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American Airlines Successfully Defends Helms-Burton Act Win

In the first published appellate opinion addressing a lawsuit under the Helms-Burton Act, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the plaintiff failed to satisfy a statutory precondition because he acquired his alleged claim by inheritance outside the permitted time period.

The Helms-Burton Act allows certain U.S. nationals who own claims to property confiscated by the Cuban government to seek damages from persons who "traffic" in the confiscated property. See 22 U.S.C. § 6021 et seq. Although U.S. Presidents had suspended this cause of action ever since Congress enacted the Act in 1996, the Trump administration ended the suspension in May 2019. Thereafter, many plaintiffs filed claims against a variety of defendants.

In Glen v. American Airlines, the plaintiff alleged that the Cuban government confiscated beachfront property from his mother and aunt sometime after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. He further alleged that American Airlines "trafficked" in four hotels later built on the property, by allowing travelers to use an American-branded website to book rooms at the hotels. Under the Act, a plaintiff may not sue based on a claim to property confiscated before the statute was enacted, unless the plaintiff "acquires ownership of the claim before March 12, 1996." The Northern District of Texas dismissed the complaint on several grounds, including finding, under this provision, that the plaintiff acquired his alleged claim to the confiscated property by inheritance after the statutory deadline.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed. Its ruling on appeal is the first published appellate decision addressing a lawsuit under the Act. The court confirmed that the plaintiff failed to "acquire ownership" of his claim before the statutory deadline of March 12, 1996, because he admittedly inherited his claim after that date. Seeking to avoid this provision, the plaintiff had argued that the phrase "acquires ownership" should not include acquisition by inheritance. The court rejected that argument as inconsistent with "the plain text of the statute."

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