April 18, 2012

Supreme Court Decides Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority

On April 18, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, No. 11-88. The Court held that the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 ("TVPA"), which creates a cause of action in United States courts for acts of torture committed under color of a foreign nation's law, imposes liability only on individuals, not on organizations.

While visiting the West Bank in 1995, Azzam Rahim was allegedly kidnapped, tortured, and killed by Palestinian Authority intelligence officers. Rahim's estate sued the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian Liberation Organization, asserting claims of torture and extrajudicial killing under the TVPA. The district court dismissed the case, holding that the TVPA authorizes actions only against individuals, not groups. The District of Columbia Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court also affirmed the dismissal, holding that the language of the TVPA imposes liability only on individuals, not organizations. The statute imposes liability on "[a]n individual" for torture and extrajudicial killing, but it does not define "individual." Citing dictionaries, the Court ruled that the ordinary meaning of "individual" refers to a human being, not an organization, and found no reason to believe that Congress intended to use the word differently than its common meaning. Federal statutes routinely distinguish between "individuals" and organizational entities. The Court was not persuaded by the petitioners' arguments to the contrary based on tort law, legislative history, and the need for a broad remedy.

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all Justices joined except for Part III-B, which Justice Scalia did not join. Justice Breyer filed a concurring opinion.

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