Alien Tort Statute (ATS / ATCA) Confers Jurisdiction for Torts Committed Both Inside and Outside of the United States — Case Law Split as to Torts Committed Inside U.S.

From Magnifico v. Villanueva, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45509 (S.D. Fla. April 20, 2011):

Plaintiffs, citizens of the Philippines, seek damages from the defendants based on allegations of forced labor and human trafficking in addition to violations of both federal and state fair labor laws for denial of overtime compensation and other common law claims. ***

The defendants allegedly recruited the plaintiffs from the Philippines and the United States, using fraudulent visa applications, false promises, and misrepresentations regarding the terms and conditions of employment to induce plaintiffs to work for the defendants in the United States. Plaintiffs allege that defendants forced them to live in severely crowded housing and to work long hours in country clubs and hotels in Florida and New York. To ensure that plaintiffs complied with their demanding work schedule, defendants threatened plaintiffs with arrest, imprisonment, deportation, cancellation of their visas, loss of work, lawsuits, and black-listing. Defendants also allegedly convinced plaintiffs that they had close relationships with officials in both the United States and Philippine governments. Plaintiffs also allege that defendants deducted exorbitant monthly fees from plaintiffs' paychecks for food, housing, and transportation despite having promised during recruitment that these would be provided free of charge. As a result of this alleged "campaign of fraud and coercion," plaintiffs constantly feared the defendants and believed that they had no choice other than to obey their orders and to continue working. ***

The ATS provides: "The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 1350. To bring a cause of action under the ATS, the plaintiff must be an alien suing for a tort committed in violation of the law of nations. Abebe-Jira v. Negewo, 72 F.3d 844, 847 (11th Cir. 1996) (citing Kadic v. Karadzic, 70 F.3d 232, 236 (2d Cir. 1995)). The statute says nothing about where the cause of action must arise. Defendants point to Velez v. Sanchez, F. Supp. 2d , No. 04-CV-4797 (FB)(CLP), 2010 WL 4852321 (E.D.N.Y. 2010), to support their position that the statute applies only to torts committed outside of the United States. In Velez, a district court in New York held that a plaintiff could not bring a claim under the ATS for human trafficking occurring outside of the United States. Id. at *6. Although the court recognized that "human trafficking and forced labor violate specific norms accepted by the civilized world," the court found that the ATS "has always been understood as covering torts committed abroad." Id. (citing Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 542 U.S. 692, 715 (2004)). Because the plaintiff's claims in the case arose out of conduct occurring exclusively in the United States, the court held that the claims were not within the statute's grant of jurisdiction. Id. In a footnote, however, the court noted that while the ATS could conceivably apply to torts occurring in the United States, the case before it lacked an "international savor" as the plaintiff's "status as a foreign national [was] pure happenstance; she could just as easily have been sent from Idaho as from Ecuador." Id. at n.5.

Despite the court's holding in Velez, the undersigned finds that the ATS grants jurisdiction for torts committed both inside and outside of the United States, particularly when those torts have an "international savor," as do the torts in this case where the defendants allegedly trafficked many of the plaintiffs into this country under false pretenses and then forced the plaintiffs to work here in sub-standard conditions under threats of deportation. According to the Supreme Court in Sosa, the requisite harm necessary to bring a claim under the ATS is a violation of the law of nations, which is "any claim based on the present-day law of nations . . . [resting] on a norm of international character accepted by the civilized world." Sosa, 542 U.S. at 725. Neither the Supreme Court nor the text of the statute says anything of an extraterritorial requirement. In short, to sue under the ATS, plaintiffs must be aliens suing in tort for a violation of the law of nations. This case meets those jurisdictional requirements. Nothing more is required and this Court declines to implement an extraterritoriality requirement when Congress and the United States Supreme Court have not done so. Accord Jama v. U.S. I.N.S., 22 F. Supp. 2d 353 (D.N.J. 1998) (allowing claim under ATS for torts occurring domestically).

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