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On November 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s order denying a private Israeli company’s motion to dismiss claims based on foreign sovereign immunity. The Israeli company (defendant) designs and licenses surveillance technology to governments and government agencies for national security and law enforcement purposes. According to the opinion, the defendant markets and licenses a product that allows law enforcement and intelligence agencies to covertly intercept messages, take screenshots, or extract information such as a mobile device’s contacts or history. The plaintiffs (a messaging company and global social media company) sued the defendant claiming it sent malware through the messaging company’s server system to approximately 1,400 mobile devices to gather users’ information in violation of state and federal law, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the California Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act. The defendant moved to dismiss, claiming foreign sovereign immunity protected it from the suit. The defendant further contended that even if the plaintiffs’ allegations were true, it was “acting as an agent of a foreign state, entitling it to ‘conduct-based immunity’—a common-law doctrine that protects foreign officials acting in their official capacity.” The district court disagreed, ruling that common-law foreign official immunity does not protect the defendant in this case because the defendant “failed to show that exercising jurisdiction over [the defendant] would serve to enforce a rule of law against a foreign state.”
Although the 9th Circuit agreed with the district court that the defendant, as a private company, is not entitled to immunity, the panel affirmed on separate grounds. The 9th Circuit based its determination instead on the fact that “the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA or Act) occupies the field of foreign sovereign immunity as applied to entities and categorically forecloses extending immunity to any entity that falls outside the FSIA’s broad definition of ‘foreign state.’” Among other things, the 9th Circuit rejected the defendant’s claim that because governments use its technology it is entitled to the immunity extended to sovereigns. “Whatever [the defendant’s] government customers do with its technology and services does not render [the defendant] an ‘agency or instrumentality of a foreign state,’ as Congress has defined that term,” the appellate court wrote. In contrast to the district court, the 9th Circuit rejected the defendant’s argument that it could claim foreign sovereign immunity under common-law immunity doctrines that apply to foreign officials (i.e., natural persons), finding that “Congress [had] displaced common-law sovereign immunity doctrine as it relates to entities.”
On October 22, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a district court’s ruling against a Turkish state-owned commercial bank (defendant) denying its bid for immunity based on its characterization of an “instrumentality” of a foreign service, which is not entitled to immunity from criminal prosecution at common law. The U.S. government alleged that the bank converted Iranian oil money into gold and hid the transactions as purchases of goods to avoid conflicting sanctions against Iran. The district court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss and partially concluded that the defendant was not immune from prosecution because the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) confers immunity on foreign services only in civil proceedings. Furthermore, the district court concluded that, “even assuming arguendo that FSIA did confer immunity to foreign sovereigns in criminal proceedings, [the defendant’s] conduct would fall within FSIA’s commercial activity exception.” Additionally, the district court rejected the defendant’s “contention that it was entitled to immunity from prosecution under the common law, noting that [the defendant] failed to cite any support for its claim on this basis.” The district court found that the defendant’s characterization of its activities as sovereign in nature “conflates the act with its purpose,” finding that the lender's alleged money laundering was the type of activity regularly carried out by private businesses. The fact that the defendant is majority-owned by the Turkish Government is irrelevant under FSIA even if it is related to Turkey’s foreign policy because “literally any bank can violate sanctions.”
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit noted that it was unnecessary to resolve a question presented in the case—if foreign governments can assert immunity against criminal, as well as civil, charges—since money laundering would qualify as a commercial activity exception. The appellate court noted that, “[t]he gravamen of the Indictment is not that [the bank] is the Turkish Government’s repository for Iranian oil and natural gas proceeds in Turkey,” but that “it is [the bank’s] participation in money laundering and other fraudulent schemes designed to evade U.S. sanctions that is the ‘core action.’” And, “because those core acts constitute ‘an activity that could be, and in fact regularly is, performed by private-sector businesses,’ those acts are commercial, not sovereign, in nature.” The opinion also notes that “[e]ven assuming the FSIA applies in criminal cases—an issue that we need not, and do not, decide today—the commercial activity exception to FSIA would nevertheless apply to [the defendant’s] charged offense conduct.” The appellate court agreed with the district court, concluding that the bank must face criminal charges in the U.S. for allegedly assisting Iran evade economic sanctions by laundering approximately $20 billion in Iranian oil and gas revenues.