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April 21, 2022

Supreme Court Decides Cassirer et al. v. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation

On April 21, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Cassirer et al. v. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation, No. 20-1566, holding that federal courts hearing state-law claims under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act should apply the forum state’s choice-of-law rules.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany, Lilly Cassirer fled to England and eventually the United States. She left behind the Impressionist painting Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain, which had been in her family for decades. The Nazis confiscated the painting, and it eventually came into the possession of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation, an entity owned by the Kingdom of Spain. After many years of searching for the painting, Lilly’s grandson Claude discovered the painting in the Foundation’s catalogue and filed suit under the “expropriation exception” to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, claiming that his family owned the painting and was entitled to its return.

The parties disputed which choice-of-law rules applied to this international dispute. Claude argued for California choice-of-law principles, but the district court agreed with the Collection and applied federal common law. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court reversed. It held when a foreign party is subject to a court’s jurisdiction under FSIA, it is subject to the law of the state where that court sits. To rule otherwise would create unfair outcomes for litigants. State choice-of-law principles therefore apply.

Justice Kagan authored the opinion for the unanimous Court.

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