Monday, December 13, 2010

New York District Court Clarifies the Jurisdictional Scope of the Alien Tort Claims Act and Torture Victim Protection Act

December 2010

In a decision issued in late November, the Eastern District of New York confirmed the limited scope of jurisdiction under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) and further defined the scope of liability under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA). Velez v. Sanchez, No. 04-CV-4797, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 126586 (Nov. 30, 2010). Although the decision arises from facts uncommon to multinational companies, the decision nonetheless serves as further clarification on the jurisdictional interrelation between ATCA and TVPA and is an example of how courts continue to interpret ATCA and TVPA claims.
Clarifying ATCA and TVPA's Jurisdiction

"Velez pled her claims of human trafficking and forced labor under ATCA. Although the defendants did not challenge the jurisdictional basis of these claims, the court exercised its authority to do so. The court agreed that human trafficking and forced labor violate "specific, universal and obligatory" international norms so as to fall within ATCA's jurisdiction, but ruled that other jurisdictional defects in Velez's ATCA claims mandated dismissal.

Acknowledging that Velez's ATCA claims were a matter of first impression, the court initially noted that all of Velez's allegations involved actions that had occurred within the United States (i.e., domestic actions). Although the court found no case law holding that ATCA claims must only involve actions occurring abroad, the court nonetheless held that Velez's claims of human trafficking and forced labor were not within the Supreme Court's conception of ATCA jurisdiction. Moreover, the court called Velez's foreign national status "pure happenstance," dismissing it as irrelevant to the establishment of ATCA jurisdiction.

Secondly, the court held that although Velez's allegations fell within ATCA's ambit, such jurisdiction has already been 'implicitly withdrawn' by the enactment of TVPA. Finding that TVPA created a cause of action 'for any individual who is a victim of a violation of the federal criminal laws prohibiting human trafficking and forced labor,' the court held (again as a matter of first impression) that Congress intended for TVPA to limit ATCA's jurisdiction in the area of civil remedies for human trafficking and forced labor.

The court declined, however, to decide whether TVPA provides a remedy only for domestic violations of the criminal laws against human trafficking and forced labor, which, if true, would leave the scope of ATCA "undiminished." Noting a lack of guiding authority or consensus among the courts, the Velez court tabled that issue, explaining that it would not resolve the question at this time, especially since all of Velez's claims arose in the United States. The court further reasoned that even if TVPA applied to both domestic and foreign actions, ATCA would still remain viable for those claims by aliens alleging 'any other violation of the law of nations or . . . treaty of the United States.'"
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