects more than just the highest echelons of sport governance, as money filters through so many political layers and across so many social sectors.  Veiga Gomes illustrated for example:  Ninety percent of European footballs clubs do not publish their books, enjoying utter opacity in their accounting.  At the same time, 77% of European clubs are insolvent or “close to insolvent.”  Meanwhile, FIFA, UEFA, and the European football associations generate more than US$3bn in annual revenue.  So where is all that money going?  Thus, Veiga Gomes concluded, a “major transparency problem” renders football vulnerable to corruption and organized crime.

Strike a Pose

Though I was not able to spend as much time there as I liked, the UIA commissions on contract law, fashion law, and intellectual property law put on a fabulous full-day working session on “launching a fashion label business,” ranging across the areas of law practice implicated by a fashion-label client.  Sharing the helm of this ambitious program was an IP lawyer whom I admire, Gavin Llewellyn, of Stone King LLP, London. 

Taking part in the program was my friend and esteemed colleague from UMass Dartmouth Public Policy, Professor Nikolay Anguelov.  Dr. Anguelov talked essentially about the thesis of his book, The Dirty Side of the Garment Industry: Fast Fashion and Its Negative Impact on Environment and Society.  His talk made a vital and unusual contribution by making lawyers in the business think about the externalities of their commercial work in many dimensions, including social, economic, and environmental.  Credit to Llewellyn for bringing in Anguelov.
For every snippet of the fashion law program I was able to catch, I learned something.  My favorite takeaway was a discussion by Renata Beržanskienė, of the Sorainen law firm in Vilnius, Lithuania, about the “Jesus Jeans” case.  The case involves clothing and its advertising by the Robert Kalinkin fashion house.  Provocative images of a shirtless Jesus wearing Kalinkin jeans drew a public morals fine from the Lithuanian consumer protection authorities under national advertising law.  Presenting issues in free expression, commercial speech, and public authority to regulate morality, the case is pending before the European Court of Human Rights.

Compare Mark 4:14 (ERV) (“‘They will look and look but never really see.’”) with Jordache 1983 (“You’ve got the look.").