Corporate Accountability

Nestlé USA, Inc. v. John Doe I; Cargill, Inc. v. John Doe I

In Nestlé USA, Inc. v. John Doe I and Cargill, Inc. v. John Doe I, the Supreme Court was asked to consider, among other things, whether suits against U.S. corporations under the Alien Tort Statute must be dismissed simply because the defendants are corporations.

Case Summary

The Alien Tort Statute (ATS) allows federal district courts to hear suits challenging “violation[s] of the law of nations.”  Congress passed the ATS at the Founding to ensure the availability of a federal forum to redress violations of international law.

In these cases, Petitioners Nestlé USA, Inc., and Cargill, Inc. allegedly aided and abetted in the perpetration of child slavery by cocoa farmers in the Ivory Coast.  Respondents, former child slaves who were forced to labor on cocoa plantations, sued Nestlé USA and Cargill under the ATS for violating international law.  But Petitioners argued that the cases against them could not proceed simply because they are corporations.

CAC filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Respondents.

Our brief made three key points.  First, our brief argued that the ATS’s plain text allows federal district courts to hear civil actions brought by aliens for torts committed in violation of the law of nations or treaties of the United States.  Significantly, the statute does not distinguish between classes of defendants, and it allows for suits against individuals and corporations alike.  Our brief explained that allowing ATS suits against U.S. corporations is also consistent with Congress’s plan in passing the statute, which, as the Supreme Court has recognized, was “to promote harmony in international relations by ensuring foreign plaintiffs a remedy . . . where the absence of such a remedy might provoke foreign nations to hold the United States accountable.”

Second, our brief argued that permitting suits against domestic corporations for violations of international law is consistent with longstanding principles of corporate personhood.  When Congress passed the ATS, it was understood that corporations could sue to vindicate their legal rights and that they could be sued and held accountable for violating the rights of others.  Exempting domestic corporations from suit under the ATS would undermine these well-established principles.

Finally, our brief explained that there is no corporate exemption from international laws and norms forbidding the enslavement of children.  While the Supreme Court has established a high bar for success in suits brought under the ATS, our brief argued that a court should not dismiss an ATS case simply because the defendant is an American corporation.

In June 2021, the Supreme Court held that Nestlé USA, Inc. and Cargill Inc. could not be sued in U.S. court for allegedly assisting in the perpetration of child slavery because most of the challenged conduct occurred abroad.  The Court did not, however, conclude that the ATS exempts all corporations from suit, as the corporations had urged it to do.  As Justice Gorsuch noted in his concurrence, echoing CAC’s argument, “[t]he notion that corporations are immune from suit under the ATS cannot be reconciled with the statutory text and original understanding.”

Case Timeline

  • October 21, 2020

    CAC files amicus curiae brief

    Sup. Ct. Amicus Br.
  • December 1, 2020

    The Supreme Court hears oral argument

  • June 17, 2021

    The Supreme Court issues its decision