April 18, 2012
Supreme Court Action Today: What Is an Individual Under the Torture Victim Protection Act, and New Evidence in Patent Appeals
The Supreme Court issued two more opinions this morning. The first, Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority (11-88), concerns whether an action under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 (TVPA) can be sustained against defendants which are organizations. The Act authorizes a cause of action against “[a]n individual” for acts of torture and extrajudicial killing committed under authority or color of law of any foreign nation. The relatives of the decedent in the case, a naturalized United States citizen, sued the Palestinian Authority for the actions of its intelligence officers. The District Court dismissed the suit as the Palestinian Authority is not an individual as defined by the Act. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed that decision.
The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the term “individual” in the language of the Act means only natural persons. The language of other federal statutes makes clear the distinction between individuals and including entities in that context. Congress is capable of making those distinctions when it intends to apply legislation beyond the ordinary meaning of words. The Court rejected several arguments that attempted to read the term “individual” here in a broader context. I suppose that is the difference between corporations being treated as a person compared to this case. The Court said the plain meaning of the statute precluded a need to examine the legislative history, but examined it nonetheless. It concluded that if it needed to examine the legislative history, which it didn’t, mind you, that examination would support its holding. The Court was equally unsympathetic to the argument that a ruling against would leave the relatives without a remedy.
Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Justice Scalia declined to join Part III-B, the section covering the legislative history, presumably because he disagrees with the use of legislative history. Justice Breyer filed a concurring opinion.
The second opinion is Kappos v. Hyatt (10-1219). It’s a patent case and it involves whether an applicant can present evidence of patentability that had not been presented in the administrative process to the courts in a civil action against the Director of the Patent and Trademark Office. There are several paths to appealing an unfavorable ruling in a patent application under the Patent Act. One is to appeal to the PTO Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (§134), and then to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (§141). The alternative is to sue the PTO Director in a civil action under §145. The Act specifically allows the plaintiff to present evidence not presented to the PTO.
In Hyatt’s §145 suit, he presented new evidence, but the District Court limited its examination to administrative record under the “substantial evidence” standard under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and granted summary judgment to the Director. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed, holding that new evidence presented under §145 was limited only by the applicable Federal Rules. The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, holding that the language of §145 was clear and that the APA does not apply in this situation. The language of §145 had not changed much since it was passed in 1870. Court decisions under §145 are resolved in favor of a District Court using a de novo approach to consider evidence in these type of cases. The Court did say, however, that the District Court could consider whether the plaintiff had the opportunity to present the new evidence to the PTO and what weight to afford it.
Justice Thomas delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Justice Sotomayor filed a concurring opinion joined by Justice Breyer. [MG]