Doe v. Exxon Mobil Corp.

Decision Date12 January 2007
Docket NumberNo. 05-7162.,05-7162.
Citation473 F.3d 345
PartiesJohn DOE, Village A, Aceh, Indonesia, et al., Appellees v. EXXON MOBIL CORPORATION, et al., Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 01cv01357).

Martin J. Weinstein argued the cause for appellants. With him on the briefs were Robert J. Meyer and Paul W. Wright.

Agnieszka M. Fryszman argued the cause for appellees. With her on the brief were Michael D. Hausfeld, Marka Peterson, and Terry Collingsworth.

Before: SENTELLE and KAVANAUGH, Circuit Judges, and EDWARDS, Senior Circuit Judge.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge SENTELLE.

Dissenting opinion filed by Circuit Judge KAVANAUGH.

SENTELLE, Circuit Judge.

Exxon Mobil Corporation and several of its wholly-owned subsidiaries (hereinafter "Exxon") appeal from a district court order denying their motion to dismiss. Exxon argues that the district court should have granted the motion to dismiss because the plaintiffs' claims are non-justiciable political questions. We need not reach the merits of Exxon's arguments because we do not have jurisdiction over this appeal. In the alternative, Exxon has requested that we treat its appeal as a petition for a writ of mandamus compelling the district court to dismiss these claims. We deny this petition because Exxon has not established a "clear and indisputable" right to have the plaintiffs' claims dismissed.


Pursuant to a contract with the Indonesian government, Exxon operates a large natural gas extraction and processing facility in the Aceh province of Indonesia. The plaintiffs-appellees are eleven Indonesian villagers from Aceh who allege that Exxon's security forces committed murder, torture, sexual assault, battery, false imprisonment, and other torts. Plaintiffs allege that these security forces were comprised exclusively of members of the Indonesian military, and that Exxon retained these soldiers as guards for the natural gas facility even though Exxon was aware that the Indonesian army had committed human rights abuses in the past. Plaintiffs also allege that these security forces acted under the "direction and control" of Exxon, and that Exxon provided "weapons, funding, military equipment, and other supplies" to these soldiers.

On June 11, 2001, the plaintiffs sued Exxon and PT Arun LNG Company (an unrelated entity) in United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Plaintiffs sought relief under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victims Protection Act. They also brought common law tort claims for wrongful death, assault, battery, arbitrary arrest and detention, false imprisonment, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligence (in hiring and supervision), and conversion. Their complaint seeks compensatory and punitive damages, declaratory relief, attorneys' fees, and an injunction prohibiting the defendants from engaging in similar conduct in the future. The defendants did not answer the complaint; rather, in October 2001, they moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the plaintiffs' claims are non-justiciable political questions.

While the motion to dismiss was pending, the district court solicited the State Department's opinion about whether adjudication of the plaintiffs' claims would interfere with U.S. foreign policy interests. On July 29, 2002, the Legal Adviser to the State Department filed a letter with the district court stating that this litigation "would in fact risk a potentially serious adverse impact on significant interests of the United States." In particular, the State Department was concerned that this suit would harm relations with Indonesia— a key ally in the war on terrorism—and that it would discourage foreign investment in Indonesia. However, the letter also stated that these potential effects on U.S.-Indonesian relations "cannot be determined with certainty." The letter noted that:

Much of this assessment is necessarily predictive and contingent on how the case might unfold in the course of litigation. E.g., the nature, extent, and intrusiveness of discovery; the degree to which the case might directly implicate matters of great sensitivity to the Government of Indonesia ["GOI"] and call for judicial pronouncements on the official actions of the GOI with respect to the conduct of its military activities in Aceh; the effect that a decision in favor of plaintiffs might encourage secessionist activities in Aceh and elsewhere in Indonesia; whether the case were to go to a jury and, if so whether a substantial monetary award were to be imposed on Exxon Mobil; how other large commercial interests might interpret such a judgment when making investment decisions in Indonesia.

The State Department also attached a letter from the Indonesian ambassador stating that Indonesia "cannot accept" a suit against an Indonesian government institution, and that U.S. courts should not be adjudicating "allegations of abuses of human rights by the Indonesian military." In July 2005, the State Department filed another letter expressing "concerns" about the initial discovery plan in this case; the plaintiffs' proposed discovery plan of May 16, 2005 involved relatively broad discovery that could extend to documents located in Indonesia.

On October 14, 2005, the district court issued an opinion and order granting in part and denying in part the motion to dismiss. Doe v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 393 F.Supp.2d 20 (D.D.C.2005). First, the district court dismissed all of the plaintiffs' claims under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act for failure to state a claim and for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Id. at 24-28. These rulings are not challenged on appeal. Second, the district court dismissed all remaining claims against defendant PT Arun LNG Company, an entity that was 55% owned by the Indonesian government. Id. at 28. The court held that allowing litigation against this corporation would "create a significant risk of interfering in Indonesian affairs." Id. This ruling also is not challenged on appeal. Third, the district court denied Exxon's motion to dismiss the common law tort claims, holding that these claims did not present a non-justiciable political question. Id. at 29. However, the court emphasized that even though these claims were not dismissed, the parties must "tread cautiously" and conduct discovery "in such a manner so as to avoid intrusion into Indonesian sovereignty." Id. To that end, the district court stated that it would exercise "firm control over any discovery conducted by plaintiffs." Id. The court concluded by noting:

The issues and parties in this case have been tailored to a narrower question: did U.S. corporations in their effort to secure their pipeline in Indonesia violate U.S. state tort law? Litigation and discovery on this issue, if conducted with care, should alleviate the State Department's concerns about interfering with Indonesia's sovereign prerogatives while providing a means for plaintiffs to obtain relief through their garden-variety tort claims. It should be feasible, for instance, for plaintiffs to perpetuate testimony and satisfy document discovery requirements outside Indonesia.

Id. at 29-30.

Exxon filed an interlocutory appeal, contending that the district court should have dismissed the plaintiffs' common law tort claims as non-justiciable political questions.


Before we can consider the merits of Exxon's political question arguments, we must determine whether we have jurisdiction to hear this appeal. See, e.g., Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 94-95, 118 S.Ct. 1003, 140 L.Ed.2d 210 (1998) ("The requirement that jurisdiction be established as a threshold matter `spring[s] from the nature and limits of the judicial power of the United States' and is `inflexible and without exception.'") (quoting Mansfield, C. & L.M.R. Co. v. Swan, 111 U.S. 379, 382, 4 S.Ct. 510, 28 L.Ed. 462 (1884)). We hold that Exxon's appeal does not fall within the narrow "collateral order" doctrine, and thus it must be dismissed for want of jurisdiction.


Our appellate jurisdiction is defined by statute as follows: "The courts of appeals (other than the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit) shall have jurisdiction of appeals from all final decisions of the district courts of the United States . . . except where a direct review may be had in the Supreme Court."1 28 U.S.C. § 1291. In general, a "final decision" is a district court order that "ends the litigation on the merits and leaves nothing for the court to do but execute the judgment." Catlin v. United States, 324 U.S. 229, 233, 65 S.Ct. 631, 89 L.Ed. 911 (1945). However, the Supreme Court has held that the phrase "final decision" also encompasses a "small class" of district court orders that do not necessarily conclude the litigation, but do "finally determine claims of right separable from, and collateral to, rights asserted in the action." Cohen v. Beneficial Indus. Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541, 546, 69 S.Ct. 1221, 93 L.Ed. 1528 (1949). Such orders are "too important to be denied review and too independent of the cause itself to require that appellate consideration be deferred until the whole case is adjudicated." Id. Courts have subsequently identified three requirements for invocation of the "collateral order doctrine." In order to be immediately appealable, the order must: (1) "conclusively determine the disputed question"; (2) "resolve an important issue completely separate from the merits of the action"; and (3) "be effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment." Coopers & Lybrand v. Livesay, 437 U.S. 463, 468, 98 S.Ct. 2454, 57 L.Ed.2d 351 (1978). See also United States v. Philip Morris, Inc., 314 F.3d 612, 617 (D.C.Cir. 2003).

In applying this three-factor test, the Supreme Court h...

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