Aldana v. Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A., Inc.

Decision Date13 August 2009
Docket NumberNo. 07-15471.,07-15471.
Citation578 F.3d 1283
PartiesAngel Enrique Villeda ALDANA, Jorge Augustin Palma Romero, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. DEL MONTE FRESH PRODUCE N.A., INC., Bandegua, Compania De Desarrollo De Guatemala, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Brian Joseph Stack, Mindy Lee Pallot, Lazaro Fernandez, Jr., Robert Harris, Stack, Fernandez, Anderson & Harris, P.A., Miami, FL, for Defendants-Appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Before HULL, MARCUS and KRAVITCH, Circuit Judges.

MARCUS, Circuit Judge:

At issue in this appeal is whether the district court abused its considerable discretion in dismissing the appellants' suit on forum non conveniens grounds. The seven appellants (Angel Enrique Villeda Aldana, Jorge Agustin Palma Romero, Oscar Leonel Guerra Evans, Lyionhel McIntosch Rodriguez, Marel Martinez, Gumerzindo Loyo Martinez, and Rigoberto Alvayero Hernandez) allege that they were tortured in retaliation for their leadership of a Guatemalan national labor union in violation of the Alien Tort Act ("ATA") and the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 ("TVPA"). Having extensively analyzed the adequacy of a Guatemalan forum, and the various private and public interests involved in the case, the district court granted appellees' (Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc., Compañía de Desarollo Bananero de Guatemala, S.A. ("Bandegua"), and Del Monte Fresh Produce Company) motion to dismiss. After thorough review, we discern no clear abuse of discretion, and, accordingly affirm.

I. Background
A. Factual Background

The underlying suit in this case arose out of a protracted labor dispute that took place in Guatemala in 1999. At that time, SITRABI, a Guatemalan national trade union of plantation workers, was negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement for workers at a large banana plantation owned by Bandegua, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Del Monte, located in the municipality of Morales, Izabal.

During the negotiations, Bandegua terminated 918 workers. In response, SITRABI filed a complaint in the Labor Court of Guatemala. Thereafter, Bandegua allegedly hired a private armed security force to intimidate the appellants, all of whom were SITRABI officials. Specifically, the complaint alleges that on the evening of October 13, 1999, the security force — consisting of over 200 heavily armed men — arrived at SITRABI's headquarters in Morales. They held two of the appellants hostage, threatening to kill them, and shoving them with guns. As the evening wore on, other SITRABI leaders were lured or forced to come to the union's headquarters, where they, too, were held hostage.

All seven appellants were then harangued by the leader of the security force, who claimed to be the president of the municipal chamber of commerce. He complained that their union activities had caused the economic difficulties that had developed in the area. The mayor of Morales and a mayoral candidate later arrived on the scene. A decision was made to take two of the appellants to a radio station. They claim they were forced at gunpoint to denounce the union, to declare that they were resigning, and to announce that the labor dispute was over.

The two appellants were then taken back to the headquarters, where they were presented with a resignation form allegedly faxed from Del Monte or Bandegua. After signing the forms at gunpoint, the appellants were released. In all, they had been detained for roughly eight hours. They were warned by the leader of the security force that they would be killed if they refused to leave Guatemala or relocate to Mexico. All of the appellants subsequently moved to the United States. As part of an agreement with the Guatemalan government, they were granted political asylum in the United States in exchange for agreeing to testify in Guatemala against their alleged attackers.

B. Relevant Procedural History

We address the lengthy procedural history of this case because it is essential to understanding our resolution of the appeal. The appellants filed their complaint in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida on August 2, 2001. The complaint asserted causes of action for torture under both the Torture Victim Protection Act ("TVPA"), 28 U.S.C. § 1350, and the Alien Tort Act ("ATA") (or the Alien Tort Statute ("ATS")), 28 U.S.C. § 1350.1 They also alleged causes of action arising under the ATA for arbitrary detention, crimes against humanity, and cruel, degrading, and inhumane treatment. In addition, the complaint advanced various claims under Florida's tort laws.

In 2003, the appellees moved to dismiss the case on the grounds of forum non conveniens. The district court denied the motion.2 Villeda Aldana v. Fresh Del Monte Produce, Inc., No. 01-3399, slip op. (S.D. Fla. June 5, 2003). In a subsequent ruling, however, the court dismissed the complaint, holding that the conduct alleged did not amount to torture under the TVPA or ATA, and also because diversity jurisdiction was lacking. Villeda Aldana v. Fresh Del Monte Produce, Inc., 305 F.Supp.2d 1285, 1308 (S.D.Fla.2003). The trial court also declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367. Id.

The appellants appealed the dismissal to this Court, while simultaneously bringing their state law claims in Florida's circuit court in Dade County. Appellees, in turn, moved the state court to dismiss on forum non conveniens grounds. One central point of contention was whether, given the concern for the appellants' safety, they would be required to attend the proceedings if the suit were litigated in Guatemala. After hearing expert testimony from each side, the state court accepted appellees' claim that, under Guatemalan law, the appellants would not be required to return. However, as a precautionary measure, the court said that it would reconsider its dismissal order if the appellants were in fact required to return to Guatemala in connection with the trial. That decision was affirmed by an intermediate appellate court in Florida. Aldana v. Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc., 922 So.2d 212 (Fla.Dist.Ct. App.2006) (table).

In the meantime, a panel of this Court affirmed the district court's dismissal of all of the appellants' claims except the torture claims arising under the Alien Tort Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act. Aldana v. Del Monte Fresh Produce, N.A., Inc., 416 F.3d 1242, 1253 (11th Cir.2005) (per curiam), en banc reh'g denied, 452 F.3d 1284 (11th Cir.2006), cert. denied, 549 U.S. 1032, 127 S.Ct. 596, 166 L.Ed.2d 431 (2006). After the case was remanded to the district court, the appellees again moved to dismiss on forum non conveniens grounds. The matter was referred to a magistrate judge, who, after holding a hearing, issued a Report and Recommendation ("R&R") recommending that the motion be denied.

After reviewing the R&R, however, the district court rejected the magistrate judge's recommendations and granted appellees' motion to dismiss. Villeda Aldana v. Fresh Del Monte Produce, Inc., No. 01-3399-CIV, 2007 WL 3054986, at *1 (S.D.Fla. Oct. 16, 2007). In particular, the district court concluded that it was precluded under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, and by the Full Faith and Credit Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1783, from relitigating issues decided by the state court's forum non conveniens decision. Following the state court's findings where necessary, the district court thus found that each prong of the forum non conveniens inquiry favored dismissal. As we discuss in greater detail below, the district court found that Guatemala afforded the appellants an adequate alternative forum for the resolution of their claims; and that all of the relevant private interest and public interest factors weighed heavily in favor of having the dispute adjudicated in Guatemala. Like the state court, however, the district court added that the dismissal was "without prejudice to Plaintiff's right to seek reconsideration if any of the Plaintiffs are required to appear in person in Guatemala in order to litigate their claims." Id. at *6.

This timely appeal followed.

II. Standards of Review

We review de novo whether the district court erred in failing to adhere to its initial order denying appellees' forum non conveniens motion as the law of the case. Transamerica Leasing, Inc. v. Inst. of London Underwriters, 430 F.3d 1326, 1331 (11th Cir.2005) ("We review application of the law of the case doctrine de novo."); Alphamed, Inc. v. B. Braun Med., Inc., 367 F.3d 1280, 1285 (11th Cir.2004). The question whether to give preclusive effect to a state court's judgment is a question of law, and thus also is reviewed de novo. See, e.g., Far Out Prods., Inc. v. Oskar, 247 F.3d 986, 993 (9th Cir.2001) ("Because deciding whether to apply issue preclusion (also referred to as collateral estoppel) is a question of law, we review de novo a district court's refusal to give a state court judgment preclusive effect.").

It is also well settled in our decisional law that "[w]e may only reverse a district court's dismissal based on forum non conveniens if it constitutes a clear abuse of discretion." Membreno v. Costa Crociere S.p.A., 425 F.3d 932, 935-36 (11th Cir.2005). And it is well settled that abuse of discretion review is "extremely limited" and "highly deferential." In re Clerici, 481 F.3d 1324, 1331 (11th Cir.2007) (United Kingdom v. United States, 238 F.3d 1312, 1319 (11th Cir.2001)); see also Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno, 454 U.S. 235, 257, 102 S.Ct. 252, 70 L.Ed.2d 419 (1981) ("[W]here the court has considered all relevant public and private interest factors, and where its balancing of these factors is reasonable, its decision deserves substantial deference."). Thus, when we employ the abuse of discretion...

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