The D.C. Circuit’s Recent Decision Reinforces the Urgent Need for a Cyberattack Exception to the FSIA

On March 14, 2017, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit against Ethiopia that arose out of an alleged hacking of a computer in the United States.  See Doe v. The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, — F.3d —, 2017 WL 971831 (D.C. Cir., Mar. 14, 2017, No. 16-7081). You can read the opinion here

The D.C. Circuit’s opinion makes it clear that the FSIA’s tort exception is wholly inadequate as a means to assert jurisdiction over a foreign state in a cyberattack case.  As the D.C. Circuit correctly held, the tort exception is inapplicable in such cases because of the situs requirement: “The tort [the plaintiff] alleges . . . did not occur entirely in the United States; it is a transnational tort over which we lack subject matter jurisdiction.”  Doe, 2017 WL 971831, at *3, citations, quotations and brackets omitted. The D.C. Circuit stated that Congress’s “primary purpose in enacting § 1605(a)(5) was to eliminate a foreign state’s immunity for traffic accidents and other torts committed in the United States,” and that “[i]t is thus unsurprising that transnational cyberespionage should lie beyond section 1605(a)(5)’s reach.”  Ibid., citation and quotations omitted.

The D.C. Circuit’s holding – that the tort exception’s situs requirement bars a claim arising out of a cyberattack originating overseas – corresponds exactly with the point that I made in my prior post. It is the reason why commentators who argue that the tort exception is sufficient to address the growing cyberattack problem are simply wrong.

Sovereign immunity was born centuries ago, and it underwent an important evolution in the 20th century to reflect a changing world. The FSIA now needs to catch up to the modern realities of the Internet Age. Given the prevalence of computer hacking by foreign states, and the resulting harm to American individuals and companies, a new cyberattack exception to the FSIA is urgently needed. However, as I previously explained, such an exception will only work if it has teeth – such as, for example, the ability to collect on judgments against foreign states from the state’s instrumentalities and agencies, even if such entities were not involved in the cyberattack at issue.  Cf. 28 U.S.C. § 1610(g)(1)(A)-(E). Otherwise, a new exception will do little to stem the rising tide of cyberattacks by foreign sovereigns in the United States.

The Cyberattack Exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act: A Proposal to Strip Sovereign Immunity When Foreign States Conduct Cyberattacks Against Individuals and Entities in the United States

The political branches may ultimately deem it advisable to permit suits against foreign sovereigns who, without setting foot on American soil, use technology to commit torts against persons located here.  But if the FSIA is to be altered, that is a function for the same body that adopted it.”

Doe v. Fed. Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 189 F. Supp. 3d 6, 25 (D.D.C. 2016) (citations, quotations and brackets omitted).


Five days ago, while I was reading about the Russian hacking scandal and the resulting damage to America’s public institutions, a new thought occurred to me: there should be a cyberattack exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

I checked to see if anyone had made the proposal before.  It appears to have been mentioned once, nearly four years ago, in an article about China’s cyber activities by Daniel Blumenthal in the Foreign Policy magazine.[1]  However, Mr. Blumenthal only devoted two sentences to the idea, which (to my knowledge) was never further developed.[2]

Other attorneys have occasionally argued (both in and out of court) that cyberattacks falls within the FSIA’s existing tort exception, 28 U.S.C. section 1605(a)(5).[3]  One attorney even tried to provide a “roadmap to this new line of litigation” in a recent law review article.[4]  However, I litigated the tort exception in district and appellate courts for well over a decade, and it creates only roadblocks to civil suits for cyberattacks. 

In particular, the tort exception’s situs requirement[5] — as well as the discretionary function and misrepresentation exclusions limiting the exception — make any lawsuit against a foreign sovereign for a cyberattack under section 1605(a)(5) very difficult and expensive.[6]  Indeed, a recent dismissal under the FSIA in a cyber case in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia – where the court dismissed a Wiretap Act claim under the tort exception’s situs requirement – only highlights the challenges of such litigation.[7]  In addition, even assuming that a cyber suit falls under the tort exception to the FSIA, a judgment would be extraordinarily difficult to collect upon given the FSIA’s strong immunity provisions related to attachment and execution.[8]

The result is that foreign states can perpetrate cyberattacks with relative impunity in the United States.  Even worse, those harmed by such attacks – often individuals or corporations who are innocent of any misconduct – have no effective means of redress against the offending foreign sovereign (or its officials).

Does this make sense?  Why should countries like Russia and North Korea be immune from suit for illegal conduct targeting computer systems in the United States?  Why shouldn’t foreign states that attack individuals, corporations or institutions over the Internet be liable for the consequences of their misdeeds? 

The United States Supreme Court has emphasized that “foreign sovereign immunity is a matter of grace and comity on the part of the United States, and not a restriction imposed by the Constitution.”[9]  As a matter of “grace and comity,” there is nothing in the history of foreign sovereign immunity that supports a grant of immunity where a foreign state targets a specific individual or entity for attack on the territory of the United States.[10]

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 is over forty years old.  The time has come to bring the FSIA into the 21st century to address a very real and growing threat.[11]  A new cyberattack exception to the FSIA (28 U.S.C. § 1605C) would remove immunity for foreign states who attack individuals and entities in the United States, and would finally provide those harmed with a means of redress.  It should be drafted and passed forthwith.

Key Components

There are several key components essential to ensure an effective cyberattack exception to the FSIA:

Jurisdictional Provision: The cyberattack exception should have a jurisdictional provision modeled after the tort and the terrorism exceptions of the FSIA, but which is nevertheless specifically tailored to address the peculiarities of a cyberattack:

A foreign state shall not be immune from the jurisdiction of courts of the United States or of the States in any case not otherwise covered by this chapter in which money damages are sought against a foreign state for a cyberattack by the foreign state or by an official, employee or agent of such foreign state acting within the scope of his or her office, employment, or agency.[12]

If this type of language were to be used, the term “cyberattack” would need to be defined elsewhere (such as in 28 U.S.C. § 1603), and would need to track the language in a new cause of action (see below).  The other terms and phrases used in this proposed provision – such as “employee” and “scope of employment” – already have received extensive interpretation in FSIA jurisprudence.[13]  Moreover, the cyberattack exception – like the terrorism exception – should have no discretionary function or misrepresentation exclusions.

Cause of Action: While there are State and federal civil causes of action available in cyberattack cases – such as under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act – it is not always clear whether such provisions apply against foreign governmental entities.[14]  In fact, a federal district court recently concluded “that section 2520 of the Wiretap Act does not create a civil cause of action against a foreign state for interceptions of wire, oral, or electronic communications in violation of section 2511(1).”[15]  Accordingly, to clearly define the type of conduct that would fall within the new cyberattack exception, Congress should use existing federal law to create a new federal cyberattack cause of action against foreign states.  There is precedent for such an approach under the terrorism exception,[16] and it would serve the principle of uniformity underlying the FSIA.[17]  In addition, to avoid potential issues under international law, the new cause of action should clarify that the tort occurs in the United States, where the computer system is breached. 

Retroactivity and Statute of Limitations: To allow parties previously harmed by cyberattacks to bring suit, Congress should make the new immunity exception retroactive – which is permitted under Supreme Court jurisprudence.[18]  Like the terrorism exception, the cyberattack exception should also include a 10-year statute of limitations, extending back to claims occurring prior to the amendment’s enactment.[19]

Appearance/Default: Foreign states that engage in cyberattacks in the United States can be expected either not to appear at all in United States district court, or to withdraw from the litigation after making an initial appearance.[20]  Discovery is difficult to obtain under such circumstances, and yet the plaintiff still has the burden under section 1608(e) of “establish[ing] his claim or right to relief by evidence satisfactory to the court” prior to entry of default judgment.[21]  That burden is a particularly heavy one in cyberattack cases, especially for a private party who may have limited resources.  As a result, I would propose a new provision that specifically addresses a foreign state’s failure to appear in a cyberattack case:

If any federal law enforcement or intelligence agency certifies that there is probable cause that a foreign state, or an official, employee or official thereof, committed the act described in section * * *, there shall be a rebuttable presumption that the foreign state, or the official, employee or official thereof, has committed the act.  If the foreign state does not appear in the action, that presumption shall be accepted by the district court and shall constitute sufficient evidence to satisfy the requirements of section 1608(e).  If the foreign state appears in the action, the rebuttable presumption shall be rendered ineffective until such time, if any, that the foreign state no longer participates in the litigation.[22]

Damages: Under 28 U.S.C. section 1606, a foreign state sued under the cyberattack exception would “be liable in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances; but a foreign state except for an agency or instrumentality thereof shall not be liable for punitive damages.”[23]  If the cyberattack exception creates a new cause of action, it should define the types of damages that should be recoverable (like the terrorism exception).[24]  Those damages should include reputational and professional harm caused by the hacking of personal and business e-mail systems.  As with the terrorism exception, Congress should also consider removing foreign sovereigns’ protection against punitive damages for cyberattacks, particularly if an attack causes major damage or disruption in the United States.[25]

Execution/Attachment: Because the FSIA currently provides strong protections against execution and attachment in a case involving a foreign sovereign,[26] it creates a massive disincentive to filing suit in a cyberattack case.  Even if a plaintiff establishes jurisdiction under the tort exception and prevails on the merits, the plaintiff is effectively limited to attaching or executing on “any contractual obligation or any proceeds from such a contractual obligation to indemnify or hold harmless the foreign state or its employees under a policy of automobile or other liability or casualty insurance covering the claim which merged into the judgment.”[27]  Given that foreign states do not (to my knowledge) carry insurance to protect themselves against cyberattack claims, a plaintiff can at best obtain a judgment that cannot be enforced – which is as useless as no judgment at all, especially when the foreign nation involved is a country such as Russia or North Korea.

In light of the foregoing, and in keeping with an analogous provision related to the terrorism exception,[28] Congress should add a new section 1610(a)(8):

The property in the United States of a foreign state. . . used for a commercial activity in the United States, shall not be immune from attachment in aid of execution, or from execution . . . [if] the judgment relates to a claim for which the foreign state is not immune under section 1605C [the cyberattack exception], regardless of whether the property is or was involved with the act upon which the claim is based.

Just as importantly, Congress should make judgments entered against foreign states in cyberattack cases subject to section 1610(g)(1), so that plaintiffs can collect from agencies or instrumentalities of the foreign state – even if such agencies or instrumentalities were not involved in the cyberattack at issue.[29]

Official Immunity: Congress should consider making all of the prior provisions, mutatis mutandis, applicable to foreign officials who order or participate in the cyberattack.  That includes, in particular, the exception to immunity and the punitive damages provision set forth above.  However, given the international law doctrine of head-of-state immunity, Congress should refrain from providing a means to assert jurisdiction over a sitting head of state for such conduct.

Final Thoughts

The FSIA largely renders foreign states immune for cyberattacks against individuals, corporations and institutions located in the United States.  However, given the financial and non-financial harm caused by such attacks, foreign states should be held liable, and should be compelled to provide compensation to those damaged by their actions.  Such a result not only makes sense, but it is also perfectly acceptable under long-established doctrines of foreign sovereign immunity.  And, perhaps most importantly, a new cyberattack exception – if it has real bite – would disincentivize foreign states from engaging in such harmful conduct in the future.

[1] See D. Blumenthal, “How to Win a Cyberwar with China,”
(Feb. 28, 2013) (“Congress could also create a cyberattack exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which currently precludes civil suits against a foreign government or entity acting on its behalf in the cyber-realm. There is precedent: In the case of terrorism, Congress enacted an exception to immunity for states and their agents that sponsor terrorism, allowing individuals to sue them.”).  Mr. Blumenthal’s idea was subsequently repeated, in similar conclusory form, in other sources.  Seee.g., Mazza, Michael.  Statement to the House, Committee on Foreign Affairs.  Cyber Attacks: An Unprecedented Threat to U.S. National Security (Mar. 21, 2013), at 47.

[2] Because I wanted to share this proposal as soon as possible – so that it may be considered and improved upon by others – I cannot claim an exhaustive search of prior sources related to cyberattacks under the FSIA.  However, I have not seen any other attempts to describe what such an exception would look like.  If such a prior proposal exists, I welcome comment from, and discussion with, its author.

[3] See U. Colella, “Foreign governments should be sued for cyberattacks,” Washington Examiner (Feb. 13, 2017).

[4] Scott A. Gilmore, Suing the Surveillance States: The (Cyber) Tort Exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, 46 Colum. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 227 (2015) (hereinafter “Gilmore”).  The article is available online.

[5] Mr. Gilmore underestimates the problem posed by the tort exception’s situs requirement in cyberattack cases.  See Gilmore, supra note 4, at 287, n. 149.  Based upon my experience in many cases, the situs requirement poses a major obstacle to jurisdiction in cross-border tort casesSee also infra, note 7.

[6] See 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(5)(A)-(B).  Given the breadth of the misrepresentation exclusion, its effect on computer fraud cases against foreign states remains an open question — particularly since the tort exception’s exclusions, which are based upon similar provisions in the Federal Tort Claims Act (28 U.S.C. §§ 2680(a), (h)), are so ill-defined.  In addition, although Mr. Gilmore may be correct that the discretionary function exclusion does not bar cyberattack claims outright (Gilmore, supra note 4, at 265-274), Mr. Gilmore’s article may not fully appreciate how the discretionary function exclusion can impact specific causes of action or theories of liability.  See, e.g., Doe v. Holy See, 557 F.3d 1066, 1083–85 (9th Cir. 2009).  While the District Court for the District of Columbia recently seemed inclined not to apply the discretionary function exclusion in a cyber case, the discretionary function exclusion is – at a bare minimum – an additional hurdle that complicates any case brought under the tort exception.  See Doe v. Fed. Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 189 F.Supp.3d 6, 25-28 (D.D.C. 2016). As a result, it provides yet another obstacle to proceeding under the FSIA’s tort exception in a cyberattack case.

[7] Doe, 189 F.Supp.3d at 9; see also id. at 25 (“the Court holds that [plaintiff’s] claim for intrusion upon seclusion is barred by the ‘entire tort’ rule”).

[8] 28 U.S.C. §§ 1609-1611.  As discussed below, Mr. Gilmore’s article does not address this major problem with proceeding under the tort exception.  See infra at note 27.

[9]  Verlinden B.V. v. Cent. Bank of Nigeria, 461 U.S. 480, 486 (1983).

[10] The terrorism exception, 28 U.S.C. § 1605A, is the modern embodiment of this principle.  However, while absolute immunity was the norm pre-1952, even the Schooner Exchange Court recognized that there could be proper restrictions on immunity.  See The Schooner Exch. v. McFaddon, 11 U.S. 116, 123 (1812) (“We may forbid the entrance of [foreign states’] public ships, and punish the breach of this prohibition by forfeiture; nor do we deny the obligation of a foreign sovereign to conform to pre-existing laws, as to offences-and as to the acquisition of property; nor his liability for his private debts and contracts.”) (emphasis added).

[11] For a discussion of recent cyberattacks by foreign states, see Gillmore, supra note 4, at 228-32.  Of course, the problem has only gotten much worse since Mr. Gillmore’s article, and now includes economic and political tampering of a type that was perhaps previously unimaginable. 

[12] See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1605(a)(5) and 1605A(a)(1).

[13] However, to streamline litigation for plaintiffs and defendants alike (as well as serve the principle of uniformity underlying the FSIA), I would strongly urge Congress to apply the federal common law to identify officials, employees and agents, and to define the scope of their office, employment and agency.  The current hodgepodge of State laws creates unnecessary confusion and expense under the existing exceptions; if not addressed, these problems would persist under a new cyberattack exception as well.

[14] See Gilmore, supra note 4, at 244-50.

[15] Doe, 189 F.Supp.3d at 15.

[16] See 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(c).

[17] See, e.g., Verlinden, 461 U.S. at 489 (discussing “the importance of developing a uniform body of law in this area”) (citations and quotations omitted).

[18] Republic of Austria v. Altmann, 541 U.S. 677 (2004).

[19] 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(b).

[20] See, e.g., Calderon-Cardona v. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 723 F. Supp. 2d 441, 444 (D.P.R. 2010) (non-appearance by North Korea in FSIA action); Agudas Chasidei Chabad of U.S. v. Russian Fed’n, 729 F. Supp. 2d 141, 144 (D.D.C. 2010) (after participation in the litigation for years, Russia filing a “Statement with Respect to Further Participation [71] which informed th[e] Court that defendants ‘decline[d] to participate further in this litigation’ and ‘believe[d] this Court has no authority to enter Orders with respect to the property owned by the Russian Federation and in its possession, and the Russian Federation will not consider any such Orders to be binding on it’”).

[21] 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e).

[22] If such a provision were adopted, there would need to be a mechanism for certification by federal law enforcement or intelligence agencies.

[23] 28 U.S.C. § 1606.

[24] See 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(c)-(d) (“(c) . . . In any such action, damages may include economic damages, solatium, pain and suffering, and punitive damages. In any such action, a foreign state shall be vicariously liable for the acts of its officials, employees, or agents.  (d) Additional damages.–After an action has been brought under subsection (c), actions may also be brought for reasonably foreseeable property loss, whether insured or uninsured, third party liability, and loss claims under life and property insurance policies, by reason of the same acts on which the action under subsection (c) is based.”).

[25] Not only is there recent precedent for lifting the punitive damages bar (28 U.S.C. § 1605A(c)), but the bar was always on precarious footing with respect to international law.  Cf. H.R. Rep. No. 94-1487 (1976), at 22, citing, inter alia, 5 Hackwork, Digest of International Law, 723-26 (1943) (“Under current international practice, punitive damages are usually not assessed against foreign states.”) (emphasis added).  Hackworth’s treatise, cited in the FSIA’s legislative history, stated the following:

[T]he refusal of international tribunals to assess punitive, vindictive, or exemplary damages, as such, against respondent governments may be explained in part by the absence of malice, or mala mens, on the part of the government of the respondent state.

5 Hackworth, Digest of International Law 723-26 (1943).  It is unclear whether a foreign state lacks “malice” in a cyberattack case, especially where the attack is significant and is intended to disrupt core economic or political activities in the other nation.

[26] See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1609-1611.

[27] 28 U.S.C. § 1610(a)(5).  The plaintiff in a cyberattack case proceeding under the tort exception will be limited to section 1610(a)(5), because the plaintiff likely would not be able to show that the foreign state has waived immunity (§ 1610(a)(1)), that “the property is or was used for the commercial activity upon which the claim is based” (§ 1610(a)(2)), that “the execution relates to a judgment establishing rights in property which has been taken in violation of international law or which has been exchanged for property taken in violation of international law” (§ 1610(a)(3)), that “the execution relates to a judgment establishing rights in property . . . which is acquired by succession or gift, or . . . which is immovable and situated in the United States” (§ 1610(a)(4)), that “the judgment is based on an order confirming an arbitral award rendered against the foreign state, provided that attachment in aid of execution, or execution, would not be inconsistent with any provision in the arbitral agreement” (§ 1610(a)(6)), or that “ the judgment relates to a claim for which the foreign state is not immune under section 1605A or section § 1605(a)(7) (as such section was in effect on January 27, 2008), regardless of whether the property is or was involved with the act upon which the claim is based” (§ 1610(a)(7)).  In his article, Mr. Gilmore does not address the difficulties caused by the FSIA’s attachment and execution provisions with respect to any cyberattack claim proceeding under the tort exception.  Gilmore, supra note 4, passim.  

[28] 28 U.S.C. § 1610(a)(7).

[29] The terrorism exception’s section 1610(g)(1), which was intended to remove the presumption of separate juridical status set forth in First Nat. City Bank v. Banco Para el Comercio Exterior de Cuba (“Bancec”), 462 U.S. 611 (1983), states the following in relevant part:

[T]he property of a foreign state against which a judgment is entered under section 1605A, and the property of an agency or instrumentality of such a state, including property that is a separate juridical entity or is an interest held directly or indirectly in a separate juridical entity, is subject to attachment in aid of execution, and execution, upon that judgment as provided in this section, regardless of–(A) the level of economic control over the property by the government of the foreign state;(B) whether the profits of the property go to that government;(C) the degree to which officials of that government manage the property or otherwise control its daily affairs;(D) whether that government is the sole beneficiary in interest of the property; or(E) whether establishing the property as a separate entity would entitle the foreign state to benefits in United States courts while avoiding its obligations.

28 U.S.C.A. § 1610.  Section 1610(g)(1) could be easily amended to over both terrorism cases (§ 1605A) and cyberattack cases (proposed § 1605C).

Prejudgment Security and Immunity from Attachment

In its recent decision in Pine Top Receivables of Illinois, LLC v. Banco de Seguros del Estado, 771 F.3d 980 (7th Cir. 2014), the Seventh Circuit held that the FSIA’s ban on prejudgment attachment barred enforcement of the Unauthorized Insurers Process Act’s prejudgment security requirement.  The Seventh Circuit’s decision accords with the FSIA’s plain language.

Pine Top Receivables (“Pine Top”) filed suit against the Uruguayan instrumentality Banco de Seguros del Estado (“Banco”) in 2012, seeking claimed overdue balances on various reinsurance contracts.  In the district court litigation, Pine Top moved to strike Banco’s answer on the basis that Banco was required to post pre-answer security in the full amount of the disputed debt under 215 ILCS 5/123(5).  Pine Top Receivables, 771 F.3d at 982; see also 215 ILCS 5/123(5) (“Before any unauthorized foreign or alien company shall file or cause to be filed any pleading in any action or proceeding, including any arbitration, instituted against it, such unauthorized company shall . . . deposit with the clerk of the court in which such action or proceeding is pending or with the clerk of the court in the jurisdiction in which the arbitration is pending cash or securities or file with such clerk a bond with good and sufficient sureties, to be approved by the court, in an amount to be fixed by the court sufficient to secure the payment of any final judgment which may be rendered in such action, proceeding, or arbitration.”).   The district court denied Pine Top’s motion to strike, concluding that the FSIA’s prohibition on attaching a foreign state’s property prevents application of the Illinois security requirement.

On appeal, Pine Top argued that the FSIA’s prohibition against prejudgment attachment was limited to jurisdictional attachments.  That was, indeed, one of the key problems that the FSIA was intended to resolve.  See, e.g., H.R. Rep. 94-1487, at 27 (1976) (“The elimination of attachment as a vehicle for commencing a lawsuit will ease the conduct of foreign relations by the United States and help eliminate the necessity for determinations of claims of sovereign immunity by the State Department.”).  However, the statute’s prohibition extends well beyond prejudgment attachments for purposes of establishing jurisdiction.

In rejecting Pine Top’s argument, the Seventh Circuit relied mainly on the plain language of the FSIA.  Section 1609 provides that “the property in the United States of a foreign state shall be immune from attachment arrest and execution except as provided in sections 1610 and 1611 of this chapter.”  28 U.S.C. § 1609.  As the court recognized, the “FSIA does not define the term ‘attachment arrest and execution,’ nor does § 1609 make any other reference that would clarify whether it covers only jurisdictional attachments or attachments to secure judgments.”  Pine Top Receivables, 771 F.3d at 983.  However, relying on the established rule that “‘[i]nterpretation of a word or phrase depends upon reading the whole statutory text, considering the purpose and context of the statute,’” the Seventh Circuit examined the language of section 1610(d).  Id. at 983 n.3, quoting Dolan v. United States Postal Service, 546 U.S. 481, 486 (2006).  Section 1610(d) provides that the property of a foreign state used for a commercial activity is not immune from prejudgment attachment if “the foreign state has explicitly waived its immunity from attachment prior to judgment” and the “purpose of the attachment is to secure satisfaction of a judgment that has been or may ultimately be entered against the foreign state, and not to obtain jurisdiction.”  28 U.S.C. § 1610(d)(1)-(2).  The Seventh Circuit concluded that “[i]f we accepted Pine Top’s reading—that § 1609 deals exclusively  with jurisdictional attachments—§ 1610(d) would accomplish nothing; it would allow waiver of immunity only for a class of property to which no immunity attached by virtue of the prior section. That is, unless § 1609 includes attachments ‘the purpose of [which] is to secure satisfaction of a judgment,’ § 1610(d) is superfluous.”  Pine Top Receivables, 771 F.3d at 983-84.  Given the settled rule that courts should avoid interpretations that “would render a statutory term superfluous,”  Dole Food Co. v. Patrickson, 538 U.S. 468, 477 (2003), the Seventh Circuit correctly rejected Pine Top’s contention.

The Seventh Circuit’s decision is consistent with FSIA precedent, namely the Second Circuit’s decision in Stephens v. National Distillers & Chemical Corp., 69 F.3d 1226 (2d Cir.1995); see also, e.g., Dellapenna, Suing Foreign Governments and Their Corporations, at 745 (2d ed. 2003).  As a result, in addition to adhering the FSIA’s plain language, the Pine Top Receivables case has the added benefit of not creating a circuit split.  See, e.g., Vencedora Oceanica Navigacion, S.A. v. Compagnie Nationale Algerienne de Navigation, 730 F.2d 195 (5th Cir. 1984) (“[I]t is highly desirable to avoid circuit conflicts in the sensitive area of sovereign immunity.”); Abrams v. Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais, 332 F.3d 173, 186 (2d Cir. 2003), vacated on other grounds by Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais v. Abrams, 542 U.S. 901 (2003) (discussing “the importance of having a uniform, consistent law in this area”).

One final note: it appears that the FSIA’s treatment of prejudgment attachments is much stricter than the approach taken in other countries.  See generally Yang, State Immunity in International Law, at 378-90 (2012).  Accordingly, while the Seventh Circuit’s decision is correct as a matter of statutory interpretation, the FSIA could be amended – in a manner consistent with customary international law – to permit greater flexibility with regard to prejudgment attachments.  However, since Congress has not done so, the Seventh Circuit properly followed the statute’s plain language.

Attachment in Terrorism Cases

The Seventh Circuit recently removed a significant obstacle to attachment or execution in terrorism cases. 

Section 1610(c) provides that “[n]o attachment or execution referred to in subsections (a) and (b) of this section shall be permitted until the court has ordered such attachment and execution after having determined that a reasonable period of time has elapsed following the entry of judgment and the giving of any notice required under section 1608(e) of this chapter.”  28 U.S.C. § 1610(c).  In Gates v. Syrian Arab Republic, 755 F.3d 568 (7th Cir. 2014), the Seventh Circuit held that the limitations set forth in section 1610(c) did not apply to attachments in terrorism cases.  In reaching that result, the Seventh Circuit focused on section 1610(c)’s express limitation to attachment or execution under subsections (a) and (b).  Since section 1610(g) – the provision addressing attachment and execution in terrorism cases – “is not mentioned in section 1610(c),” the latter section “simply does not apply to execution or attachment under section 1610(g).”  Gates, 755 F.3d at 575.

By recognizing that section 1610(c)’s limitations are inapplicable to attachment proceedings in terrorism cases, the Seventh Circuit properly adhered to the plain terms of the statute.  The ruling should also serve the goal of helping to streamline attachment proceedings in cases involving terrorism.

Republic of Argentina v. NML Capital, Ltd. (No. 12-842): The Supreme Court (and this Website) Got It Right

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled against the Republic of Argentina (7 to 1) in the NML case.  In correctly rejecting Argentina and the United States’ interpretation of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Justice Scalia’s majority opinion echoed the arguments made on this website two months ago.

Recap: In the NML case, Argentina and the United States argued that the district court’s order permitting broad discovery regarding Argentina’s extraterritorial assets violated the FSIA.  The key premise of Argentina and the United States’ contention was that the FSIA conferred execution immunity over a foreign state’s property held overseas.  See Brief for Petitioner on the Merits (No. 12-842), filed Feb. 24, 2014, at 6, 21; Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae in Support of Petitioner (No. 12-842), filed Mar. 3, 2014, at 12, 18.  Argentina and the United States advanced their argument by largely ignoring the plain language of 28 U.S.C. section 1609, which conferred execution immunity only upon a foreign state’s property “in the United States.”  28 U.S.C. § 1609 (emphasis added); see also The Republic of Argentina v. NML Capital, Ltd. (No. 12-842): Why Both Sides Are Wrong (“NML Article”) at 6, 7 n.9.

While NML raised the section 1609 argument (Brief for Respondent on the Merits (No. 12-842), filed Mar. 26, 2014 (“NML Br.”) at 9, 46, 52), it was not the focus of its brief in the Supreme Court.  NML Br., passim.

On April 11, 2014, I posted the NML Article on this website.  In the article and a follow-up post regarding Argentina’s reply brief, I made three major contentions regarding Argentina and the United States’ position.  First, I argued that “the threshold issue” in the NML case was “whether foreign assets are accorded a statutory presumption of immunity from execution” under the FSIA.  NML Article at 1.  I stated that “[u]nder section 1609’s plain language, the FSIA does not accord Argentina’s foreign assets with presumptive immunity from execution.  Since Argentina’s property overseas is not presumptively immune under the FSIA, the FSIA does not provide such property with protection from discovery.”  NML Article at 5; see also id. at 5-10.

Second, with regard to Argentina’s contention in its reply brief that pre-FSIA common law controls, I stated that “Argentina nowhere shows that the pre-FSIA regime accorded immunity to a foreign state’s property abroad.  In the absence of such a showing, it is just as likely that immunity issues relating to foreign property were treated as matters of foreign law before the FSIA’s enactment, just as they are now.”  See Republic of Argentina v. NML Capital, Ltd.: Reaction to Argentina’s Reply Brief.

Third, I argued that “[s]ince the FSIA does not accord presumptive sovereign immunity upon a foreign state’s assets overseas, the discovery dispute between Argentina and NML should not be analyzed under the FSIA.  Instead, the Supreme Court’s decision in Société Nationale Industrielle Aérospatiale v. USDC,  482 U.S. 522 (1987), controls.”  NML Article at 2; see also id. at 14-19.  I also noted that while NML cited Société Nationale Industrielle Aérospatiale in its Supreme Court brief, neither party had raised the Société Nationale Industrielle Aérospatiale comity issue in the district court or in the Second Circuit.  Ibid. at 18-19 n.27.

The Supreme Court’s Opinion: In rejecting Argentina and the United States’ position, the Supreme Court’s opinion echoed the analysis I set forth in the NML Article and the subsequent post. 

First, the Supreme Court concluded that the plain language of the FSIA undermined the central premise of Argentina and the United States’ position.  The Supreme Court squarely held that section 1609 “immunizes only foreign-state property ‘in the United States’” and thus does “not shield from discovery a foreign sovereign’s extraterritorial assets.”  Republic of Argentina v. NML Capital, Ltd., No. 12-842, 573 U.S. ___ (2014) (slip op., at 9) (emphasis in original).

Second, with regard to pre-FSIA common law immunity, the Supreme Court observed that “Argentina cites no case holding that, before the Act, a foreign state’s extraterritorial assets enjoyed absolute execution immunity in United States courts. No surprise there. Our courts generally lack authority in the first place to execute against property in other countries, so how could the question ever have arisen?”  NML Capital, 573 U.S. ___ (slip op., at 9).

Third, the Supreme Court agreed that Société Nationale Industrielle Aérospatiale applies with regard to NML’s discovery requests.  See NML Capital, 573 U.S. ___ (slip op., at 11-12 n.6).

Final Thoughts Regarding Argentina and the United States’ Argument: In the end, the NML case was not a close call.  Argentina and the United States’ position – that the FSIA conferred execution immunity over a foreign state’s extraterritorial assets – was simply irreconcilable with the plain language of section 1609.  While I understand why Argentina nevertheless made the argument given the precarious legal situation that it finds itself in, I am disappointed that the Solicitor General supported a position that was contrary to the plain language of the FSIA.  The United States’ untenable legal position may have been driven by overarching political and economic concerns, but the Solicitor General’s brief was, in my view, inconsistent with the responsibilities of the “Tenth Justice” of the Supreme Court.   

Note: I will post another article regarding the NML case in the next few weeks, this time focused on the effect (if any) of the decision with respect to FSIA jurisdictional discovery.

Republic of Argentina v. NML Capital, Ltd.: Reaction to Argentina’s Reply Brief

I only have time for a short post today, but — especially in light of my article about the NML case last week (“NML Article”) — I wanted to share my thoughts about the reply brief filed by Argentina yesterday.

Argentina repeats its claim that “the FSIA make all foreign-state property presumptively immune from judgment execution.”  Reply Brief for Petitioner (“Arg. Reply”) at 3 (emphasis added); see also id. at 14.  As I explained in my article, Argentina’s contention is untenable given the plain language of the FSIA.  NML Article at 5-9.  Section 1609, the statutory provision that confers presumptive execution immunity on a foreign state’s property, is expressly limited to property “in the United States.”  28 U.S.C. § 1609 (emphasis added).  Contrary to Argentina’s argument, nothing in the FSIA confers presumptive immunity upon foreign state property throughout the world. 

Argentina’s response to section 1609’s clear limitation appears to be relegated to a footnote in the middle of its brief, where it states the following: “NML is wrong that foreign-state property outside the United States is not ‘immune,’ but in any event does not dispute that U.S. courts may not execute on such property, and acknowledged as much to the Second Circuit.”  Arg. Reply at 10 n.4 (emphasis in original) (citations omitted).  The fact that Argentina did not even repeat the full argument it made to the Second Circuit on the issue does not, in my opinion, bode well for its position in the Supreme Court.  Cf. NML Article at 7-8.  Moreover, as I stated last week, section 1609’s “in the United States” limitation means that it “neither provides immunity to foreign property nor empowers U.S. courts to order execution against assets held abroad.”  NML Article at 8.  That the FSIA fails to accord United States courts with the power to execute upon property located in foreign jurisdictions does not mean that such property receives “presumptive immunity” under the statute.  Instead — and as Argentina has previously conceded in this litigation — the status of foreign state property overseas is simply a matter of foreign law properly resolved by foreign courts.  Cf. NML Article at 7-8.

Argentina also appears to argue that the pre-FSIA common law should govern with respect to a foreign state’s property overseas.  Arg. Reply at 4-5, 11.  But principles of statutory construction — including those relating to adherence to pre-statutory common law — do not trump a statute’s plain language.  Cf. Sebelius v. Cloer, — U.S. —, 133 S. Ct. 1886, 1895-96 (2013).  Moreover, Argentina nowhere shows that the pre-FSIA regime accorded immunity to a foreign state’s property abroad.  In the absence of such a showing, it is just as likely that immunity issues relating to foreign property were treated as matters of foreign law before the FSIA’s enactment, just as they are now.

Finally, Argentina’s waiver argument (Arg. Reply at 20-23) — which disregards that the issue of waiver with respect to foreign assets is a question of foreign law — fails for the reasons I explained more fully in my article last week.  See NML Article at 10-11.

Republic of Argentina v. NML (No. 12-842) – Why Both Sides Are Wrong

NML, a Cayman Islands hedge fund, obtained numerous federal judgments against Argentina arising out of Argentina’s default on payment of its public debt. Argentina refuses to satisfy any of the judgments. Because NML has had little success in finding Argentinian assets in the United States subject to execution under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), the district court granted NML broad discovery from non-party banks relating to Argentina’s assets overseas. The discovery dispute between NML and Argentina is currently pending in the United States Supreme Court, with oral argument scheduled for April 21, 2014.

The FSIA has been called a “statutory labyrinth” with “many deliberately vague provisions.” While that characterization may hold true regarding certain sections of the FSIA, the statute is a model of clarity and simplicity with respect to the threshold issue in this case: whether foreign assets are accorded a statutory presumption of immunity from execution. Section 1609 provides that only a foreign state’s property “in the United States” is presumptively immune from execution. Nowhere does the FSIA confer presumptive immunity on a foreign state’s assets held outside the United States.

Notwithstanding section 1609’s plain language, the central contention advanced in the Supreme Court by Argentina and the United States (as amicus) is that Argentina’s assets overseas are entitled to presumptive statutory immunity and, as a result, are immune from discovery under the FSIA. Because Argentina and the United States’ argument cannot be squared with section 1609 itself, it is wrong as a matter of law.

Since the FSIA does not accord presumptive sovereign immunity upon a foreign state’s assets overseas, the discovery dispute between Argentina and NML should not be analyzed under the FSIA. Instead, the Supreme Court’s decision in Société Nationale Industrielle Aérospatiale v. USDC, 482 U.S. 522 (1987), controls. The district court and the Second Circuit should have reviewed NML’s discovery requests under the comity analysis set forth in Société Nationale, which is broad enough to accommodate all of the interests and policy considerations raised by the parties and the United States.

With regard to NML’s main argument in the Supreme Court, NML fails to recognize the protections afforded by immunity under United States law. NML contends that because the text of the FSIA does not mention “discovery,” the FSIA does not limit the discovery available to plaintiffs in post-judgment proceedings. With respect to domestic assets, NML’s contention is contrary to settled law. Under Supreme Court and circuit precedent, protection from discovery inheres in the very concept of immunity itself. Moreover, with regard to foreign assets, NML does not undertake the comity analysis required under the Supreme Court’s decision in Société Nationale.

In the end, while the discovery dispute between NML and Argentina may be of critical importance to the parties, this case does not belong in the Supreme Court. There is no circuit split with regard to the threshold issue, namely whether foreign assets are protected from execution under the FSIA. Instead, the NML case simply involves the lower courts’ erroneous failure to apply the Société Nationale comity analysis to NML’s discovery requests targeting Argentina’s assets overseas. To avoid issuing an unnecessary decision in the sensitive area of foreign sovereign immunity law, the Supreme Court should consider remanding the matter with instructions to analyze the requested discovery under Société Nationale.

Read the full article via the PDF version below:

Execution and Separate Juridical Status

The Ninth Circuit’s decision last week in FG Hemisphere Assocs., LLC v. Unocal Corp., — F. Appx. —, No. 12-56031, 2014 WL 820803 (9th Cir. Mar. 4, 2014), serves as a reminder of the importance of the presumption of separateness in FSIA litigation.  The separate juridical status of entities is a critical issue under the FSIA, from the determination of status (28 U.S.C. § 1603(b)(1)) to the jurisdictional inquiry (Doe v. Holy See, 557 F.3d 1066, 1077-79 (9th Cir. 2009)) to post-judgment proceedings (EM Ltd. v. Republic of Argentina, 473 F.3d 463, 475-80 (2d Cir. 2007)).  FG Hemisphere Assocs. is a case in point: Applying California law, the Ninth Circuit declined to disregard the separate corporate status of two entities for purposes of the applicability of an exception to immunity from execution.  FG Hemisphere Assocs., 2014 WL 820803, at *1.  As shown by the Ninth Circuit’s latest decision, unless the case falls under the terrorism exception (cf. 28 U.S.C. § 1610(g)(1)), the presumption of separate juridical status remains crucial to preserving a foreign sovereign’s immunity from execution.

The FSIA, Agency and Agents: Avoiding a Basic Pitfall

On appeal in the Ninth Circuit in Sachs v. Republic of Austria, et al., Case No. 11-15458, the Austrian instrumentality OBB Personenverkehr AG (“OBB”) argued that an entity’s conduct may be attributed to a foreign state under the FSIA only if that entity meets the “agency or instrumentality” requirements set forth in 28 U.S.C. section 1603(b).  OBB contended that because the entity in question did “not fall within the agency definition” set forth in section 1603(b), the “acts of [the entity] cannot be imputed to OBB for purposes of Section 1605(a)(2).”  OBB’s Supplemental Letter, dated Apr. 8, 2013, Docket No. 52, at 2.  Because OBB’s erroneous argument has been made by litigants in FSIA cases before (see Gates v. Victor Fine Foods, 54 F.3d 1457, 1460 n.1 (9th Cir. 1995)), this post examines the issue more closely.

Under the FSIA, the term “‘foreign state,’ except as used in section 1608 . . . , includes a political subdivision of a foreign state or an agency or instrumentality of a foreign state as defined in subsection (b).”  28 U.S.C. § 1603(a) (emphasis added).  An “agency or instrumentality” is defined as any entity which (1) “is a separate legal person, corporate or other,” (2) “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,” and (3) “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.”  28 U.S.C. § 1603(b).   The term “agency or instrumentality” was intended to include entities such as “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 16 (1976).

Despite section 1603(a)’s sole reference to section 1608 – the FSIA’s service provision – the statutory scheme reflects different treatment of agencies or instrumentalities that extends well beyond service of process.  For example, it is easier to establish jurisdiction under the international takings exception over an agency or instrumentality than it is over a foreign sovereign itself.  See 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(3).  The FSIA precludes recovery of punitive damages against a foreign sovereign, but not against an agency or instrumentality.  28 U.S.C. § 1606.  And it is easier to attach or execute on the property of an agency or instrumentality than it is on the property of a foreign sovereign.   Compare 28 U.S.C. § 1610(a) with § 1610(b).

As a result, the determination of whether an entity qualifies as a foreign sovereign or as an agency or instrumentality is an important one.  However, contrary to OBB’s argument, the determination has nothing to do with the issue of attribution – i.e., common law “agency” – under the FSIA.   Section 1603(b) was intended to delineate the entities entitled to the protections of the FSIA, but nothing suggests that the provision was meant to address attribution for purposes of jurisdiction or liability.

In contrast to the requirements of section 1603(b), “agency” for purposes of attribution is governed by common law principles as informed by international law and articulated congressional policies.  First Nat. City Bank v. Banco Para El Comercio Exterior de Cuba, 462 U.S. 611, 623 (1983).  For example, with respect to separate juridical entities, courts examine whether an entity is under the “day-to-day” control of a foreign sovereign.  See, e.g., Dale v. Colagiovanni, 443 F.3d 425, 429 (5th Cir. 2006).  In addition, an actual authority agency inquiry will typically turn on foreign law, since that will dictate whether the putative agent was in fact authorized to engage in the conduct alleged.  See, e.g., Velasco v. Gov’t Of Indonesia, 370 F.3d 392, 401-02 (4th Cir. 2004); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 44.1.  And apparent authority is not permitted as an agency theory under the FSIA, for all of the reasons I have previously discussed.  Plainly, all of these issues are far afield from the statutory inquiry set forth in section 1603(b).

OBB’s erroneous argument may have arisen from use of the term “agency” in the FSIA, which at first blush may appear to refer to common law “agency” principles.  See Hester Int’l Corp. v. Fed. Republic of Nigeria, 879 F.2d 170, 176 n.5 (5th Cir. 1989) (“The use of the single term ‘agency’ for two purposes . . . may cause some confusion.”).    However, as the Fifth Circuit explained long 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). 

The Ninth Circuit followed Hester in Gates, 54 F.3d at 1460 n.1.  The Ninth Circuit recently reaffirmed Gates when it strongly rejected OBB’s argument in Sachs:

The plain text of the FSIA does not support OBB’s proposed framework for determining whether [the entity in question] is an agent of OBB. Section 1603(b) defines what type of entity can be considered a foreign state for purposes of claiming sovereign immunity. If an entity cannot show that it meets that definition then it is not entitled to sovereign immunity. Whether an entity meets the definition of an “agency or instrumentality of a foreign state” to claim immunity is a completely different question from whether the acts of an agent can be imputed to a foreign state for the purpose of applying the commercial-activity exception.

Sachs v. Republic of Austria, 737 F.3d 584, 595 (9th Cir. 2013) (en banc) (citations and quotations omitted).

Because the term “agency” is used both under section 1603(b) and under the common law, the erroneous argument made by OBB in the Sachs appeal is capable of repetition.  However, FSIA practitioners should be aware of the distinction, and thereby avoid this basic pitfall in FSIA law.