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Estate of Alvarez v. The John Hopkins University

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 3, 2019

ESTATE OF ARTURO GIRON ALVAREZ, THE 773 INDIVIDUALS IDENTIFIED ON EXHIBIT 1 TO THE COMPLAINT and UNKNOWN USE PLAINTIFFS, Plaintiffs,
v.
THE JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY, THE JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE, THE JOHNS HOPKINS HOSPITAL, THE JOHNS HOPKINS BLOOMBERG SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH, THE JOHNS HOPKINS HEALTH SYSTEMS CORPORATION, THE ROCKEFELLER FOUNDATION and BRISTOL-MYERS SQUIBB COMPANY, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          THEODORE D. CHUANG JUDGE

         Plaintiffs Estate of Arturo Giron Alvarez and 773 other Guatemalan nationals have filed a civil action against the Johns Hopkins University and four affiliated entities, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Bristol-Myers Squibb Company. Plaintiffs allege that Defendants subjected them or their family members to medical experiments in Guatemala without their knowledge or consent during the 1940s and 1950s, in violation of the law of nations. Presently pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings on the grounds that the Alien Tort Statute, 28U.S.C. S 1350 (2012), upon which Plaintiffs' claims are based, does not allow for claims against a corporation. On December 18, 2018, the Court heard oral argument on the Motion. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motion will be DENIED.

         BACKGROUND

         Relevant factual and procedural background is set forth in the Court's September 7, 2016 Decision re: Second Amended Complaint, Estate of Alvarez v. Johns Hopkins Univ. (“Alvarez I”), 205 F.Supp.3d 681, 683-85 (D. Md. 2016), and the August 30, 2017 Decision re: Third Amended Complaint, Estate of Alvarez v. Johns Hopkins Univ. (“Alvarez II”), 275 F.Supp.3d 670, 677-78 (D. Md. 2017). Additional facts and procedural history specific to this motion are provided here.

         Plaintiffs invoke the Court's jurisdiction under the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”), 28 U.S.C. § 1350, which 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.” Id. The seven Defendants are all U.S. corporations. Specifically, as alleged in the Third Amended Complaint, Defendants the Johns Hopkins University, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the Johns Hopkins Health System Corporation (collectively “the Johns Hopkins Defendants”) are corporations formed under the laws of Maryland with their principal places of business in Maryland, Defendant the Rockefeller Foundation is a corporation formed under the laws of New York, and Defendant Bristol-Myers Squibb Company is a corporation formed under the laws of Delaware with its principal place of business in New York.

         In previous decisions, the Court (Garbis, J.), in finding jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' ATS claims, stated that it “will follow the majority consensus that corporations can be liable under the ATS.” Alvarez II, 275 F.Supp.3d at 687 & n.21; Alvarez I, 205 F.Supp.3d at 694. When granting in part and denying in part Defendants' Motion to Dismiss the Third Amended Complaint in August 2017, the Court acknowledged that the United States Supreme Court had recently "granted certiorari to address whether the ATS categorically forecloses corporate liability." Alvarez II, 275 F.Supp.3d at 687 n.21 (citing Jesner v. Arab Bank, PLC, 137 S.Ct. 1432 (2017)). Since the parties did not seek entry of a stay, the Court stated that it would re-address the issue of corporate liability under the ATS after the Supreme Court's decision in Jesner if it proved "necessary"" Alvarez II, 275 F.Supp.3d at 687 n.21. On April 24, 2018, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Jesner v. Arab Bank, PLC, 138 S.Ct. 1386 (2018), holding that "foreign corporations may not be defendants in suits brought under the ATS." Id. at 1407. Defendants then filed their Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, which is now ripe for decision.

         DISCUSSION

         In Count I of the Third Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs assert an ATS claim based on the allegation that Defendants, all of which are U.S. corporations, conducted medical experiments on them or their family members without the victims' knowledge or consent, and thus committed crimes against humanity, in violation of well-established and customary norms of international law. In their Motion, Defendants seek dismissal of Plaintiffs' ATS claim, the only remaining claim in the case, on the basis of the Supreme Court's decision in Jesner. Defendants argue that although the Supreme Court's holding in Jesner explicitly applied to only foreign corporation,, its reasoning also establishes that courts may not permit causes of action under the ATS against domestic corporations.

         I. Legal Standard

         Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is filed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure l2(c). "The standard of review for Rule l2(c) motions is the same as that under Rule 12(b)(6)." Drager v. PLIVA USA, Inc., 741 F.3d 470, 474 (4th Cir. 2014); see PETA v. USDA, 861 F.3d 502, 506 (4th Cir. 2017). To defeat a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the complaint must allege enough facts to state a plausible claim for relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A claim is plausible when the facts pleaded allow "the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. Legal conclusions or conclusory statements do not suffice. Id. The Court must examine the complaint as a whole, consider the factual allegations in the complaint as true, and construe the factual allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 268 (1994); Lambeth v. Bd. of Comm 'rs of Davidson Cty., 407 F.3d 266, 268 (4th Cir. 2005).

         II. The Jesner Opinion

         The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Jesner to resolve the question whether "the Alien Tort Statute, 28 U.S.C. S 1350, categorically forecloses corporate liability." Pet. for Writ of Certiorari at i, Jesner, 138 S.Ct. 1386 (No. 16-499), 2066 WL 6069100; see Jesner v. Arab Bank, PLC, 137S.Q. 1432 (2017) (granting the petition for a writ of certiorari). Ultimately, the Jesner Court held "that foreign corporations may not be defendants in suits brought under the ATS." Jesner, 138 S.Ct. at 1407.

         Defendants acknowledge that the holding is limited to foreign corporations but argue that "nearly all of the reasons offered in support of that holding ... apply equally to foreign and domestic corporation"" and contend that "it is clear that a majority of the Supreme Court would not extend ATS liability to U.S. corporations"" Defs.' Mot. 7, ECF No. 174-1. They assert that the Court chose to limit its holding "[b]ecause the only defendant in Jesner was Arab Bank, a Jordanian corporation." Id. at 6.

         In Jesner, a majority of the Supreme Court joined only three parts of the principal opinion authored by Justice Kennedy: Part I, Part II-B-1, and Part II-C. The remaining sections of Justice Kennedy's opinion were joined by only a plurality, consisting of Justice Kennedy, Chief Justice Roberts, and Justice Thomas, and are thus only persuasive authority. See CTS Corp. v. Dynamics Corp. of Am.,481 U.S. 69, 81 (1987). Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch each wrote ...


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