The government of Venezuela has become a notorious abuser of private property rights, seizing the property of corporations and political opponents without offering any compensation. Unable to obtain redress in Venezuelan courts, property owners with increasing frequency have turned to U.S. courts for compensation. The U.S. Court of Appelas for the Eleventh and D.C. Circuits issued nearly simultaneous decisions earlier this month in suits filed by property owners against Venezuela. While the courts reached facially inconsistent results—the Eleventh Circuit dismissed one property owner’s claim while the D.C. Circuit allowed the claims of another group of property owners to move forward—the two courts sent a similar message. Both courts made clear that while they are reluctant to inquire into the validity of a foreign sovereign’s internal conduct, such judicial restraint does not prevent courts from protecting Americans’ rights when property is taken in clear violation of international law.
Any effort to sue a foreign sovereign in a U.S. court faces a major obstacle: the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). The Supreme Court has held that the FSIA is the sole basis for obtaining jurisdiction over a foreign state in our courts. The statute states explicitly that a foreign state is absolutely immune from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts unless a specific FSIA statutory exemption is applicable. The only exemption potentially available to those whose property has been confiscated is 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(3), which denies immunity in cases “in which rights in property taken in violation of international law are in issue.” The Eleventh and D.C. Circuits agreed that the availability of the § 1605(a)(3) exemption depends to a large extent on whether the plaintiff is a citizen of the foreign state; if so, federal courts are far less willing to exercise jurisdiction. Continue reading