Thursday, April 19, 2012

Court Limits Torture Act to Natural Persons

A unanimous Supreme Court ruled yesterday in Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority that the Torture Victim Protection Act applies only to natural persons, not organizations.  The ruling means that torture victims cannot bring claims under the TVPA against anyone (or anything) other than an individual, natural person--and thus ensures that plaintiffs can use the TVPA in only a very narrow category of cases.  That's because torture victims often cannot identify their individual torturers, although they can identify the organization with which their torturers are affiliated.

Azzam Rahim's relatives filed this claim under the TVPA against the Palestinian Authority, alleging that the Palestinian Authority imprisoned, tortured, and killed Rahim.

Justice Sotomayor wrote for the Court that the term "individual" in the TVPA meant only a natural person, not an organization like the Palestinian Authority.  The TVPA says,

An individual who, under actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation --

(1) subjects an individual to torture shall, in a civil action, be liable for damages to that individual; or

(2) subjects an individual to extrajudicial killing shall, in a civil action, be liable for damages to the individual's legal representative, or to any person who may be a claimant in an action for wrongful death.

The Court examined the plain language of the statute and other similar statutory provisions that distinguish between an "individual" (as a natural person) and an organizational entity of some kind and concluded that "individual" means only a natural person.  The Court also rejected the plaintiffs' arguments based on legislative history and the need for a judicial remedy.

The ruling limits TVPA remedies for torture victims, because victims often cannot identify their individual torturers (although they can identify the organization with which their torturers are affiliated).  (The Court cited evidence from the legislative history that suggests Congress intended that the Act apply only narrowly, in few cases.)

Congress, of course, can change the TVPA to cover organizations and corporations.  As the Court noted, "[t]here are no doubt valid arguments for such an extension."

This case is related to another torture case now before the Court, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum.  In that case, the plaintiffs filed a claim under the Alien Tort Statute (not the TVPA) against a corporation for human rights abuses in another country.  The original issue was whether the ATS applied against corporations--an issue similar to the question in Mohamad, but under a different statute.  The Court, however, ordered reargument next term on the question whether the ATS applies to actions outside the United States.  The new question adds another layer to the case and provides another basis on which the Court could deny relief to the plaintiffs.  If so, the Court will have interpreted two important human-rights-protecting statutes narrowly and thus significantly limited judicial remedies for torture victims in U.S. courts. 

Again, though: Congress could change all this.


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