Case of the Day: Alimanestianu v. United States
Posted on December 11, 2015
The case of the day is Alimanestianu v. United States (Fed. Cl. 2015). The plaintiffs are relatives of Mihai Alimanestianu, an American citizen who was killed aboard an airplane that exploded over Niger in 1989. The explosion was due to a terrorist act sponsored by the Libyan government.
In 1996, Congress amended the FSIA to eliminate foreign sovereign immunity in cases of personal injury cause by acts of state-sponsored terrorism. In 2002, the plaintiffs sued Libya and several officials. The district court granted a summary judgment in their favor in 2008 for approximately $1.3 billion in damages. Libya and its officials appealed.
On the date Libya appealed, the United States and Libya entered into a claim settlement agreement. Under the agreement, Libya was no longer within the state-sponsored terrorism exception to the FSIA. The agreement also terminated all pending suits, including suits that had gone to judgment but were still on appeal, and precluded future suits alleging Libyan state-sponsored terrorism. The agreement also established a “humanitarian settlement fund,” into which Libya deposited $1.5 billion to compensate US claimants, and the US deposited $300 million to compensate Libyan claimants. The US and Libya agreed, for themselves and their nationals, that the fund would be a full and final settlement of all claims. Congress then enacted the Libyan Claims Resolution Act, which implemented the agreement. The United States then moved to intervene in the Alimanesianu case and moved to vacate the judgment. The Court of Apppeals granted the motion and ordered the district court to dismiss the case with prejudice. The relatives received just over $10 million from the US government from the $1.5 billion contributed by Libya.
The relatives sued the government, claiming that it had effected a taking of their property when it entered into the claim settlement agreement. The government moved to dismiss.
The government’s first argument was that there was no taking because the relatives had no property interest, because the judgment was not final at the time of the claim settlement agreement. The court rejected this argument on the grounds that it was the government’s conduct that prevented the judgment from becoming final. I have to say I’m not sure I really understand this reasoning. If we assume that the a judgment isn’t final until the direct appeal is decided (I’m not sure that’s so in federal practice), then I find the government’s argument persuasive. It seems to me that the plaintiffs’ stronger argument would have been to say that a federal judgment is final even if an appeal is pending, but that’s not how the case was argued.
The government also argued the political question doctrine required a ruling in its favor. Here, the government’s argument was much weaker. As the relatives pointed out, they were not calling into question the President’s power to make such agreements or Congress’s power to terminate their claims. They were just arguing that if the government took such steps, it should have to compensate them.