D.D.C. Denies Without Prejudice Plaintiff's Request for a Jury Trial on Issue of Damages Under ATCA
Per Mwani v. Bin Ladin, --- F.R.D. ----, 2007 WL 2230910 (D.D.C., August 05, 2007) (NO. CIV A 99-125 CKK):
Plaintiffs argue that because a jury trial on damages must be held after default has been entered where one is "required by any statute of the United States," Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(b)(2) (emphasis added), this statutory element is satisfied by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 38, which was authorized by federal statute though it is not a statute in and of itself. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 38(a), "[t]he right of trial by jury as declared by the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution or as given by a statute of the United States shall be preserved to the parties inviolate." Fed.R.Civ.P. 38(a). Plaintiffs point to no specific statute (as referenced in the text of Rule 38(a)) that guarantees the Parties in this case the right to a trial by jury. Pursuant to the Seventh Amendment, "[i]n Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved." U.S. Const. amend. VII. However, the Supreme Court has interpreted the Seventh Amendment to guarantee the right to a jury trial only where a matter is one that would have been tried in courts of law rather than courts of equity or admiralty in the eighteenth century. See Tull v. United States, 481 U.S. 412, 417-418, 107 S.Ct. 1831, 95 L.Ed.2d 365 (1987).
While no precedent from this circuit exists on this issue, several other circuits (and district court opinions from this and other circuits) have explicitly rejected Plaintiffs' claim that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Seventh Amendment trigger a right to a jury determination of damages with respect to a Rule 55(b) evidentiary motion. Thus, as a logical next step, the Court shall look to the ATCA [Alien Tort Claims Act] first in determining whether the ATCA provides any basis for Plaintiffs' alleged entitlement to a jury determination of damages, and second in exercising its discretion to determine whether damages in the instant case would be more appropriately ascertained via a jury trial or a bench proceeding if a jury trial is not required.
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Plaintiffs asserted (and the Court concluded) that subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' claims lies in the ATCA. The ATCA, in its entirety, reads: "The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 1350. Those claiming jurisdiction under the ATCA must allege facts sufficient to establish that: (1) they are aliens; (2) they are suing for a tort; and (3) the tort in question has been committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States. Plaintiffs' assertion of subject matter jurisdiction withstood this Court's " 'more searching merits-based inquiry [than that required] in a less sensitive arena.' " However, the ATCA is a jurisdictional statute and does not create an independent cause of action, nor does it afford any procedural guidance as to the manner in which damages should be calculated.
In addition, the Court notes that an exhaustive survey of federal cases reveals that a bench (rather than a jury) determination of damages is the norm in cases brought pursuant to the ATCA where default has been entered. This is the case even where the amount of damages is uncertain, where punitive damages are sought, and where the determination of damages is necessarily complicated by choice of law questions. See Doe v. Saravia, 348 F.Supp.2d 1112, 1159 (E.D.Cal.2004) (the court awarded compensatory and punitive damages related to the assassination of an El Salvadorian archbishop after considering the availability of punitive damages under El Salvadorian law); Tachiona v. Mugabe, 234 F.Supp.2d 401, 406, 423 (S.D.N.Y.2002) (after entering default and receiving a report and recommendation from a magistrate judge on the issue of damages, the district court requested additional briefing on choice of law issues with respect to the determination of damages on claims pursuant to the ATCA and ultimately awarded as part of its decision compensatory and punitive damages under the ATCA to Zimbabwe citizens for torture and extrajudicial killings); Paul v. Avril, 901 F.Supp. 330, 331, 335-36 (S.D.Fla.1994) (after the defendant declined to participate in court proceedings, the court granted $41 million in compensatory and punitive damages to six Haitian victims of torture and false imprisonment); Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, 577 F.Supp. 860, 864 (E.D.N.Y.1984) (after entry of default, the court determined an award of damages by "look[ing] first to Paraguayan law in determining the remedy for the violation of international law"). In fact, the complicated choice of law questions accompanying the determination of an appropriate legal basis for a remedy crafted in an ATCA case necessitates court involvement in the determination of damages, at least with respect to any open legal questions.
This case, it seems, is no different from the cases cited above in terms of the necessity of determining the legal basis for a remedy after resolution of complicated choice of law questions. In this case, Plaintiffs (which number in the hundreds) have brought their claims before this Court pursuant to the ATCA for actions that transpired and injury that occurred in Nairobi, Kenya, such that choice of law questions with respect to the assessment and availability of damages are at issue, despite Plaintiffs' apparent assumption that District of Columbia law would provide the legal basis for any court-crafted remedy. As Plaintiffs in this case are not entitled under any statute to a jury determination of damages, the question of whether a jury or bench trial should be held on the issue of damages is a discretionary determination to be made by the Court. As the Court would need more information than that presently before it as to why a jury determination of damages would be appropriate and how it would be practicable considering the number of Plaintiffs in this case and the choice of law questions at issue, the Court shall deny without prejudice Plaintiffs' request for a jury trial rather than a bench trial on the issue of damages.