The United States Law Week

DOJ Urges High Court to Shield Companies From Slave Labor Suits

May 26, 2020, 8:42 PM

U.S. companies should be shielded from liability under a centuries-old law for assisting in child slavery, the Justice Department has told the Supreme Court.

That argument was delivered in a Trump administration filing on Tuesday urging the justices to review a lower court ruling that allowed former child slaves to move forward with their decade-long suit against U.S. manufacturers, processors, and retailers of cocoa beans accused of aiding and abetting human rights abuses.

The former slaves say they were kidnapped and forced work up to 14 hours a day without pay, while others were beaten and tortured.

The justices requested the government weigh in on whether it should take up the case and they often, though not always, follow the DOJ’s recommendation.

“The United States unequivocally condemns child slavery and those who aid and abet it, and is committed to fostering respect for human rights,” the DOJ told the justices. “This case, however, involves more specific issues,” in particular whether the case is sufficiently connected to the United States to allow for suit there.

At the heart of the case is whether the 1789 Alien Tort Statute, meant to avoid diplomatic tensions, allows for suits in U.S. courts for human rights abuses abroad.

Early suits under the statute, which gives federal courts jurisdiction over “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations,” addressed the harassment of foreign ambassadors and piracy on the high seas.

In 2013, the Supreme Court began chipping away at human rights activist’s attempts to expand the ATS as a way into the more plaintiff-friendly United States courts, by saying the law generally doesn’t apply outside of the U.S.

Later, in 2018, the court said foreign corporations couldn’t be sued under the ATS.

The plaintiffs here assert there exists a sufficiently strong U.S. connection by pointing the actions by U.S. companies that aided and abetted the human rights abuses.

But the Trump administration argues the ATS can’t be used against any corporation, foreign or domestic. It also asked the justices to resolve whether anyone—an individual or a corporate entity—can ever be sued for merely aiding and abetting the abuses.

The justices are expected to decide whether to take up the case before the term wraps up this summer. If accepted, the justices would hear the case next term, which begins in October.

The case is Cargill v. Doe, U.S., No. 19-453.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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