Showing posts with label sovereign immunity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sovereign immunity. 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).

Friday, July 22, 2022

Court denies police immunity under state tort claims act in death of intoxicated man in protective custody

Michael Coghlan CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
In a lawsuit over the death of an intoxicated man in police protective custody, the defendants were not entitled to immunity under exceptions to the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA), the Commonwealth Appeals Court held in April.

Police in New Bedford, Mass., took the plaintiff's decedent into protective custody upon finding him in a state of heavy intoxication and disturbing the peace. Police put the man in a county jail cell, where he got into an altercation with another detainee. The other detainee pushed the man to the ground, where he hit his head. The man died from complications of the injury.

Defendant officials sought immunity from the plaintiff's negligence lawsuit under the discretionary function exception to the MTCA, section 10(b), and under the causation limitation of MTCA section 10(j).

Section 10(b) is similar to the discretionary function exception of the Federal Tort Claims Act. It disallows tort claims when public defendants exercise policy-making discretion, even when discretion is abused. The theory behind this exception is that public officials require latitude to make decisions, good and bad, and not every government decision should be second-guessed in litigation. The tort claims act reserves for litigation cases in which standards of conduct are set or clear, and the plaintiff alleges negligence relative to that standard.

The court denied defendants discretionary function immunity, because state law provides that persons in protective custody should be held at police stations, referred to appropriate care facilities, or returned home. The plaintiff alleged that the decedent's commitment to the county jail was improper and proximately caused the injury and death. Police had no discretion under the law to detain the decedent in the county jail.

MTCA section 10(j) is a creature specially of commonwealth law and articulates a potent liability limitation arising in causation. Section 10(j) disallows liability for 

any claim based on an act or failure to act to prevent or diminish the harmful consequences of a condition or situation, including the violent or tortious conduct of a third person, which is not originally caused by the public employer or any other person acting on behalf of the public employer.

Thus, state defendants disavow liability under section 10(j) when the plaintiff's liability theory is in the nature of a failure to supervise or intervene, and the more proximate cause of the injury is the conduct of a third party. Here, the defense pointed to the push to the ground by the decedent's fellow detainee, if not the decedent's own provocation.

The court also denied the defendants 10(j) immunity. The official act relevant to the plaintiff's claim was the decision to place the decedent in a county jail cell with potentially dangerous detainees, the court opined, not the precise mechanism of injury that ensued.

The case is Baptista v. Bristol County Sheriff's Department, Nos. 20-P-731 & 20-P-778 (Mass. App. Ct. Apr. 15, 2022). Justice Peter J. Rubin wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Sovereign immunity shields Texas power overseer from liability for now: not so privatized after all

NASA satellite image of Houston with area blackouts, Feb. 16
The cold-induced electric-power disaster in Texas is raising questions about the accountability of "ERCOT," the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

ERCOT is responsible for about 90% of the Texas electricity market.  During the storm and record cold of last week, Texans experienced rolling outages and some prolonged blackouts.  Deaths and injuries, from hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning, are attributed to the cold and blackouts, as well as billions of dollars in property damage.  Governor Greg Abbott has blamed ERCOT for failure to prepare the state's electrical system for a foreseeable winter weather event and promised an investigation.

National Weather Service Tower Cam, Midland, Feb. 20
Naturally, many Texans are wondering about legal liability for ERCOT.  I noticed a tweet from Houston Chronicle business reporter Gwendolyn Wu, who said that ERCOT has "sovereign immunity."  I found that hard to believe.  Wu cited a Chronicle story (subscription), from the bygone innocent age of fall 2019, in which business writer L.M. Sixel said just that.  As it turns out, the problem of ERCOT immunity is sitting, undecided, in the Texas Supreme Court at this very moment.

Legally, ERCOT is a nonprofit corporation formed in 1970 to oversee electric power distribution in Texas.  Because Texas has its own grid that doesn't cross state lines, the power system is not regulated by the federal government.  ERCOT has been at the heart of Texas's love affair with deregulation and privatization, a push that began in earnest in 1999 and found no bounds at the threshold of critical infrastructure.  State legislation in 1999 called on the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) to designate an exclusive "independent system operator" to oversee the Texas power grid, and ERCOT easily got the job that it more or less already had.

Yet ERCOT is neither wholly private nor a success story.  Its near monopoly control of Texas power comes with PUC oversight.  Despite that oversight, ERCOT has posted a remarkable record of abuse and failure.  As Sixel recounted in the Chronicle, executives went to prison in the 20-aughts for a financial fraud aggravated by lack of transparency and exposed by whistleblowers.  About the same time, Texans saw rolling blackouts, even while their deregulated electricity prices shot 30% over the national average.  Then, in 2011, a winter storm with single-digit temperatures caused blackouts across Texas.  It was that event that led federal regulators to recommend that ERCOT and the PUC winterize the system, a recommendation that was never heeded.

Frmr. Gov. Rick Perry tours ERCOT on March 14, 2012.
Apparently, an embarrassing record has not dampened the mood at ERCOT.  The "nonprofit," which is run by a board majority comprising power industry heavyweights, brought in $232m in revenue in 2018, Sixel reported in 2019, and chief executive Bill Magness took home $750,000 in 2017.  Sixel described ERCOT HQ (pictured below) near real-estate-red-hot Austin: "Its sprawling, modern glass and metal building has plush interiors with on-site fitness facilities that include a gym and sport court for volleyball, basketball and pickleball."  In contrast, the PUC "operates from two floors of crammed cubicles in ... a dilapidated structure close to the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.  DeAnn Walker, the commission chairman, earns $189,500 a year."

It was also in 2011 that ERCOT set out toward the immunity question now pending.  After the rolling outages of the 20-aughts, ERCOT wanted to see new sources of power added to the system.  Enter Panda Power, which invested $2.2bn to construct three power plants.  Alas, Panda later alleged in court, ERCOT had deliberately inflated market projections to incentivize investments; the power plants delivered only a fraction of the anticipated returns.  Panda sued ERCOT for $2.7bn in damages on theories including fraud and breach of fiduciary duty.

After almost a year of defending the case, ERCOT devised a new theory of sovereign immunity in Texas common law.  ERCOT performs exclusively governmental, not private, functions, it alleged, and works wholly under the control of the PUC.  Despite its statutory role as an "independent system operator," ERCOT insisted that it is not an independent contractor.  Rather, ERCOT styled itself as "a quasi-governmental regulator, performing an essential public service."  Panda argued that ERCOT is not entitled to sovereign immunity because it is "a non-governmental, non-profit corporation that receives no taxpayer dollars and retains discretion," particularly, Panda exhorted, when it furnishes false market data to power providers. 

In April 2018, reversing the district court, the Texas Court of Appeals agreed with ERCOT.  In a functionalist analysis, the intermediate appellate court grounded its decision in the legislative delegation of ultimate fiscal authority over ERCOT in the PUC.  The court wrote (citations omitted):

[A]s to separation-of-powers principles, [the statute] shows the legislature intended that determinations respecting system administration fees and ERCOT's fiscal matters, as well as any potential disciplinary matters or decertification, should be made by the PUC rather than the courts. Further, as the certified [independent service operator] provided for in [the statute], ERCOT is a necessary component of the legislature's electric utility industry regulatory scheme. A substantial judgment in this case could necessitate a potentially disruptive diversion of ERCOT's resources or a decertification of ERCOT not otherwise intended by the PUC.

According to Sixel, that decision rendered ERCOT "the only grid manager in the nation with sovereign immunity."

Pixabay image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images
Panda appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which heard oral argument (MP3, PDF) on September 15, 2020, but has not ruled.

Meanwhile, a curious procedural imbroglio arose in the lower courts to gum up the works.  While Panda was busy lodging its appeal with the Texas Supreme Court, it didn't head off the intermediate appellate court's mandamus order to the district court to dismiss the case, which it did.  Panda then appealed that dismissal on a separate track, and the intermediate appellate court stayed oral argument on that second appeal, waiting to see what the Supreme Court would do with the first appeal.

One month after the Supreme Court heard oral argument, it ordered the parties to file supplemental briefs, which they did in November 2020 (ERCOT, Panda), to answer whether the district court's dismissal mooted the case in the Supreme Court.  Panda insisted that there is a live controversy still before the court.  ERCOT wrote that Panda should have asked for a stay of dismissal in the lower court, and it didn't.  Bad Panda.

House chamber in the Texas Capitol (picryl)
It looks to my outsider eyes like the Supreme Court badly wants not to decide the case.  And that was before the winter storm of 2021.  If the court does kick the case, the intermediate appellate court's ruling for sovereign immunity will stand, and any 2021 complainants will be out of luck.  ERCOT's supplemental brief read anyway with a good deal of confidence about how things would go in the Supreme Court, so maybe it's only a question of which appellate court will bear the people's ire.  While the courts dithered, Panda Energy, a division of Panda Power Funds, folded, and Texas froze.

The best answer to the people's woes lies in their state legislature.  Maybe Texas legislators can be made to understand that privatization is not really privatization when the reins, along with sovereign immunity and a market monopoly, are simply handed over to a nominally independent and hardly nonprofit oligarchy.

Or maybe legislators are on their way to Cancún and points warmer.

The case is In re Panda Power Infrastructure Fund, LLC, No. 18-0792 (now pending), appealing Panda Power Generation Infrastructure Fund, LLC v. Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Inc., No. 05-17-00872-CV (Tex. Ct. App. 5th Dist. Dallas Apr. 16, 2018), reversing No. CV-16-0401 (Tex. Dist. Ct. 15th Grayson County 2017).  The latter appeal is Electric Reliability Council of Texas v. Panda Power Generation Infrastructure Fund, LLC, No. 05-18-00611-CV (oral argument stayed Aug. 20, 2019).

[UPDATE, April 3, 2021.] The Texas Supreme Court ducked the immunity issue in ERCOT v. Panda with a "hotly contested" "non-decision."  DLA Piper has the story (Mar. 29, 2021).

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.

Monday, January 18, 2021

State tort claims act disallows claim of 911 negligence

Plaintiffs in a fatal stabbing could not overcome sovereign immunity in alleging negligent delay of emergency response, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held last week.

A 28-year-old man with "psychiatric issues" went on a murderous "rampage" in Taunton, Mass., killing two people and injuring five more, before being shot and killed by an off-duty law enforcement officer, as reported by WBZ Boston in 2016.  In the course of the rampage, the perpetrator broke into the home of 80-year-old Patricia A. Slavin, where he stabbed her to death and also stabbed her daughter.

The perpetrator was shot and killed at the Galleria Mall in Taunton, Mass.,
after attacking patrons and fatally stabbing a diner who challenged him.
(Photo in 2020 by James Walsh CC BY-SA 4.0.)
It was more than 20 minutes after the daughter's desperate 911 call that a fire truck arrived on the scene, and more than 30 minutes for an ambulance, according to the court's recitation of the facts.  The Slavin plaintiffs alleged that negligence by a 911 dispatcher directed first responders to the wrong address and contributed to Slavin's death and her daughter's distress.

Negligence liability in American common law requires not mere causation, but proximate causation, which can be a slippery concept.  States waiving sovereign immunity in tort claims acts can use proximity of causation as a device to narrow permissible claims.

The Massachusetts Tort Claims Act does so through its section 10(j), which precludes liability for "any claim based on an act or failure to act to prevent or diminish the harmful consequences of a condition or situation, including the violent or tortious conduct of a third person, which is not originally caused by the public employer or any other person acting on behalf of the public employer" (my emphasis).

The legislature intended the provision for a case such as this one, the Appeals Court wrote in dismissing the claims. "It is true that a more prompt response by city personnel might have diminished the harmful consequences of the stabbings, but the lack of a prompt response was not the original cause of the harm" (footnote omitted).

A claim against the ambulance service, a private contractor, is unaffected by the dismissal.

The case is Slavin v. American Medical Response of Massachusetts, No. 19-P-1762 (Mass. App. Ct. Jan. 11, 2021).  Justice Peter Sacks authored the opinion for a unanimous panel that also comprised Justices Henry and Englander.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Immunity shields tweeting legislators from libel suits, Elizabeth Warren from high school plaintiffs

High schoolers from Kentucky will not get their day in court against Elizabeth Warren.

The students' lawsuit, high profile in the political sphere, was resolved in the Sixth Circuit yesterday on mundane grounds that offer a reminder to torts students of a simple immunity rule.

Remember the fuss in January 2019 over that video of Catholic high school students on a field trip said to be taunting a Native American elder demonstrating at the Lincoln Memorial?

Remember when people used to stand really close together like that?

There were two dramatically different sides to the story about what was really happening there, and they were as far apart as young people joining in celebration of Native American heritage, on the one side, and "MAGA" has inspired privileged youth to racism, on the other side.  For a breakdown that gets closer to the truth, see, e.g., Vox, Jan. 24, 2019; Reason, Jan. 21, 2020.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) tweeted about the affair from the perspective that cast the students in the wrong.  Haaland wrote, "The students’ display of blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance is a signal of how common decency has decayed under this administration. Heartbreaking."  And Warren: "Omaha elder and Vietnam War veteran Nathan Phillips endured hateful taunts with dignity and strength, then urged us all to do better."

The students sued the legislators for defamation, asserting that the darker interpretation of events was false.  On Thursday last week, the Sixth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the lawsuit—which is not to opine one way or the other on the students' claim of falsity.

As the court observed, the Speech and Debate Clause has no application on Twitter.  But a much simpler analysis pertained.  Whilst tweeting, Haaland and Warren were acting within the scope of their employment with the U.S. Government.  And the Federal Tort Claims Act (para. (h)) does not waive federal sovereign immunity for defamation committed by its employees—even the elected kind.

The case is Does 1 through 10 v. Haaland, No. 2:19-cv-00117 (6th Cir. Sept. 3, 2020).  Circuit Judge Eric Clay authored the opinion for a panel that also comprised Judges White and Readler.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Talk traces 'nuisance' from King Henry I to COVID-19


Yesterday I had the privilege to present in a lecture series (virtually) at Jagiellonian University (UJ) on the tort of nuisance in American common law.  I sketched out the historical background of nuisance relative to the recent lawsuit by the State of Missouri, against the People's Republic of China, alleging public nuisance, among other theories, and seeking to establish responsibility and liability for the coronavirus pandemic.  Here is a video (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) of the presentation, also available from Facebook, where the lecture streamed live.  A narrative abstract is below the video.
The Tort of 'Nuisance' in American Common Law:
From Hedge Trimming to Coronavirus in 900 Years
Nuisance is one of the oldest civil actions in Anglo-American law, dating to the earliest written common law of the late middle ages.  Nuisance for centuries referred to an offense against property rights, like trespass, interfering with a neighbor’s enjoyment of land.  But a nuisance need not be physical, and colorful cases have addressed nuisance achieved by forces such as sound, light, and smell.  In recent decades, nuisance has undergone a radical transformation and generated a new theory of civil liability that has become untethered from private property.  State and local officials have litigated a broad new theory of “public nuisance” to attack problems on which the federal government has been apathetic, if not willfully resistant to resolution, such as climate change and the opioid epidemic.  Just last month, the State of Missouri sued the People’s Republic of China, asserting that COVID-19 constitutes a public nuisance.  Emerging from understandable frustration, public nuisance nevertheless threatens to destabilize the fragile equilibrium of state and federal power that holds the United States together.

Here are some links to read more, as referenced in the presentation:

Here is a two-minute video (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) of only my PowerPoint (no audio), if you want an idea about the course of the talk:



The four-part lecture series, "American Law in Difficult Times," comprises:
Paul Kurth: The American Low-Income Taxpayer: Legal Framework and Roles Law Students Play
May 12, 18:00
Event - Video

May 19, 18:00
Richard Peltz-Steele: “Nuisance” in American Common Law Tort: COVID-19 as a Public Nuisance?
Event - Video

May 26, 18:00
Susanna Fischer: Art Museums in Financial Crisis: Legal and Ethical Issues Related to Deaccessioning
Event - Video

June 2, 18:00
Cecily Baskir: American Criminal Justice Reform in the Time of COVID-19
Event - Video


Here is the lecture series invitation (Polish) from the American Law Students' Society (ALSS) at UJ, via Facebook:



Here is an "about" from ALSS and partners:
❖ ABOUT AMERICAN LAW IN DIFFICULT TIMES:

The American Law Program (Szkoła Prawa Amerykańskiego) run by the Columbus School of Law, The Catholic University of American [CUA], Washington D.C., and the Faculty of Law and Administration, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, as well as the American Law Students’ Society (Koło Naukowe Prawa Amerykańskiego) at the Jagiellonian University, Kraków, sincerely invite you to participate in a series of four one-hour online open lectures and discussion sessions delivered by professors from the American Law Program.

The lectures will be devoted to a variety of legal issues mainly relating to COVID-19 difficulties facing people and institutions, for which legal solutions may be useful.

The lectures will be available through Microsoft Teams as well as a live-stream via Facebook. Participants willing to participate through Microsoft Teams are kindly asked to provide the organizers with their e-mails no later than 6 hours before the commencement of the lecture, by e-mail to kn.prawaamerykanskiego@gmail.com.

Your participation in all four lectures will be certified by the American Law Students’ Society. Only those participants who provide the organisers with their name, surname and e-mail will be granted such certificates.
I am grateful to Jagoda Szpak and Agnieszka Zając of ALSS at UJ; Wojciech Bańczyk, Piotr Szwedo, Julianna Karaszkiewicz-Kobierzyńska, and Gaspar Kot at UJ; and Leah Wortham at CUA.  The lecture series is sponsored by, and I am further grateful to, the Koło Naukowe Prawa Amerykańskiego (ALSS), Szkoła Prawa Amerykańskiego (School of American Law), and the Ośrodek Koordynacyjny Szkół Praw Obcych (Coordination Center for Foreign Law Schools) at the Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie (UJ in Kraków), and to CUA.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Area man signposts 'sovereign immunity site'

Attorney Dan Greenberg, friend of the blog and a federal policy adviser in Washington, D.C., contributes this photo from his home neighborhood of Alexandria, Va.

The sign reads:


City of Alexandria
Sovereign Immunity Site
 Did you know ...
     The City of Alexandria claims "sovereign immunity" from liability for damage its trash collection truck did to this fence.

     That's right.  On May 22, 2019 a city truck hit and broke this fence.  It's on video!  But none of that matters.  They're immune from liability.
What is sovereign immunity?
     Simply put, the term sovereign immunity is derived from British common law doctrine based on the idea that the King could do no wrong.
     So be careful around City of Alexandria vehicles.  They can do no wrong.

The underlying dispute was reported by Fox 5 D.C. in October.  A trash truck caused $5,000 in damage to Denis Goris's 30-year-old iron fence.



Sovereign immunity turns up often in a society in which government is pervasive in our lives and surroundings, and that's bound to cause frustration.  The sign-bearer is right that the essence of immunity is inequitable, as between the plaintiff who suffers an injury and the defendant sovereign who caused it.  The Federal Tort Claims Act waives federal sovereign immunity in a narrow class of cases, and states can be less generous with their tort claims acts.  The broader aim that keeps immunity going in a democracy is the protection of public assets, which belong to all of us.

It looks like Alexandria does use city staff for trash collection.  Contractors throw a wrinkle into the mix (federal, state).  I am not a Virginia lawyer; what I know of the state's tort claims act, it treats counties and cities much more generously than state-level actors.  The localities enjoy near absolute sovereign immunity for governmental functions, and, almost 50 years ago, the Virginia Supreme Court held that municipal trash collection is a governmental function entitled to immunity.  Alexandria does have an administrative claim process, and there's some room to argue.

The city told Fox 5: "Under federal and state laws and court rulings, the City is generally not liable for damages caused in the course of providing core government services. While the City conducts extensive planning and training to avoid damaging property, some damage does occur given the vast scope of City operations. Exemption from these claims saves a significant amount of money every year for taxpayers as a whole."

In a story last year, NBC 4 Washington reported: "Alexandria Won't Pay $4,600 in Damages to SUV Caused by City Trash Truck."  The city is as consistent with its tort claims as it is with its driving record.

[SUPPLEMENT: "Why is this still a thing?," Planet Money asks about state sovereign immunity in the context of excellent coverage of the copyright case pending in the U.S. Supreme Court, Allen v. Cooper.]

Monday, November 11, 2019

For Veterans Day, let's push through Congress bipartisan Feres doctrine waiver for medmal claims

Veterans Day Painting.  (Details at end of story.)
The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) authorizes tort actions against the U.S. federal government, waiving the government's sovereign immunity in its courts, subject to tight constraints.  The FTCA yields to the Feres doctrine, a rule of law named for the Supreme Court case that recognized it in the years following World War II.  The Feres doctrine disallows lawsuits by active-duty military for personal injury or death.  The Feres doctrine makes sense on the face of it, lest every injury in combat become a tort claim under the laws of the states. 

But the Feres doctrine's logic breaks down at the margins.  Increasingly in recent decades, healthcare has become big business and very expensive.  Military personnel have become dependent on the government for routine care.  And cases have been reported of medical malpractice at government hospitals: cases that unquestionably would yield medical malpractice claims in the comparable civilian context.  Insofar as the Feres doctrine is supported by a sort of "assumption of risk" by soldiers who go off to war, that theory feels ill fit to stateside medical mistakes in childbirth or prenatal care, or failure to diagnose terminal conditions

In spring 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court denied cert. in a challenge to this operation of the Feres doctrine (case at SCOTUSblog; details at and Stripes).  CBS Morning reported in August on the story of Sfc. Richard Stayskal, a Green Beret, now terminally ill, whose cancer was misdiagnosed, and on his emotional congressional testimony.


Bills (S.2451, H.R.2422) (not the first of their kind) that would authorize medmal tort claims for military personnel are stalled in House and Senate committees.  Fox46 Charlotte recently called out Sen. Lindsey Graham as an obstacle in the Senate for the bipartisan Sfc. Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act of 2019.  I hope Veterans Day might occasion placement of this fix on the short list of what Congress should be doing besides playing politics for the cameras this week.

(Image: Caroline Beattie, a senior at Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto, Fla., painted a portrait of her Economics and Government teacher, for the school's Veterans Day program. Her teacher, Maj. Jennifer Pearson with the Air Force Reserve’s 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., photographed the painting Nov. 6, 2019.  U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Jennifer Pearson.)

Monday, July 8, 2019

U.S. Supreme Court widens tort liability exposure of New Deal-era, state-owned enterprises

On April 29, the U.S. Supreme Court held against the Government by reversing and remanding unanimously in Thacker v. Tennessee Valley Authority, No. 17-1201 (Oyez), a negligence claim arising under the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946 (FTCA).

Per Justice Kagan, the Court held that the test for sovereign immunity in tort claims against New Deal-era "sued and be sued" entities such as the TVA is twofold.  First, the court must determine whether the conduct of the defendant was commercial or governmental.  Sovereign immunity can attach only to governmental conduct.  Second, if governmental, the court must determine whether suit is clearly inconsistent with constitutional or statutory scheme, or suit clearly would threaten interference with the governmental function (the test of FHA v Burr (U.S. 1940)).  Only in those narrow cases—much narrower than the statutory discretionary function exception to FTCA's waiver of sovereign immunity—does sovereign immunity attach.

The Court's decision hews to the plain text of the TVA Act of 1933 and represents a win for plaintiffs.  The case also throws into doubt other lines of federal case law in which the courts have borrowed and extended immunity concepts by analogy to the FTCA to shield government actors from liability in other statutory contexts.

You can hear my verbal review of the case at the Federalist Society's SCOTUScast.  Hear my pre-decision, post-argument analysis on SCOTUScast and view pre-argument analysis with engaging visuals from the Federalist Society on SCOTUSbrief.  The case is on SCOTUSblog with record links and informative analysis by Gregory Sisk.  Find the opinion and oral argument at Oyez.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Advocates in SCOTUS case on tort and sovereign immunity stick to their guns, frustrate Court's search for middle ground

For the Federalist Society SCOTUScast podcast series, I recorded a commentary on the U.S. Supreme Court oral argument in Thacker v. Tennessee Valley Authority, which occurred in January.  You can read more about Thacker, and see an excellent video the Federalist Society produced, via my January 18 blog entry.

The Tennessee River dips into northern Alabama, where the accident in
Thacker occurred. (Map by Shannon1, CC BY-SA 4.0).
Here is background on the case from the Federalist Society:

On January 14, 2019, the Supreme Court heard argument in Thacker v. Tennessee Valley Authority, a case involving a dispute over the “discretionary-function exception” to waivers of federal sovereign immunity.

In 2013, Anthony Szozda and Gary and Venida Thacker were participating in a fishing tournament on the Tennessee River. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) had a crew near the river, trying to raise a downed power line that had partially fallen into the river instead of crossing over it. The crew attempted to lift the conductor out of the water concurrent with Szozda and the Thackers passing through the river at a high rate of speed. The conductor struck both Thacker and Szozda, causing serious injury to Thacker and killing Szozda. The Thackers sued TVA for negligence. The district court dismissed the Thackers’ complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. 

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed that judgment.  Although the act creating the TVA waives sovereign immunity from tort suits, the Court held that the waiver does not apply where the TVA was engaged in governmental functions that were discretionary in nature. 

Applying a test derived from the Federal Tort Claims Act, the Court determined that the TVA’s challenged conduct fell within this “discretionary-function exception” here, and immunity therefore applied.

The Supreme Court granted the Thackers’ subsequent petition for certiorari to address whether the Eleventh Circuit erred in using a discretionary-function test derived from the Federal Tort Claims Act rather than the test set forth in Federal Housing Authority v. Burr, when testing the immunity of governmental “sue and be sued” entities (like the Tennessee Valley Authority) from the plaintiffs’ claims.

Counsel for Thacker and counsel for TVA stuck to their guns in the oral argument.  Thacker's position was to interpret the "may sue and be sued" language that governs the TVA and other New Deal authorities to be broadly permissive of tort suits, stopping only to preclude "grave interference" with the executive branch prerogative.  The TVA meanwhile insisted that it is entitled to a broad discretionary function immunity, like that which Congress built into the later enacted Federal Tort Claims Act.

Questions from the Court tried to pull both counselors toward the possible middle ground of a sovereign immunity for governmental functions and not for commercial functions.  But neither counsel was willing to bite.  That led to a lively oral argument.  Thacker's case seems the stronger, but it is unclear how the Court will get to either result.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Federal court holds Syria liable to U.S. family for $300m in killing of journalist Marie Colvin

Syria owes more than $300m in wrongful death damages to the family of American journalist Marie Colvin, who was killed while working for the U.K. Sunday Times covering the siege of Homs in the Syrian civil war in 2012, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled January 30, per U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson (e.g., N.Y. Times).

The Assad regime did not answer the lawsuit, and the court entered judgment by default.  The claim arose under the state-sponsored terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA), 28 U.S.C. § 1605A.  The exception was amended into the FSIA in 2008 to strengthen an earlier 1996 exception after claims against Iran faltered in enforcement.  Section 1605A spells out the existence of a private cause of action in federal law, irrespective of the vagaries of state tort law.  The court found that the Colvin family presented sufficient evidence to prove that Marie Colvin's death was an "extrajudicial killing," beyond the shield of FSIA immunity.  The law also excepts torture, aircraft sabotage, and hostage taking from FSIA immunity.

The case is furthermore noteworthy because the court awarded damages to Colvin's sister upon a liability theory of intentional infliction of emotional distress.  Typically in state law, actions alleging emotional distress inflicted on a "bystander" by the killing of a loved one fail for the plaintiff's inability to prove intent as to the suffering of the bystander.  However, in the Colvin case, the court reasoned that the very purpose of a terrorist attack is to inflict emotional suffering on third parties.

The court awarded the family $11,836 in funerary expenses and $300m in punitive damages, and awarded Colvin's sister $2.5m in damages for emotional suffering ("solatium").  Photojournalist Paul Conroy, who worked with Colvin and survived the Homs attack, told the BBC that the ruling is not about money, which the family likely will never see, but is important to de-legitimize the Assad regime in the community of nations.

Colvin's story is the subject of Under the Wire, a 2018 documentary film by Chris Martin, available on iTunes (trailer below), and A Private War, a 2018 dramatic film by Matthew Heineman (IMDb), starring Rosamund Pike, due for DVD/Blu-ray release on Amazon in February.  The screenplay derived from Marie Brenner's coverage of Colvin's life and death for Vanity Fair.



The case is Colvin v. Syrian Arab Republic, No.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Court dismisses prolonged suit against Government over 2009 Ft. Hood mass shooting

From the Defense Department: "Jeffrey and Sheryll Pearson look at the
portrait of their son, Army Pfc. Michael Pearson, before the Purple Heart
and Defense of Freedom award ceremony on Fort Hood, Texas, April 10,
2015. The event honored the 13 people killed and more than 30 injured in
a gunman’s 2009 shooting rampage on the base. U.S. Army photo by Daniel
Cernero."

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, per the Hon. Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, dismissed service-member and family claims against the federal Government arising from the 2009 shooting at Ft. Hood, near Killeen, Texas, in which U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 and injured more than 30 other persons.  CourtListener has the ruling in Manning v. Esper, No. 12-CV-1802 (D.D.C. Jan. 22, 2019).

To the dismay and torment of those involved, this case has dragged on for nearly a decade.  Hasan admitted to the shootings in a 2013 court-martial and was sentenced to death.  He is presently awaiting execution, pending judicial review, at Fort Leavenworth.  The civil claims accuse the Government of negligence in the supervision of Hasan, who was permitted to work as a medical corps psychiatrist despite superior's concerns about his own mental fitness.  While Hasan's case was under way and then on appeal, the Army repeatedly asked the trial court to stay civil proceedings, provoking "anger, frustration and suspicion" on the part of the plaintiffs, in their words.

The dismissal was predicated principally on grounds of the Feres doctrine. Arising from the 1950 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Feres v. United States (Justia), the Feres doctrine bars tort claims arising from active-duty service when the claims otherwise might be authorized by the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).  The Feres doctrine has made news in recent years in allowing the government to resist medical malpractice claims against healthcare providers of Veterans Affairs.  

Plaintiffs in the Ft. Hood case knew that Feres would be a problem, but hoped to work around it, as some victims were not on active duty at the time of the shooting, and some defendants were federal law enforcement officials rather than active-duty military.  The ambiguous status of some persons involved in the shooting, as well Hasan's motivations, was at issue in the intervening years in an ugly collateral dispute over victims' entitlements to military honors, which the Government for a time resisted.  In this same vein of ambiguity, the court did allow some plaintiffs' claims to proceed in administrative processes, dismissing them without prejudice for failure to exhaust remedies as the FTCA requires.

Information and privacy law aficionados might recollect the name of Judge Kollar-Kotelly.  For seven years after 9/11, she was the presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.