Sachs’s Meritless Commercial Activity Argument

Last week, I examined the problems with the main attribution argument advanced by OBB in the Supreme Court.  Now it is time to analyze the merits of one of the central commercial activity arguments proffered by Sachs. 

The first clause of the commercial activity exception requires that a plaintiff’s action be “based upon a commercial activity carried on in the United States by the foreign state.”  28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(2).  As a result, to establish jurisdiction under section 1605(a)(2)’s first clause, Sachs must show that her action – which arises from a railway accident in Innsbruck, Austria – is based upon a commercial activity carried on in the United States by OBB.

In her merits brief, Sachs argues that her claims are based upon “OBB’s overall commercial railway enterprise.”  There are three problems with Sachs’s argument.

First, Sachs did not advance the argument below.  It may be that Sachs can avoid a claim of waiver because the issue relates to subject matter jurisdiction (cf. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(h)(3)), but the fact that Sachs did not raise the argument before her merits brief in the Supreme Court does not inspire confidence.  Like OBB’s novel (and unsupported) agency argument, this was probably an idea that would have been best left on the cutting room floor.

Second, Sachs’s claim ignores a host of FSIA cases (which are also not cited in OBB’s reply on the merits).  Under established law, a plaintiff cannot rely on a sovereign’s alleged general commercial activities under the commercial activity exception.  As courts have repeatedly held for over thirty-five years, it is not the sovereign’s general commercial activities that matter for purposes of the exception:

The focus of the exception to immunity recognized in § 1605(a)(2) is not on whether the defendant generally engages in a commercial enterprise or activity. . . ; rather, it is on whether the particular conduct giving rise to the claim in question actually constitutes or is in connection with commercial activity, regardless of the defendant’s generally commercial or governmental character.

Arango v. Guzman Travel Advisors Corp., 621 F.2d 1371, 1379 (5th Cir. 1980); see also, e.g., Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Med. Ctr. v. Hellenic Republic, 877 F.2d 574, 580 n.8 (7th Cir. 1989) (same); Jungquist v. Sheikh Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, 115 F.3d 1020, 1030 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (stating that the plaintiffs “confuse general activity related to the claim with the specific activity upon which the claim is based”); cf. Sun v. Taiwan, 201 F.3d 1105, 1109 (9th Cir. 2000) (holding that the “focus must be solely upon those specific acts that form the basis of the suit”).  In other words, if the Supreme Court accepts Sachs’s argument, it would be overturning decades of FSIA precedent.  The Court would also be swinging the gates wide open to jurisdiction under the first clause of the commercial activity exception, since plaintiffs’ lawyers can almost always conjure an underlying general commercial activity that can serve as a “basis” for their suits.

Finally, Sachs’s argument lacks merit because OBB “carries on” its “overall commercial railway enterprise” in Austria – and not, as the first clause of the commercial activity exception requires, “in the United States.”  28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(2).  I understand that Sachs relies on section 1603(e), which defines a “commercial activity carried on in the United States by a foreign state” to mean “commercial activity carried on by such state and having substantial contact with the United States.”  28 U.S.C. § 1605(e).  However, Sachs cannot have it both ways.  If the commercial activity is deemed to be the ticket sale by the travel agency in Massachusetts (and that sale is attributable to OBB), then it may be true that the sale constitutes commercial activity carried on in the United States by OBB.  See Sachs v. Republic of Austria, 737 F.3d 584, 598-99 (9th Cir. 2013) (en banc).  Yet, for reasons I will explain in a subsequent post, Sachs’s lawsuit is not based upon the ticket sale.  And even if a plaintiff were not precluded under FSIA precedent from relying on a foreign state’s general commercial activity, OBB’s operation of its “overall commercial railway enterprise” is carried on in Austria; OBB is Austria’s national railroad company, and it appears undisputed that OBB does not have offices, employees or bank accounts in the United States. 

On its face, this analysis may seem hyper-technical and unfair to Sachs.  The opposite is true.  It is Sachs who is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.  Sachs’s claims, after all, arise from an alleged tortious act or omission occurring in Austria in connection with a commercial activity overseas.  Sachs should therefore be asserting jurisdiction under the third clause of the commercial activity exception.  Cf. 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(2) (third clause stating that a foreign state is not immune in any case based “upon an act outside the territory of the United States in connection with a commercial activity of the foreign state elsewhere and that act causes a direct effect in the United States”).  Sachs is not doing so, presumably because she cannot demonstrate the requisite “direct effect in the United States” under existing law.  Seee.g.Zernicek v. Brown & Root, Inc., 826 F.2d 415, 418 (5th Cir.1987) (“consequential damages [from personal injury tort abroad] are insufficient to constitute a ‘direct effect in the United States’ for purposes of abrogating sovereign immunity”).  Sachs also cannot assert jurisdiction under the FSIA’s tort exception for her slip-and-fall case, because the alleged tortious conduct occurred overseas.  See  Argentine Republic v. Amerada Hess Shipping Corp., 488 U.S. 428, 441 (1989) (stating that the FSIA’s tort exception, 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(5), “covers only torts occurring within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States”).  As a result, to get around the requirements of the FSIA’s other (and more applicable) exceptions to sovereign immunity, Sachs is forced to proceed under the first clause of the commercial activity exception.  However, reliance on that clause does not work — at least not if Sachs’ argument is based on OBB’s general commercial activity of operating a national railway in Austria.

In the end, because she cannot rely on OBB’s general commercial activity in Austria, Sachs is stuck with arguing that her personal injury action is “based upon” the ticket sale in the United States.  As I will explain in subsequent posts, that should spell the end of Sachs’s lawsuit under existing Supreme Court precedent.

[Next week, I will examine why the Supreme Court’s decision in Saudi Arabia v. Nelson, 507 U.S. 349 (1993), should control the result in OBB v. Sachs.]