OBB v. Sachs: A Smart Result

Over two months ago, I argued that OBB v. Sachs was “an easy call” with regard to the commercial activity exception.  I contended that the case was controlled by Saudi Arabia v. Nelson, 507 U.S. 349 (1993), and that “the Supreme Court should simply apply Nelson . . . and order the dismissal of Sachs’ lawsuit.”  Today, a unanimous Court did just that.  The Court applied Nelson and reversed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit.  The Court got it right.

The Court not only got it right, but it also cleaned up a key part of FSIA jurisprudence.  In my post a few months ago, I stated the following with regard to the gravamen vs. elements approach in Nelson:

[W]hile Nelson contained sloppy language that could be interpreted to support an elements approach (Nelson, 507 U.S. at 357), the Nelson Court clearly used a gravamen approach.  It did not methodically review Nelson’s sixteen causes of action to determine whether some of the claims contained elements that required proof of commercial activity in the United States.  Instead, Nelson used a gravamen analysis, as reflected by its discussion of the failure to warn claim . . . . In other words, with regard to Nelson, one should do as the Court did, and not as the Court said.  Its actual holding makes clear that gravamen is the proper method of analysis.  However, the sloppy “elements” language in Nelson has indeed caused confusion in FSIA jurisprudence over the years, and Sachs is the perfect opportunity to clean it up.

In its opinion today, the Court echoed this analysis:

The Ninth Circuit apparently derived its one-element test from an overreading of one part of one sentence in Nelson, in which we observed that “the phrase [‘based upon’] is read most naturally to mean those elements of a claim that, if proven, would entitle a plaintiff to relief under his theory of the case.” 507 U. S., at 357. . . . [O]ur analysis in Nelson is flatly incompatible with a one-element approach. A one-element test necessarily requires a court to identify all the elements of each claim in a complaint before that court may reject those claims for falling outside §1605(a)(2). But we did not undertake such an exhaustive claim-by-claim, element-by-element analysis of the Nelsons’ 16 causes of action, nor did we engage in the choice-of-law analysis that would have been a necessary prelude to such an undertaking. . . .  Nelson instead teaches that an action is “based upon” the “particular conduct” that constitutes the “gravamen” of the suit.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court has now “cleaned up” the gravamen vs. elements issue, and has made it clear that a gravamen approach constitutes the governing mode of jurisdictional analysis under the FSIA.  Its conclusion is correct under Nelson, and is also a good result for all of the reasons I have previously identified.

Finally, the Court declined to reach the attribution issue in Sachs.  Since the commercial activity issue resolved the case, the Supreme Court’s decision was wise.  The attribution issue was complicated, and had the potential to yield a host of unintended consequences in FSIA jurisprudence.  The Court will eventually need to revisit attribution under the FSIA, but sidestepping the issue here was a sensible exercise of judicial restraint.

OBB’s Novel “Agency or Instrumentality” Argument Revisited

OBB v. Sachs is scheduled for oral argument in the United States Supreme Court on October 5, 2015.  During the period leading up to oral argument, I intend to publish a series of posts regarding issues in the Sachs case.  My general view is that Sachs is an easy case to resolve under Saudi Arabia v. Nelson, 507 U.S. 349 (1993), but that there is potential for a major mistake by the Supreme Court on the critical issue of attribution.  I will provide more information on these key points in the upcoming weeks.

Today, I want to focus on an issue that I have discussed before, namely OBB’s argument that the determination of whether an entity is an “agent” of a foreign state should be resolved through the definition of “agency or instrumentality” set forth in 28 U.S.C. section 1603(b).  I will not revisit the points I made in previous posts (here and here).  I do, however, want to add three points:

(1) OBB did not raise its argument that section 1603(b) controls the inquiry of whether an entity is an “agent” of a foreign state during district court proceedings.  OBB also did not raise the argument in its main briefing before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Instead, OBB raised the issue for the first time during oral argument on en banc rehearing, and was subsequently ordered by the Ninth Circuit to submit supplemental briefing addressing its new argument.  See Sachs v. Republic of Austria, 737 F.3d 584, 594 n. 7 (9th Cir. 2013) (en banc).  OBB’s novel argument – which was contrary to FSIA precedent – was thereafter squarely rejected by the Ninth Circuit.  Sachs, 737 F.3d at 594-98.  That OBB itself did not see fit to raise the issue until oral argument on en banc rehearing fails to inspire confidence, and a closer look shows why OBB’s novel interpretation of the FSIA should have remained on the cutting room floor.

(2) OBB’s argument would require an extremely strained (and confusing) interpretation of 28 U.S.C. section 1603.  The relevant portion of section 1603 states:

(a) A “foreign state”, except as used in section 1608 of this title, includes a political subdivision of a foreign state or an agency or instrumentality of a foreign state as defined in subsection (b).

(b) An “agency or instrumentality of a foreign state” means any entity—

. . .

(2) which is an organ of a foreign state or political subdivision thereof, or a majority of whose shares or other ownership interest is owned by a foreign state or political subdivision thereof

. . . .

28 U.S.C. § 1603(a), (b)(2).  For OBB’s argument to work, the term “foreign state” in section 1603(b) must include “agencies or instrumentalities” of foreign states; otherwise, under OBB’s framework, an “agency or instrumentality” of a foreign state could never be held to have an “agent.”  Yet, as applied to OBB’s situation (that is, the question of whether an entity is an agent of an agency or instrumentality), OBB’s interpretation would effectively yield a statute that states the following:

(b) An “agency or instrumentality of [an agency or instrumentality of] a foreign state” means any entity—

. . .

(2) which is an organ of [an agency or instrumentality of] a foreign state or political subdivision thereof, or a majority of whose shares or other ownership interest is owned by [an agency or instrumentality of] a foreign state or political subdivision thereof

. . . .

Such a reading of section 1603(b) is not only deeply confusing, but it is also inconsonant with the statute’s use of the term “political subdivision thereof” (since agencies or instrumentalities of a foreign state do not have “political subdivisions”).  In other words, when section 1603(b) used the term “foreign state,” it was referring to foreign states proper – such as the Republic of Austria – and not to agencies or instrumentalities of a foreign state.  That is, in fact, exactly what the FSIA’s legislative history demonstrates.  See H.R. Rep. No. 94-1487, at 15 (1976) (stating that an agency or instrumentality must “be either an organ of a foreign state (or of a foreign state’s political subdivision), or that a majority of the entity’s shares or other ownership interest be owned by a foreign state (or by a foreign state’s political subdivision)”).  It is also what the Supreme Court concluded in Dole Food Co. v. Patrickson, 538 U.S. 468 (2003), when the Court held “that only direct ownership of a majority of shares by the foreign state satisfies the statutory requirement [set forth in section 1603(b)(2)].”  Id. at 474 (emphasis added).

There is, in short, no statutory support for OBB’s approach.  Nothing in the FSIA indicates that a court first needs to examine section 1603(b) to determine whether the defendant (like OBB) is an agency or instrumentality of a foreign state, and then re-examine section 1603(b) to determine whether the putative agent is an “agency or instrumentality” of the “agency or instrumentality.”  No court has ever adopted that type of circular analysis under section 1603, and for good reason: it makes no sense. 

(3) OBB’s agency or instrumentality argument fails for another reason: it would render far too many entities incapable of being deemed an “agent” of a foreign state, and thereby deeply undermine the FSIA’s commercial activity exception.

Consider the following scenario: through individual intermediaries, a foreign state creates a separate corporation in New York State.  The foreign state exercises extensive day-to-day control over the corporation, which engages in a series of commercial transactions in the United States.  After the corporation’s conduct leads to multi-million dollar losses for a number of United States citizens, the individuals damaged file suit against the corporation and the foreign state.  Their main jurisdictional argument under the FSIA is that the corporation was an agent of the foreign state through the latter’s exercise of day-to-day control, and that the corporation’s conduct is attributable to the foreign state for jurisdictional purposes. 

Under OBB’s (mis)interpretation of section 1603(b), the plaintiffs in this scenario could not proceed against the foreign state itself because the corporation does not meet the definition of an agency or instrumentality under the FSIA.  The corporation was created in New York, not in the foreign state, and therefore could never (under OBB’s theory) be an agent of a foreign state.  See 28 U.S.C. § 1603(b)(3) (stating that an “agency or instrumentality of a foreign state” means any entity which, inter alia, “is neither a citizen of a State of the United States as defined in section 1332(c) and (e) of this title, nor created under the laws of any third country”).  The same would hold true if the foreign state created the entity under the law of a third country, such as the law of the Bahamas or Panama.  In fact, OBB’s formulation would provide a blueprint to foreign states about how to engage in commercial activity in the United States without risking the possibility of litigation: if the foreign state engages in commercial activity through a corporation created under the law of the United States or a third country, it will never be held to engage in commercial activity in the United States — even if the foreign state exercises day-to-day control over the corporation created, and effectively engages in extensive commercial activity in the United States through the nominally separate corporation.

OBB’s position, in other words, would profoundly undermine the effectiveness of the FSIA’s commercial activity exception.  Where a foreign state dominates a separate corporation to such an extent that a principal-agent relationship is created, courts must be permitted to attribute the corporation’s conduct to the foreign state for jurisdictional purposes.  Otherwise, the first clause of the commercial activity exception would contain a loophole that would swallow the exception itself.

[Next week, I will examine Sachs’s argument that OBB’s “overall commercial railway enterprise” satisfies the “commercial activity” requirement under the first clause of the FSIA’s commercial activity exception.]

Lurking Attribution Issues Under the FSIA

During my regular review of FSIA cases, I am constantly surprised by the inattention paid to attribution.

For example, in LaLoup v. United States, No. CIV.A. 13-7124, 2014 WL 3361804 (E.D. Pa., July 10, 2014), the court assumed that Greece owned an item for purposes of the international takings exception because the item was owned by an agency or instrumentality of Greece.  LaLoup, 2014 3361804, at *18.  The court’s conclusion ignores a fundamental principle underlying the FSIA, namely that “government instrumentalities established as juridical entities distinct and independent from their sovereign should normally be treated as such.”  First Nat. City Bank v. Banco Para El Comercio Exterior de Cuba, 462 U.S. 611, 626-27 (1983).  If property is owned by an agency or instrumentality of a foreign state, it is not owned by the foreign state itself for purposes of the FSIA’s jurisdictional provisions – at least absent a principal-agent relationship or another basis upon which to disregard the agency or instrumentality’s separate legal status.

Attribution issues under the FSIA can be complex and can (as I have explained before) lead to confusion.  However, courts and attorneys should follow a basic rule: if there are distinct legal entities involved under a plaintiff’s theory of the case, there is a lurking attribution issue.  That issue must be addressed and resolved before the conduct or ownership rights of one entity can be freely imputed to another.

An Austrian Instrumentality’s “Agency” Error

On March 5, 2014, OBB Personenverkehr AG (“OBB”) – an instrumentality of the Republic of Austria – filed a petition for a writ of certiorari seeking the Supreme Court’s review of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Sachs v. Republic of Austria, 737 F.3d 584 (9th Cir. 2013) (en banc).  The matter is scheduled for conference on May 2, 2014.  See United States Supreme Court Docket for OBB Personenverkehr AG v. Carol P. Sachs, No. 13-1067.  While I have written about OBB’s argument regarding agency and attribution before, I wanted to revisit the issue in light of the pending Supreme Court proceeding. 

The facts of the Sachs case are relatively straightforward.  The plaintiff, a California resident, purchased a Eurail pass from Rail Pass Experts (“RPE”), an online ticket seller based in Massachusetts.  RPE and OBB have no direct relationship; instead, RPE may be a subagent of The Eurail Group, an entity incorporated in Luxemburg whose membership comprises 30 rail carriers (including OBB).  The plaintiff suffered severe injuries while trying to board a train in Innsbruck, Austria, that was bound for Prague.  She sued OBB for her injuries.

There are several interesting legal issues in Sachs, but here I want to focus on the main argument that OBB raises in the Supreme Court.  OBB argues that United States courts lack jurisdiction because the acts of RPE cannot be imputed to OBB.  That contention is what one would usually expect from a defendant in such a case, since attribution is a critical issue under the FSIA in general (and under the first clause of the commercial activity exception in particular).  But OBB goes one step further, claiming that courts must determine whether an entity is an “agent” of a foreign state by utilizing the “agency or instrumentality” test set forth in 28 U.S.C. section 1603.  According to OBB, “to determine whether the acts of RPE were acts ‘by the foreign state,’ the Ninth Circuit should have looked to the definitions of ‘foreign state’ and ‘agency’ [in section 1603] to decide if RPE is an agent of OBB.”  OBB’s Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, at 18. 

OBB’s “agency” argument is meritless.

The term “agency or instrumentality” in section 1603 has nothing to do with attribution.  Instead, section 1603’s definition of “agency or instrumentality” identifies which entities are entitled to the protections of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.  28 U.S.C. § 1603.  Section 1603 shows unequivocally that RPE is not entitled to foreign sovereign immunity, since it is a Massachusetts corporation.  Cf. 28 U.S.C. § 1603(b)(3) (requiring a foreign state to be “neither a citizen of a State of the United States . . .  nor created under the laws of any third country”).  However, section 1603 does not address – much less resolve – the issue of whether RPE’s conduct is attributable to OBB.

OBB’s claim that the term “agency or instrumentality” in section 1603 refers to attribution ignores that the FSIA was not written on a blank slate.  The statute used “agency or instrumentality” because it was a term of art long utilized by courts and commentators during the period preceding the FSIA in discussing whether an entity was entitled to foreign sovereign immunity.  See, e.g., Et Ve Balike Kurumu v. B.N.S. International Sales Corp., 204 N.Y.S.2d 971, 974 (1960) (“where the corporation functions as a public agency or instrumentality or where evidence of corporate separateness from the government was not strong, immunity has been granted”); F.W. Stone Engineering Co. v. Petreolos Mexicanos, 42 Atl.2d 57, 60 (1945) (discussing immunity of foreign state “instrumentality”); United States of Mexico v. Schmuck, 56 N.E.2d 577 (1944) (discussing immunity of “public agency” of foreign state); Dunlap v. Banco Central Del Ecuador, 41 N.Y.S.2d 650, 652 (1943) (discussing immunity of “instrumentality” and “agency” of foreign government); Telkes v. Hungarian Nat’l Museum, 38 N.Y.S.2d 419 (1942) (holding that a suit is not maintainable if “the defendant is an agency or instrumentality of [a foreign state] exercising a governmental function”); Hannes v. Kingdom of Roumania Monopolies Institute, 20 N.Y.S.2d 825, 832 (1940) (stating that foreign sovereign immunity extends to “instrumentalities” of a foreign state); United States v. Deutsches Kalisyndikat Gesellschaft, 31 F.2d 199, 202 (S.D.N.Y.1929) (holding that “instrumentalities in which there are private interests” are not entitled to immunity); Molina v. Comision Reguladora Del Mercado de Henequen, 91 N.J.L. 382 (Supreme Court of New Jersey, 1918) (discussing the lack of immunity of “governmental agencies”); see also, e.g., Comment, The Jurisdictional Immunity of Foreign Sovereigns, 63 Yale L.J. 1148, 1152-53 (1954) (“Traditional doctrine grants immunity to government agencies, commissions, and other instrumentalities unless they have corporate personality.”); Bernard Fensterwald, Sovereign Immunity and Soviet State Trading, 63 Harv.L.Rev. 614, 619-20 (1950) (discussing distinction between incorporated and unincorporated “agencies” of a foreign government); Arthur Kuhn, The Extension of Sovereign Immunity to Government-Owned Commercial Corporations, 39 Am. J. Int’l. L. 772, 772 ( 1945) (“The distinction between agencies of foreign governments engaged in a public function and those which are engaged in purely private commercial transactions has long been recognized.”); cf. Note, Immunity from Suit of Foreign Sovereign Instrumentalities and Obligations, 50 Yale L.J. 1088, 1089 (1941); William C. Hoffman, The Separate Entity Rule in International Perspective: Should State Ownership of Corporate Shares Confer Sovereign Status for Immunity Purposes?, 65 Tul. L. Rev. 535, 546 (1991).

Consistent with the treatment of the agency/instrumentality issue before the enactment of the FSIA, the section-by-section analysis accompanying the first proposed iteration of the FSIA discussed the bill’s use of the term as follows:

An ‘agency or instrumentality’ of a state . . . could assume a variety of forms – a state trading corporation, a transport organization such as a shipping line or airline, or a banking activity.  The traditional rule was that such agencies and instrumentalities of a foreign government were entitled to the same immunities as the government itself, especially if they engaged in clearly governmental activities.

Departments of State and Justice, Section-by-Section Analysis, 119 Cong. Rec. 2216 (1973). 

Similarly, the FSIA’s House Report stated that “entities which meet the definition of an ‘agency or instrumentality of a foreign state’ could assume a variety of forms,  including a state trading corporation, a mining enterprise, a transport organization such as a shipping line or airline, a steel company, a central bank, an export association, a governmental procurement agency or a department or ministry which acts and is suable in its own name.”  H.R. Rep. No. 94-1487, at 15-16 (1976).  The report made it clear that the agency/instrumentality definition set forth in section 1603 was intended solely to determine whether a particular entity was entitled to claim sovereign immunity.  See id. at 15 (“An entity which does not fall within the definitions of sections 1603 (a) or  (b) would not be entitled to sovereign immunity in any case before a Federal or State court.  On the other hand, the fact that an entity is an ‘agency or instrumentality of a foreign state’ does not in itself establish an entitlement to sovereign immunity.  A court would have to consider whether one of the sovereign immunity exceptions contained in the bill . . . was applicable.”).  Nothing in the legislative history suggests that section 1603 was intended to address the issue of attribution.

Litigants’ past attempts to characterize section 1603 as setting forth the standard for attribution have not fared well.  As the Fifth Circuit explained twenty-five years ago:

The FSIA uses [the term] to determine whether an “agency” of the state may potentially qualify for foreign sovereign immunity itself under the FSIA. This is a completely different question from that which we must address here: whether or not the [entity] enjoyed an alter ego relationship with the [foreign sovereign] so that it could bind [the sovereign] to a contract. Although such an alter ego relationship may be described in terms of “agency,” it is a completely different inquiry than that which might be conducted under § 1603.

Hester Int’l Corp. v. Fed. Republic of Nigeria, 879 F.2d 170, 176 (5th Cir. 1989); see also, e.g., Gates v. Victor Fine Foods, 54 F.3d 1457, 1460 n.1 (9th Cir. 1995) (same).  In addition, the argument makes little sense: if OBB’s interpretation were accepted, a foreign state could freely use agents who did not meet the definition of section 1603 – such as individuals (cf. Samantar v. Yousuf, 560 U.S. 305, 314-19 (2010)) or a corporation in the United States or in a third country (cf. 28 U.S.C. § 1603(b)(3)) – and avoid jurisdiction even though the foreign state explicitly authorized the agent’s relevant conduct in the United States.  Such an approach would create a hole that could swallow the doctrine of restrictive immunity, since foreign states would have an easy method through which to engage in commercial conduct without the risk of litigation.

In the end, OBB’s argument should be rejected.  More importantly, with regard to whether OBB’s certiorari petition should be granted, it is clear that there is no circuit split (or conflict with Supreme Court precedent) with respect to the issue of section 1603 and attribution.  In fact, all courts have agreed that section 1603 has nothing to do with attribution.  Regarding this issue, at least, the Supreme Court’s decision in Sachs is easy: certiorari should be denied.