Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority
566 U.S. ___ (2012)

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Justia Opinion Summary
Petitioners sued the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 (TVPA), which authorized a cause of action against "[a]n individual" for acts of torture and extrajudicial killing committed under authority or color of law of any foreign nation. The district court dismissed the suit, concluding that the TVPA's authorization of suit against "[a]n individual" extended liability only to natural persons. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed. The Court held that, as used in the TVPA, the term "individual" encompassed only natural persons. Consequently, the TVPA did not impose liability against organizations. Therefore, the Court affirmed the judgment of the lower courts.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

MOHAMAD, individually and for ESTATE OF RAHIM, DECEASED, et al. v. PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the district of columbia circuit

No. 11–88. Argued February 28, 2012—Decided April 18, 2012

While visiting the West Bank, Azzam Rahim, a naturalized United States citizen, allegedly was arrested by Palestinian Authority intelligence officers, imprisoned, tortured, and ultimately killed. Rahim’s relatives, petitioners here, sued the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 (TVPA), which authorizes a cause of action against “[a]n individual” for acts of torture and extrajudicial killing committed under authority or color of law of any foreign nation. 106Stat. 73, note following 28 U. S. C. §1350. The District Court dismissed the suit, concluding, as relevant here, that the TVPA’s authorization of suit against “[a]n individual” extended liability only to natural persons. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed.

Held: As used in the TVPA, the term “individual” encompasses only natural persons. Consequently, the Act does not impose liability against organizations. Pp. 2–11.

     (a) The ordinary, everyday meaning of “individual” refers to a human being, not an organization, and Congress in the normal course does not employ the word any differently. The Dictionary Act defines “person” to include certain artificial entities “as well as individuals,” 1 U. S. C. §1, thereby marking “individual” as distinct from artificial entities. Federal statutes routinely distinguish between an “individual” and an organizational entity. See, e.g., 7 U. S. C. §§92(k), 511. And the very Congress that passed the TVPA defined “person” in a separate Act to include “any individual or entity.” 18 U. S. C. §2331(3). Pp. 2–5.

     (b) Before a word will be assumed to have a meaning broader than or different from its ordinary meaning, Congress must give some indication that it intended such a result. There are no such indications in the TVPA. To the contrary, the statutory context confirms that Congress in the Act created a cause of action against natural persons alone. The Act’s liability provision uses the word “individual” five times in the same sentence: once to refer to the perpetrator and four times to refer to the victim. See TVPA §2(a). Since only a natural person can be a victim of torture or extrajudicial killing, it is difficult to conclude that Congress used “individual” four times in the same sentence to refer to a natural person and once to refer to a natural person and any nonsovereign organization. In addition, the TVPA holds perpetrators liable for extrajudicial killing to “any person who may be a claimant in an action for wrongful death.” See TVPA §2(a)(2). “Persons” often has a broader meaning in the law than “individual,” and frequently includes non-natural persons. Construing “individual” in the Act to encompass solely natural persons credits Congress’ use of disparate terms. Pp. 5–6.

     (c) Petitioners’ counterarguments are unpersuasive. Pp. 6–11.

          (1) Petitioners dispute that the plain text of the TVPA requires this Court’s result. First, they rely on definitions that frame “individual” in nonhuman terms, emphasizing the idea of “oneness,” but these definitions make for an awkward fit in the context of the TVPA. Next they claim that federal tort statutes uniformly provide for liability against organizations, a convention they maintain is common to the legal systems of other nations. But while “Congress is understood to legislate against a background of common-law adjudicatory principles,” Astoria Fed. Sav. & Loan Assn. v. Solimino, 501 U. S. 104 , Congress plainly evinced its intent in the TVPA not to subject organizations to liability. Petitioners next argue that the TVPA’s scope of liability should be construed to conform with other federal statutes they claim provide civil remedies to victims of torture or extrajudicial killing. But none of the statutes petitioners cite employs the term “individual,” as the TVPA, to describe the covered defendant. Finally, although petitioners rightly note that the TVPA contemplates liability against officers who do not personally execute the torture or extrajudicial killing, it does not follow that the Act embraces liability against nonsovereign organizations. Pp. 6–8.

          (2) Petitioners also contend that legislative history supports their broad reading of “individual,” but “reliance on legislative history is unnecessary in light of the statute’s unambiguous language.” Milavetz, Gallop & Milavetz, P. A. v. United States, 559 U. S. ___, ___. In any event, the history supports this Court’s interpretation. Pp. 8–10.

          (3) Finally, petitioners argue that precluding organizational liability may foreclose effective remedies for victims and their relatives. This purposive argument simply cannot overcome the force of the plain text. Moreover, Congress appeared well aware of the limited nature of the cause of action it established in the TVPA. Pp. 10–11.

634 F. 3d 604, affirmed.

     Sotomayor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan, JJ., joined, and in which Scalia, J., joined except as to Part III–B. Breyer, J., filed a concurring opinion.

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