While the commercial activity issue in OBB v. Sachs is a cinch (as I discussed here and here), the agency issue is more complicated – and could have far-reaching consequences for FSIA jurisprudence. However, at the end of the day, the Court should reject the parties’ arguments and simply stick with Bancec. That is the wisest and safest choice.
Until the Ninth Circuit’s panel and en banc decisions in Sachs v. OBB, FSIA case law was relatively clear with regard to the appropriate agency analysis in cases involving separate juridical entities. When a plaintiff sought to establish jurisdiction over a foreign state based upon the conduct of a separate juridical entity, courts applied the standard set forth in the Supreme Court’s seminal decision in First Nat. City Bank v. Banco Para el Comercio Exterior de Cuba (“Bancec ”), 462 U.S. 611 (1983). Under Bancec, there is a presumption that the conduct of a separate juridical entity cannot be imputed to the foreign state. See Bancec, 462 U.S. at 626-27 (stating that “government instrumentalities established as juridical entities distinct and independent from their sovereign should normally be treated as such”); id. at 627 (discussing the “presumption of independent status”); see also, e.g., Doe v. Holy See, 557 F.3d 1066, 1077-80 (9th Cir. 2009); Transamerica Leasing v. La Republica de Venezuela, 200 F.3d 843, 848 (D.C. Cir. 2000). In cases not involving fraud or injustice through the use of the corporate form, the presumption of separateness means that a plaintiff must allege facts (and later prove) that the foreign state exercises day-to-day control over the separate corporation. See, e.g., Dale v. Colagiovanni, 443 F.3d 425, 429 (5th Cir. 2006); see also Walter Fuller Aircraft Sales, Inc. v. Republic of Philippines, 965 F.2d 1375, 1381 (5th Cir. 1992). Only in these circumstances will the conduct of the separate juridical entity be imputed to the foreign state. See, e.g., Transamerica Leasing, 200 F.3d at 850-53.
There are at least two reasons to apply the Bancec standard to the FSIA jurisdictional inquiry. First, Bancec’s presumption of separateness serves the principle of comity. “’If U.S. law did not respect the separate juridical identities of different agencies or instrumentalities, it might encourage foreign jurisdictions to disregard the juridical divisions between different U.S. corporations or between a U.S. corporation and its independent subsidiary.’” Bancec, 462 U.S. at 628, quoting H.R. Rep. No. 94-1487, at 29-30 (1976). At the jurisdictional stage, that could result in the United States being pulled into foreign court based upon conclusory allegations that a separate corporation is its “agent,” even though the corporate form was respected and even though the United States did not dominate the corporation’s day-to-day operations.
Second, the presumption of separateness provides a critical check against plaintiffs’ attempts to pierce the corporate veil at the jurisdictional stage. If the actions of separate corporations acting in the United States could be freely imputed to foreign states, foreign sovereigns would be much more frequently drawn into highly burdensome litigation in United States courts based upon a mere allegation of agency. Plaintiffs’ attorneys are often looking for the deepest pockets, and there would be no presumption of separateness to prevent counsel from alleging that a corporation in the United States is an “agent” of the foreign state. By drawing the foreign state into litigation, plaintiffs’ counsel would profoundly undermine the benefits of the corporate form, drive up the settlement values of cases, and get their foot in the door to obtain intrusive discovery from foreign sovereigns – which would vitiate a core protection afforded by foreign sovereign immunity, increase litigation costs and cause significant tensions with foreign states.
Even though Bancec has repeatedly proved to be a workable standard over the past thirty years, the parties and the United States government in OBB v. Sachs have urged the Court to effectively abandon Bancec’s presumption of separateness at the jurisdictional stage. While OBB raises the Bancec issue, its chief argument is that the Court should use 28 U.S.C. section 1603 to determine whether the acts of an entity can be imputed to a foreign state – a meritless argument that I have addressed before.
Sachs and the government, in turn, argue that the Court should apply the standards set forth in the Restatement of Agency (Third). The basic argument of Sachs and the government is that Bancec is an alter ego case, and that it did not supplant the traditional common law agency principles set forth in the Restatement. See, e.g., Brief of the United States as Amicus Curiae 17-18. That contention does not withstand scrutiny.
Let’s start with some basic principles – which are not mentioned in the briefs of the parties and amici in OBB v. Sachs. Under traditional rules governing corporations, corporate entities are presumed to be separate and distinct from their creators or owners. 1 William Meade Fletcher et al., Cyclopedia of the law of private corporations § 25 (rev. ed. 1999). Corporate acts “are the acts of the . . . corporation, and are not the acts of the shareholders composing it, and their powers and duties pertain to them respectively and not to each other[.]” Id. at § 28.
In “no particular is the distinction between the corporation and its members more marked and important than in suing and being sued.” Id. at § 36. Indeed, “limited liability is one of the principal purposes for which the law has created the corporation.” Id. at § 41.20. The rule of limited liability protects the owner or parent of a corporation from being sued for the corporation’s acts. See, e.g., United States v. Bestfoods, 524 U.S. 51, 61 (1998) (“It is a general principle of corporate law deeply ingrained in our economic and legal systems that a parent corporation . . . is not liable for the acts of its subsidiaries.”). The presumption of separateness requires courts to “start from the general rule that the corporate entity should be recognized and upheld, unless specific, unusual circumstances call for an exception. Care should be taken on all occasions to avoid making the entire theory of the corporate entity . . . useless.” Zubik v. Zubik, 384 F.2d 267, 273 (3d Cir. 1967).
There are two exceptions to the general rule of limited corporate liability. The first is alter ego, which requires a plaintiff to “show that the corporate form has been abused to the injury of a third person.” 1 Fletcher, supra, § 41.10. Alter ego is employed “where the corporate entity has been used as a subterfuge and to observe it would work an injustice.” Id. at § 41.10; see also, e.g., Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) (defining the alter-ego rule as the “doctrine that shareholders will be treated as the owners of a corporation’s property, or as the real parties in interest, whenever it is necessary to do so to prevent fraud, illegality, or injustice”). The “rationale behind the theory is that, if the shareholders or the corporations themselves disregard the proper formalities of a corporation, then the law will do likewise as necessary to protect individual and corporate creditors.” 1 Fletcher, supra, § 41.10.
The second exception is the existence of a principal-agent relationship. As the Supreme Court has stated, “'[d]ominion may be so complete, interference so obtrusive, that by the general rules of agency the parent will be a principal and the subsidiary an agent.’” NLRB v. Deena Artware, Inc., 361 U.S. 398, 403 (1960), quoting Berkey v. Third Ave. Ry. Co., 244 N.Y. 84, 95 (1926) (Justice Cardozo).
It is wrong to state that Bancec is only an alter ego case. Instead, the Supreme Court in Bancec set forth both exceptions to the rule of limited corporate liability:
In discussing the legal status of private corporations, courts in the United States and abroad have recognized that an incorporated entity . . . is not to be regarded as legally separate from its owners in all circumstances. Thus, where a corporate entity is so extensively controlled by its owner that a relationship of principal and agent is created, we have held that one may be held liable for the actions of the other. In addition, our cases have long recognized the broader equitable principle that the doctrine of corporate entity, recognized generally and for most purposes, will not be regarded when to do so would work fraud or injustice.
Bancec, 462 U.S. at 628-29 (citations and quotations omitted) (emphasis added). The first exception identified by Bancec is explicitly an agency relationship. Bancec, 462 U.S. at 629, citing Deena Artware, Inc., 361 U.S. at 402-04 (“a relationship of principal and agent”). The second Bancec exception is alter ego. Id. (“work fraud or injustice”); see also 1 Fletcher, supra, § 41.10; Berkey, 244 N.Y. at 95. In other words, contrary to the argument advanced by Sachs and the government, Bancec is not simply an alter ego case. Bancec set forth the standard for both agency and alter ego in cases involving separate corporate entities and foreign sovereigns.
The real question, then, is whether it makes sense to apply Bancec at the jurisdictional stage under the FSIA. As stated above, courts have done so for many years, and Bancec provides a workable standard through which to resolve the imputation issue. Moreover, absent Bancec’s presumption of separateness applied to the jurisdictional inquiry, the floodgates would open to lawsuits against foreign states based upon conclusory allegations of “agency” and “authorization.” As someone who has litigated Bancec at the jurisdictional stage in five separate FSIA cases, I know that Bancec affords a critical protection for foreign sovereigns from frivolous lawsuits and burdensome discovery (a point not mentioned in the briefs of the parties and amici). If the Bancec jurisdictional protection is taken away by the Court, the result will be a major increase in (meritless) lawsuits against foreign sovereigns. There is no reason to go down that path.
In sum, OBB v. Sachs is a piece of cake – if the Court applies its own precedent. The Court should apply Nelson with respect to the commercial activity inquiry, and should apply Bancec with regard to the agency issue. If the Court takes that approach, it would avert a major upheaval in this sensitive area of the law – since Nelson and Bancec have been bulwarks of FSIA jurisprudence for decades. The Court would also be avoiding a host of unintended consequences, including increased jurisdiction over foreign torts (in contravention to international law), disregard for the corporate form (with potentially serious comity and foreign relations consequences), and vitiation of several of the core protections afforded by the doctrine of foreign sovereign immunity. The Court got these issues right before in Nelson and Bancec, and the Court could get them right again – simply by following the principle of stare decisis.