Wednesday, March 04, 2009

9th Circuit Says Respondeat Superior Claims Can Be Asserted Against Holy See

In Doe v. Holy See, (9th Cir., March 3, 2009), the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals partially affirmed and partially reversed a 2006 Oregon federal district court decision that rejected the Vatican's sovereign immunity claim in a lawsuit against it by a victim of a priest's sexual abuse. (See prior posting.) The 9th Circuit's conclusions were reflected in a per curiam opinion, that was accompanied by a concurrence and a dissent.

The court's controlling opinion first held that while denial of immunity to a foreign sovereign is an appealable order, plaintiff's cross-appeal on whether the claim falls within the commercial activity exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act is not subject to an interlocutory appeal. The court also concluded that "Doe has not alleged sufficient facts to overcome the 'presumption of separate juridical status'" for the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, the Catholic Bishop of Chicago and the Order of the Friar Servants. Thus their acts are not attributable to the Vatican.

In connection with plaintiff's claim against the Vatican for negligent retention, supervision and failure to warn of the abusive priest, the court held that the Holy See is shielded from tort claims because the alleged negligence arose from a discretionary function. However, the court held that the pleadings adequately alleged respondeat superior liability that can be reached under FSIA's tortious act exception:

Doe has clearly alleged sufficient facts to show that his claim is based on an injury caused by an "employee" of the foreign state while acting "within the scope of his . . . employment," as required to come within the FSIA's tortious act exception. § 1605(a)(5).
The case was remanded to the district court for a determination of whether plaintiff can prove these allegations.

Judge Fernandez, concurring, also urged giving the parties additional guidance, saying: "if we had jurisdiction I would not apply the commercial activity exception to this case."

Judge Berzon, dissenting in part, argued that the court has jurisdiction to decide-- and should conclude-- that the commercial activity exception is an alternative ground on appeal on which to affirm the district court's denial of immunity that was based on a different rationale below. Thus she would have permitted plaintiff to proceed with the negligent retention and supervision and the failure to warn claims. She would also have rejected the Vatican's free exercise challenge to jurisdiction, finding that foreign sovereigns are not protected by the First Amendment. AP yesterday reported on the decision. [Thanks to Bob Ritter for the lead.]