Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 1991 Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) does not apply to organizations or corporations because they do not qualify as “individuals” under the statute. TVPA authorizes a cause of action against “an individual” for acts of torture and extrajudical killing committed under authority of color of law of any foreign nation.
In Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, Azzam Rahim immigrated to the United States in the 1970s and became a naturalized citizen. In 1995, Rahim visited the West Bank and was arrested by Palestinian Authority intelligence officers. He was taken to a prison in Jericho, where he was tortured and ultimately killed. The U.S. Department of State later concluded that Rahim died while in the custody of Palestinian Authority intelligence officers.
In 2005, Rahim’s estate brought an action in federal court against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, asserting claims of torture and extrajudicial killing under the TVPA. The District Court granted the Palestinian Authority’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that “an individual” only extends liability under the statute to natural persons and not to organizations or corporations. The D.C. Circuit affirmed the motion to dismiss on the same grounds.
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, upheld the motion to dismiss. The court explained that courts commonly use “individual” to denote a natural person and distinguish natural persons from corporations. The court also noted that under the Dictionary Act, Congress instructed that “[u]nless the context indicates otherwise . . . the wor[d] ‘person’ . . . include[s] corporations, companies, associations, partnerships, society and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.” The court then interpreted the phrase “as well as” to indicate that “individual” is distinct from corporations and associations. In addition, the court indicated that Congress could potentially use the word “individual” to mean more than a natural person, but there must be some indication that Congress intended a broader meaning. With regards to the TVPA, the court found that there was no indication that Congress intended “individual” to mean anything more than “natural person.”