Background on Lawsuit
On November 2, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the suit brought by a class of child laborers who mine cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (“DRC”) against several US tech companies under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (“TVPRA”) and several common law based causes of action. TVPRA allows victims of human trafficking and certain other crimes such as forced labor to bring civil claims against those who knowingly benefitted from these crimes. Here, the complaint was based on two alleged TVPRA violations: forced labor and trafficking with respect to peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude, or forced labor. The complaint alleged that defendants knowingly benefitted from the lithium-ion batteries produced with the cobalt mined by the plaintiffs who were forced to work in dangerous conditions that resulted in numerous injuries. The complaint also contained broad allegations that the US tech industry’s increased demand for lithium-ion batteries resulted in a new wave “of brutal exploitation” in the DRC, one “fueled by greed, corruption and indifference to a population of powerless, starving Congolese people.”
The court held that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring their claims because they did not adequately identify the defendants’ conduct as the cause of the injury they suffered. The court noted that plaintiffs did not assert that Defendants employed any plaintiff. Neither did the plaintiffs allege that defendants owned or operated any of the cobalt mines where plaintiffs worked. Therefore, while acknowledging the harm to Plaintiffs, the court stated that “it takes many analytical leaps to say that the end-purchasers of a fungible metal are responsible for the conditions in which that metal might or might not have been mined, especially when that mining took place thousands of miles away and flowed through many independent companies” before reaching the defendants. The court stated that plaintiffs would have to, at a minimum, assert specific facts to prove each Defendant’s role in the causal chain.
Additionally, the court noted that even if it had jurisdiction over the claims, the plaintiffs did not plead facts sufficient to show that defendants violated the TVPRA. To recover under Section 1595 (the provision that allows for civil recovery under the TVPRA), one must show that defendants “knowingly benefit[ted]” from “participation in a venture” which violated the TVPRA and which the defendants knew or should have known engaged in such a violation. The court concluded that a global supply chain is not a venture, and thus plaintiffs did not present enough facts from which it could be inferred that defendants were part of “some cobalt-gathering venture.” Further, the court noted that the plaintiffs’ allegations showed that their decision to start a career in cobalt-mining was due to economic necessity and not coercion on the part of defendants, and in any case, Section 1595 of the TVPRA would not apply because there is no clear indication from its language that it has extraterritorial reach.
Lastly, the court noted that in addition to failing to specify the state law governing the common law claims of unjust enrichment, negligent supervision, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, the plaintiffs also did not adequately plead facts to prove, among other things, any connection between defendants and the plaintiffs or their injuries under general tort law principles.
Implications of the Decision for Corporations
The decision is a victory for the tech companies. It demonstrates the difficulties that potential plaintiffs could face with establishing standing. While in this case, the court stated that Section 1595 of the TVPRA may not be applied extraterritorially as a matter of statutory interpretation, this statement is dicta. Other district courts have reached the opposite conclusion. For example, in a California case related to alleged forced labor in Thai seafood factories that supplied the seafood to a US manufacturer, the court refused to dismiss the complaint and held that Section 1595 applies extraterritorially. However, there, the defendants included the entire supply chain — the US manufacturer, the companies that ran the Thai factories, and the company that transported the seafood to the US. Therefore, contrary to the DC district court’s finding, the California court found that the plaintiffs’ allegation that defendants were a part of a “joint venture” was sufficient to survive the motion to dismiss. At the same time, in its ruling on the motion for summary judgment, the court refused to “expand the reach of extraterritorial jurisdiction to offenses wholly occurring in foreign countries, exclusively involving foreign victims, and that were perpetrated by foreign offenders who never set foot in the United States.” Therefore, had the facts of the case brought by the child laborers from the DRC been different (i.e., had there been more of a connection between the mines and the defendants, or had there been evidence that the defendants knew of the problematic labor practices), the DC district court may have also decided in favor of extraterritorial application of Section 1595. Companies with global supply chains should therefore continue to monitor and oversee compliance with applicable laws and regulations, including those which prohibit involvement in human rights abuses.