Court Holds Alien Tort Statute Gives Federal Jurisdiction over Child Molestation Suit against Catholic Diocese
Recently, I wrote about the Second Circuit's conclusion that the Alien Tort Statute of 1789 does not confer jurisdiction over corporations or juridical entities, but rather countenances suits against States or individuals for violation of international law. Today, I write about a decision in which a court concluded that it had federal ATS jurisdiction over an individual, and supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining individual and institutional defendants. Doe v. Mahoney, No. CV 10-02902-JST (JEMx), slip op. (C.D. Cal. Feb. 25, 2011).
Last Friday, a federal court in Los Angeles denied a motion to dismiss a child molestation suit against a priest, two Cardinals, and two Catholic Diocese, holding that the Alien Tort Statute provided federal question jurisdiction over the priest, and that it thus had pendent party (or "supplemental" jurisdiction ) over the claims against the Cardinals and the Diocese, which allegedly conspired to conceal and not report the priest's acts.
The complaint alleged that the priest, Father Aguiar, had molested boys in Mexico with the knowledge of the Diocese of Tehuacan and its bishop, who later became a Cardinal. In 1987, that Cardinal, Cardinal Rivera, allegedly recommended Father Aguiar to Cardinal Mahoney in the Diocese of Los Angeles for work in LA. Father Aguiar was transferred, and within the roughly 10 months that he was in Los Angeles, he was accused of molesting at least 26 minors. Employees of the Diocese of Los Angeles are alleged to have aided Father Aguiar's escape to Mexico without informing the police. Nearly 10 years later, Father Aguiar was placed back at the Diocese of Tehuacan, where he allegedly raped and sexually abused the plaintiff, who was 12 at the time.
Plaintiff sued Father Aguiar, as well as Cardinals Rivera and Mahoney and the Diocese of Tehuacan and Los Angeles, alleging, inter alia, rape and sexual abuse, crimes against humanity, torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, civil conspiracy, and negligent supervision. The Los Angeles defendants -- Cardinal Mahoney and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles -- moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1).
The court held that the motion was not properly made under Rule 12(b)(1) because it attacked the sufficiency of the pleadings. Slip op. at 7-8. To the extent it attacked the statute of limitations (ten years), the court held that the law of equitable tolling until the youth reaches capacity and Caifornia's statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse would have made the claims timely.
The court also held that the Alien Tort Statute claims were not frivolous, and thus provided adequate federal question jurisdiction. Slip op. at 12-13. Specifically, the court found that the allegations of crimes against humanity, torture, and cruel and inhuman punishment on the part of Father Aguiar -- coupled with the remaining defendants' "conspiracy to conceal and not report such acts" -- was "sufficient to establish subject matter jurisdiction under the ATS because Plaintiff, an alien, alleges torts committed in violation of customary international law." Slip op. at 13. The court noted that the claims against the defendants other than Father Aguiar derived from the same nucleus of operative fact "and, thus, form part of the same case or controversy." Slip op. at 14. Thus, the court exercised supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining parties.
The court made it plain that it was not testing the adequacy or sufficiency of the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Rather, it was employing the "frivolous" pleading standard of Rule 12(b)(1). Nevertheless, this case presents the possibility that -- outside the Second Circuit -- liability may rest with at least some forms of juridical entities where aiding and abetting liability or conspiracy are pled.