Second Circuit’s Error in Kiobel

This is kind of petty, and not particularly timely, but the Second Circuit’s decision in Kiobel contained one pretty blatant error I wanted to point out. It’s a minor mistake, and entirely insignificant regarding the outcome of the case, but it is perhaps indicative of a lack of familiarity with the history of the Alien Tort Statute:

Such civil lawsuits, alleging heinous crimes condemned by customary international law, often involve a variety of issues unique to ATS litigation, not least the fact that the events took place abroad and in troubled or chaotic circumstances. The resulting complexity and uncertainty—combined with the fact that juries hearing ATS claims are capable of awarding multibillion-dollar verdicts — has led many defendants to settle ATS claims prior to trial. Thus, our Court has published only nine significant decisions on the ATS since 1980 (seven of the nine coming in the last decade), and the Supreme Court in its entire history has decided only one ATS case.

Although much of this statement is subjectively wrong, the last line is outright false. Sosa was not the first — O’Reilly De Camara v. Brooke, 209 U.S. 45 (1908) was the first case brought under the Alien Tort Statute to make its way to the Supreme Court. Although the case was not particularly significant, it is notable in that it “perhaps implies that an unjustified seizure of an alien’s property in a foreign country by a United States officer would come within it.” See Khedivial Line, S. A. E. v. Seafarers’ Intern. Union, 278 F.2d 49 (2d. Cir. 1960).

The rest of that paragraph from the Kiobel decision is also dubious.

ATS cases “often involve a variety of issues unique to ATS litigation, not least the fact that the events took place abroad and in troubled or chaotic circumstances.” The Second Circuit is abusing the meaning of “unique,” here. Events that took place abroad and in chaotic or troubled circumstances are in fact frequently litigated in US courts, albeit usually involving fact patterns that are different from the typical ATS case.

The resulting complexity and uncertainty—combined with the fact that juries hearing ATS claims are capable of awarding multibillion-dollar verdicts — Juries may be capable of awarding multibillion-dollar verdicts in ATS cases, but that is true for all sorts of cases. The only case the Second Circuit cites to is Karadzic, which was a default judgment. Moreover, a jury decision on the merits in favor of a plaintiff in a corporate defendant case has happened exactly once in any ATS case ever, in Chowdhury v. Worldtel Bangladesh Holding, Ltd., 588 F. Supp.2d 375 (E.D.N.Y. 2008). Just once. That is hardly grounds for invoke the specter of “juries awarding multibillion-dollar verdicts.”

… has led many defendants to settle ATS claims prior to trial. Wait, don’t courts consider it a good thing when cases settle before trial? And wait a second here — “many defendants” is quite a stretch. I am only aware of seven ATS cases ever that resulted in a settlement. I’m willing to assume there are a few out there that I’ve missed, but not many. The Second Circuit itself lists only two. There have been, by an extremely conservative estimate, maybe three hundred ATS cases in total that were “legitimate.” By legitimate, I mean not jail-mail and not filed by obviously crazy people. Of these three hundred or so cases, under a dozen have ever resulted in a settlement. So at the extreme, a mere 3% of ATS cases wind up settling. The average settlement rate for torts in federal courts is around 67%. I therefore find it absolutely ridiculous that the Second Circuit is using the threat that “many defendants settle before trial” as a reason for why the ATS is ‘dangerous’ or ‘unpredictable.’

There are other errors in Kiobel that are more significant, and are legal errors rather than factual ones, but these mischaracterizations are telling. The court was not simply adjudicating the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims — obviously the court found that its fears of what the ATS was capable of doing to be significant enough to include in its opinion. But these fears were based on stilted facts, not on the actual record.

-Susan

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