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SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
ASID MOHAMAD, individually and for the ESTATE
OF AZZAM RAHIM, deceased, et al., PETITIONERS v.
PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY et al.
on writ of certiorari to the united states
court of appeals for the district of columbia circuit
[April 18, 2012]
Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the
The Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 (TVPA
or Act), 106Stat. 73, note following 28 U. S. C.
§1350, 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. We
hold that the term “individual” as used in the Act
encompasses only natural persons. Consequently, the Act does not
impose liability against organizations.
Because this case arises from a motion to
dismiss, we ac-cept as true the allegations of the complaint.
, 563 U. S. ___, ___ (2011)
(slip op., at 1). Petitioners are the relatives of Azzam Rahim, who
immigrated to the United States in the 1970’s and became a
naturalized citizen. In 1995, while on a visit to the West Bank,
Rahim was arrested by Palestinian Authority intelligence officers.
He was taken to a prison in Jericho, where he was imprisoned,
tortured, and ultimately killed. The following year, the U. S.
Department of State issued a report concluding that Rahim
“died in the custody of [Palestinian Authority] intelligence
officers in Jericho.” Dept. of State, Occupied Territories
Human Rights Practices, 1995 (Mar. 1996).
In 2005, petitioners filed this action against
respondents, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian
Liberation Organization, asserting, inter alia
, claims of
torture and extrajudicial killing under the TVPA. The District
Court granted respondents’ motion to dismiss, concluding, as
relevant, that the Act’s authorization of suit against
“[a]n individual” extended liability only to natural
, 664 F. Supp. 2d 20, 22
(DC 2009). The United States Court of Appeals for the District of
Columbia Circuit affirmed on the same ground. See Mohamad
, 634 F.3d 604, 608 (2011) (“Congress used the
word ‘individual’ to denote only natural
] We granted
certiorari, 565 U. S. ___ (2011), to resolve a split among the
Circuits with respect to whether the TVPA authorizes actions
against defendants that are not natural persons,[3
] and now affirm.
The TVPA imposes liability on individuals for
certain acts of torture and extrajudicial killing. The Act
“An individual who, under actual or
apparent author-ity, or color of law, of any foreign
“(1) subjects an individual to torture
shall, in a civil action, be liable for damages to that individual;
“(2) subjects an individual to
extrajudicial killing shall, in a civil action, be liable for
damages to the individual’s legal representative, or to any
person who may be a claimant in an action for wrongful
The Act defines “torture” and
“extrajudicial killing,” §3, and imposes a statute
of limitations and an exhaustion requirement, §§2(b),
(c). It does not define “individual.”
Petitioners concede that foreign states may not
be sued under the Act—namely, that the Act does not create an
exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, 28
U. S. C. §1602 et seq
., which renders foreign
sovereigns largely immune from suits in U. S. courts. They
argue, however, that the TVPA does not similarly restrict liability
against other juridical entities. In petitioners’ view, by
permitting suit against “[a]n individual,” the TVPA
contemplates liability against natural persons and
nonsovereign organizations (a category that, petitioners assert,
includes respondents). We decline to read “individual”
so unnaturally. The ordinary meaning of the word, fortified by its
statutory context, persuades us that the Act authorizes suit
against natural persons alone.
Because the TVPA does not define the term
“individual,” we look first to the word’s
ordinary meaning. See FCC
v. AT&T Inc.
U. S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 5) (“When a statute
does not define a term, we typically give the phrase its ordinary
meaning” (internal quotation marks omitted)). As a noun,
“individual” ordinarily means “[a] human being, a
person.” 7 Oxford English Dictionary 880 (2d ed. 1989); see
Random House Dictionary of the English Language
974 (2d ed. 1987) (“a person”); Webster’s Third
New International Dictionary 1152 (1986) (“a particular
person”) (hereinafter Webster’s). After all, that is
how we use the word in everyday parlance. We say “the
individual went to the store,” “the individual left the
room,” and “the individual took the car,” each
time re-ferring unmistakably to a natural person. And no one, we
hazard to guess, refers in normal parlance to an organization as an
“individual.” Evidencing that common usage, this Court
routinely uses “individual” to denote a natural person,
and in particular to distinguish between a natural person and a
corporation. See, e.g., Goodyear Dunlop Tires Operations,
, 564 U. S. __, __ (2011) (slip
op., at 7) (“For an individual, the paradigm forum for the
exercise of general jurisdiction is the individual’s
domicile; for a corporation, it is an equivalent place, one in
which the corporation is fairly regarded as at home”).
Congress does not, in the ordinary course,
employ the word any differently. The Dictionary Act instructs that
“[i]n determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, unless
the context indicates otherwise . . . the wor[d]
‘person’ . . . include[s] corporations,
companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and
joint stock companies, as well as
U. S. C. §1 (emphasis added). With the phrase
“as well as,” the definition marks
“individual” as distinct from the list of artificial
entities that precedes it.
In a like manner, federal statutes routinely
distinguish between an “individual” and an
organizational entity of some kind. See, e.g.,
U. S. C. §92(k) (“ ‘Person’
includes partnerships, associations, and corporations, as well as
individuals”); §511 (same); 15 U. S. C.
§717a (“ ‘Person’ includes an
individual or a corporation”); 16 U. S. C.
§796 (“ ‘[P]erson’ means an individual
or a corporation”); 8 U. S. C. §1101(b)(3)
(“ ‘[P]erson’ means an individual or an
organization”). Indeed, the very same Congress that enacted
the TVPA also established a cause of action for U. S.
nationals injured “by reason of an act of interna-tional
terrorism” and defined “person” as it appears in
the statute to include “any individual or entity
capable of holding a legal or beneficial interest in
property.” Federal Courts Administration Act of 1992, 18
U. S. C. §§2333(a), 2331(3) (emphasis
This is not to say that the word
“individual” invariably means “natural
person” when used in a statute. Congress remains free, as
always, to give the word a broader or different meaning. But before
we will assume it has done so, there must be some
Congress intended such a result. Perhaps it is the rare statute
(petitioners point to only one such example, located in the
Internal Revenue Code) in which Congress expressly defines
“individual” to include corporate entities. See 26
U. S. C. §542(a)(2). Or perhaps, as was the case in
v. City of New York
, 429 (1998), the statutory context makes that
intention clear, because any other reading of
“individual” would lead to an
“ ‘absurd’ ” result Congress
could not plausibly have intended.
There are no such indications in the TVPA. As
noted, the Act does not define “individual,” much less
do so in a manner that extends the term beyond its ordinary usage.
And the statutory context strengthens—not
undermines—the conclusion that Congress intended to create 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
the defendant) and four times to refer to the victim.
See §2(a). Only a natural person can be a victim of torture or
extrajudicial killing. “Since there is a presumption that a
given term is used to mean the same thing throughout a statute, a
presumption surely at its most vigorous when a term is repeated
within a given sentence,” Brown
, 118 (1994) (citation omitted), it is difficult indeed to
conclude that Congress employed the term “in-dividual”
four times in one sentence to refer to a natural person and once to
refer to a natural person and
any nonsovereign organization.
See also §3(b)(1) (using term “individual” six
times in referring to victims of torture).
It is also revealing that the Act holds
perpetrators lia-ble for extrajudicial killing to “any
who may be a claimant in an action for wrongful
death.” §2(a)(2) (emphasis added). “Person,”
we have recognized, often has a broader meaning in the law than
“individual,” see Clinton
, 524 U. S., at
428, n. 13, and frequently includes nonnatural persons, see,
, 1 U. S. C. §1. We generally seek to
respect Congress’ decision to use different terms to
de-scribe different categories of people or things. See Sosa
, 542 U.S.
, 711, n. 9 (2004). Our construction of
“individual” to encompass solely natural persons
credits Congress’ use of the disparate terms;
petitioners’ construction does not.[4
In sum, the text of the statute persuades us
that the Act authorizes liability solely against natural
Petitioners’ counterarguments are
Petitioners first dispute that the plain text
of the TVPA requires today’s result. Although they concede
that an ordinary meaning of “individual” is
“human being,” petitioners point to definitions of
“individual” that “frame the term . . .
in distinctly non-human terms, instead placing their emphases on
of something.” Brief for Petitioners 18
Webster’s 1152 (defining
“individual” as “a single or particular being or
thing or group of being or things”)). Those definitions,
however, do not account even for petitioners’ preferred
interpretation of “in-dividual” in the Act, for foreign
states—which petition- ers concede are not liable under the
Act—do not differ from nonsovereign organizations in their
degree of “oneness.” Moreover, “[w]ords that can
have more than one meaning are given content . . . by
their surroundings,” Whitman
v. American Trucking
, 531 U.S.
, 466 (2001), and for the reasons explained supra
petitioners’ definition makes for an awkward fit in the
context of the TVPA.
Petitioners next claim that federal tort
statutes uniformly provide for liability against organizations, a
convention they maintain is common to the legal systems of other
nations. We are not convinced, however, that any such
“domestic and international presumption of organi-zational
liability” in tort actions overcomes the ordi- nary meaning
of “individual.” Brief for Petitioners 16. It is true
that “Congress is understood to legislate against a
background of common-law adjudicatory principles.” Astoria
Fed. Sav. & Loan Assn.
, 501 U.S.
, 108 (1991). But Congress plainly can override those
principles, see, e.g., id.
, at 108–109, and, as
, the TVPA’s text evinces a clear
intent not to subject nonsovereign organizations to
We also decline petitioners’ suggestion to
construe the TVPA’s scope of liability to conform with other
federal statutes that petitioners contend provide civil remedies to
victims of torture or extrajudicial killing. None of the three
statutes petitioners identify employs the term
“in-dividual” to describe the covered defendant, and so
none assists in the interpretive task we face today. See 42
U. S. C. §1983; 28 U. S. C.
§§1603(a), 1605A(c) (2006 ed., Supp. IV); 18
U. S. C. §§2333, 2334(a)–(b), 2337. The
same is true of the Alien Tort Statute, 28 U. S. C.
§1350, so it offers no comparative value here regardless of
whether corporate entities can be held liable in a federal
common-law action brought under that statute. Compare Doe
Exxon Mobil Corp.
, 654 F.3d 11 (CADC 2011), with
v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co.
, 621 F.3d 111
(CA2 2010), cert. granted, 565 U. S. ___ (2011). Finally,
al-though petitioners rightly note that the TVPA contemplates
liability against officers who do not personally execute the
torture or extrajudicial killing, see, e.g., Chavez
, 559 F.3d 486 (CA6 2009), it does not follow (as
petitioners argue) that the Act embraces liability against
nonsovereign organizations. An officer who gives an order to
torture or kill is an “individual” in that word’s
ordinary usage; an organization is not.
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
U. S. ___, ___, n. 3 (2010) (slip op., at 6, n. 3). In
any event, the excerpts petitioners cite do not help their cause.
Petitioners note that the Senate Report states that “[t]he
legislation uses the term ‘individual’ to make crystal
clear that foreign states or their entities cannot be sued under
this bill under any circumstances.” S. Rep. No.
102–249, p. 7 (1991) (S. Rep.); see also H. R. Rep.
No. 102–367, pt. 1, p. 4 (1991) (H. R. Rep.)
(“Only ‘individuals,’ not foreign states, can be
sued”). Yet that statement, while clarifying that the Act
does not encompass liability against foreign states, says nothing
about liability against nonsovereign organizations. The other
excerpts petitioners cite likewise are not probative of the meaning
of “individual,” for they signal only that the Act does
not impose liability on perpetrators who act without authority or
color of law of a foreign state. See, e.g.,
H. R. Rep.,
at 5 (“The bill does not attempt to deal with torture or
killing by purely private groups”); S. Rep., at 8 (The bill
“does not cover purely private criminal acts by individuals
or nongovernmental organizations”).
Indeed, although we need not rely on legislative
history given the text’s clarity, we note that the history
only supports our interpretation of “individual.” The
version of the TVPA that was introduced in the 100th Congress
established liability against a “person.” Hearing and
Markup on H. R. 1417 before the House Committee on Foreign
Affairs and Its Subcommittee on Human Rights and International
Organizations, 100th Cong., 2d Sess., 82 (1988). During the markup
session of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, one of the
bill’s sponsors proposed an amendment “to make it clear
we are applying it to individuals and not to corporations.”
at 81, 87. Counsel explained that it was a
“fairly simple” matter “of changing the word
‘person’ to ‘individuals’ in several places
in the bill.” Id.
, at 87–88. The amendment was
unanimously adopted, and the version of the bill reported out of
Committee reflected the change. Id.,
at 88; H. R. Rep.
No. 693, pt. 1, p. 1 (1988). A materially identical
version of the bill was enacted as the TVPA by the 102d Congress.
Although we are cognizant of the limitations of this drafting
history, cf. Exxon Mobil Corp.
v. Allapattah Services,
, 545 U.S.
, 568 (2005), we nevertheless find it telling that the sole
explanation for substituting “individual” for
“person” confirms what we have concluded from the text
Petitioners’ final argument is that the
Act would be rendered toothless by a construction of
“individual” that limits liability to natural persons.
They contend that pre-cluding organizational liability may
foreclose effective remedies for victims and their relatives for
any number of reasons. Victims may be unable to identify the men
and women who subjected them to torture, all the while knowing the
organization for whom they work. Personal jurisdiction may be more
easily established over corporate than human beings. And natural
persons may be more likely than organizations to be judgment proof.
Indeed, we are told that only two TVPA plaintiffs have been able to
re-cover successfully against a natural person—one only after
the defendant won the state lottery. See Jean
431 F.3d 776
, 778 (CA11 2005).
We acknowledge petitioners’ concerns about
the limitations on recovery. But they are ones that Congress
imposed and that we must respect. “[N]o legislation pursues
its purposes at all costs,” Rodriguez
, 480 U.S.
, 525–526 (1987) (per curiam)
petitioners’ purposive argument simply cannot overcome the
force of the plain text. We add only that Congress appeared well
aware of the limited nature of the cause of action it established
in the Act. See, e.g.
, 138 Cong. Rec. 4177 (1992) (remarks
of Sen. Simpson) (noting that “as a practical matter, this
legislation will result in a very small number of cases”);
137 Cong. Rec. 2671 (1991) (remarks of Sen. Specter) (“Let me
emphasize that the bill is a limited measure. It is estimated that
only a few of these lawsuits will ever be brought”).
* * *
The text of the TVPA convinces us that
Congress did not extend liability to organizations, sovereign or
not. There are no doubt valid arguments for such an extension. But
Congress has seen fit to proceed in more modest steps in the Act,
and it is not the province of this Branch to do otherwise. The
judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of
Columbia Circuit is affirmed.
It is so ordered.