Jam v. International Finance Corp.

Justia Summary

The 1945 International Organizations Immunities Act (IOIA) grants international organizations the “same immunity from suit . . . as is enjoyed by foreign governments,” 22 U.S.C. 288a(b). At that time, foreign governments were entitled to virtually absolute immunity as a matter of international comity. In 1952, the State Department adopted a more restrictive theory, codified in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), 28 U.S.C. 1602, which gives foreign sovereign governments presumptive immunity from suit, subject to exceptions, including an exception for actions based on commercial activity with a sufficient nexus with the U.S. IFC, an IOIA international organization, borrowed from Coastal (based in India) to finance the construction of a coal-fired power plant in Gujarat. Petitioners sued IFC, claiming that pollution from the plant harmed the surrounding air, land, and water. The Third Circuit affirmed a holding that the IFC was immune from suit under the IOIA.

The Supreme Court reversed. The IOIA affords international organizations the same immunity from suit that foreign governments enjoy today under the FSIA. The “same as” formulation makes international organization immunity and foreign sovereign immunity continuously equivalent. The Court noted other statutes that use similar language to place groups on equal footing. IOIA’s reference to the immunity enjoyed by foreign governments is to an external body of potentially evolving law. The fact that the President can modify otherwise applicable immunity rules is compatible with those rules changing over time in light of developments in the law governing foreign sovereign immunity. The Court noted the State Department’s position that immunity rules of IOIA and FSIA were linked following FSIA’s enactment and that an international organization’s charter can always specify a different level of immunity.