Mezerhane v. República Bolivariana De Venez., No. 13-14953 (11th Cir. May 7, 2015) [click for opinion]

Plaintiff, a Venezuelan entrepreneur, sued the Republic of Venezuela and several Venezuelan governmental agencies in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, alleging that they engaged in a pattern of persecution against him that included numerous violations of human rights law, expropriation of his property in violation of international law, and other tortious acts. Specifically, Plaintiff alleged that he owned numerous businesses in Venezuela, including media outlets that dissented from viewpoints expressed by the government, and the Venezuelan government retaliated against him by expropriating his assets through illegitimate judicial proceedings and by accusing him of playing a role in the murder of a Venezuelan prosecutor. The district court dismissed Plaintiff's complaint under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act ("FSIA"), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1602-11. Plaintiff appealed.

The FSIA provides that "a foreign state is immune from the jurisdiction of the United States unless an FSIA statutory exemption is applicable." Accordingly, if no statutory exception applies, the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. Plaintiff argued that his complaint fell within the statutory exemption for cases "in which rights in property taken in violation of international law are in issue." In support, he argued that the alleged confiscations of his property violated the American Convention on Human Rights; the U.N. Convention on the Status of Refugees; the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Navigation and Commerce between the United States and Venezuela; and the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. Relying on Fifth Circuit precedent, the Eleventh Circuit rejected Plaintiff's argument, finding that a foreign country's taking of its own national's property does not implicate principles of international law. Thus, it affirmed the district court's determination that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the case.

The court also found that, even if the FSIA exception applied, Plaintiff's action would still be barred by the act of state doctrine. That doctrine is a judicially-created rule of decision that precludes the courts of this country from inquiring into the validity of the public acts a recognized foreign sovereign power committed within its own territory. Plaintiff argued that a Congressional amendment to the rule, providing that United States courts should not decline jurisdiction over cases in which a foreign state's taking was in violation of the principles of international law, required the district court to exercise jurisdiction over his case. The court disagreed for the same reasons it found that the FSIA exception did not apply—international law is not implicated when a foreign sovereign takes its own national's property.