Wednesday, January 22, 2003
World War II Slave Labor Statute Unconstitutional, Court Rules
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
A California law allowing persons who were forced to perform slave labor for private companies during the World War II era to sue for compensation was declared unconstitutional yesterday by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Civil Code Sec. 354.6 is inconsistent with the congressional power over foreign affairs, in particular the war power, Judge Stephen Reinhardt “reluctantly” concluded.
The plaintiffs in the consolidated cases considered by the court, Reinhardt said, suffered “terrible abuses” at the hands of the German and Japanese. But the U.S. government, the appellate jurist explained, “has already exercised its own exclusive authority to resolve the war, including claims arising out of it.”
The federal government ,chose not to grant slave laborers a private right of action Reinhardt said, and it is not within the power of a state to do so. States, he said, are prohibited from “modifying the government’s resolution of war-related disputes.”
Sec. 354.6, enacted in 1999, provides:
“Any Second World War slave labor victim, or heir of a Second World War slave labor victim, Second World War forced labor victim, or heir of a Second World War forced labor victim, may bring an action to recover compensation for labor performed as a Second World War slave labor victim or Second World War forced labor victim from any entity or successor in interest thereof, for whom that labor was performed, either directly or through a subsidiary or affiliate.”
Statutes of Limitations
The statute applies to conduct occurring between 1929 and 1945, revives and extends applicable statutes of limitations through 2010, and allows suit to be brought against any defendant subject to California’s jurisdiction.
Yesterday’s ruling is contrary to last week’s decision of Div. Eight of this district’s Court of Appeal, which upheld the right of action action on the ground that it is against private entities, rather than governments, and is not explicitly precluded by any federal statute or treaty.
The Ninth Circuit decision, predictably, drew negative comments from plaintiffs and their advocates.
Alberto Saldejeno, 82, says he was enslaved by a Japanese company to perform clerical work.
“That’s not fair,” he said of the court’s ruling. “If you didn’t work, you’d be beheaded.”
Saldejeno, along with hundreds of others, sued a host of Japanese concerns, including Mitsui & Co., Mitsubishi Corp., Nippon Steel Corp. and Japan Energy Corp. But U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco dismissed those suits brought by Filipino, Chinese, Korean and American prisoners of war.
Walker, whose decision was upheld yesterday, ruled that the Treaty of Peace signed by the United States and other nations barred Americans from seeking retribution from the companies.
Filipinos could not seek retribution because their home country signed the agreement in 1956, five years after the United States signed the treaty with Japan.
Allowing the suits to proceed could potentially “unsettle half a century of diplomacy” between the nations which signed the treaty, Walker ruled.
Regarding claims by Chinese and Korean prisoners, whose home nations were not bound by the treaty, Walker ruled that the 1999 California law “infringes on the federal government’s exclusive power over foreign affairs.”
The decision also upheld a ruling by U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson of the Central District of California, who dismissed a case brought by a California man enslaved at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
That plaintiff, Josef Tibor Deutsch, alleged he was forced to work for Hochtief AG, a German construction firm.
Deutsch, a Studio City resident, had contended he was stripped of his rights by Hochtief and sued the large German firm along with two U.S. subsidiaries it acquired long after the war.
Last week’s ruling allows Jae Wong Jeong, a Korean-born man who now lives in Los Angeles, to seek back wages, damages and an apology from a Japanese cement company and its successor.
Jeong’s attorney, Barry Fisher, said the issue “could now be headed to the Supreme Court.”
Deutsch’s attorney said he and his client are disappointed with the ruling.
“Unlike the California Court of Appeal, I believe the Ninth Circuit got it wrong,” Nate Kraut said.
Deutsch had said that he and his brother were held by the Nazis at Auschwitz, where they were forced to work 14-hour days for companies including Hochtief. He alleges his brother, Georg, was beaten to death by a civilian employee of Hochtief.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company