Jones Day Wins Dismissal of Helms-Burton Act Lawsuit Alleging Unlawful Use of Havana's International Airport
The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissed a Helms-Burton lawsuit alleging that American Airlines unlawfully used a Cuban airport confiscated by the Castro government following the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Title III of the Helms-Burton Act ("HBA"), 22 U.S.C. § 6021 et seq., provides a cause of action allowing certain U.S. nationals who own claims to property confiscated by the Castro government to seek damages from persons who subsequently "traffic" in the confiscated property. The HBA defines "traffic" broadly to include knowingly and intentionally engaging in a commercial activity using or benefiting from confiscated property. After its enactment in 1996, U.S. presidents consistently suspended the HBA cause of action. But in May 2019, the Trump Administration ended the suspension, and numerous plaintiffs thereafter filed claims under the HBA.
In a recent decision dismissing an HBA lawsuit, López Regueiro v. American Airlines, Inc., No. 19-23965-CIV (S.D. Fla. June 30, 2022), the district court agreed with Jones Day’s arguments that (1) the property at issue in an HBA lawsuit must have been confiscated from a U.S. national, and (2) an HBA plaintiff must have been a U.S. national when he acquired his claim to the property or at least before the HBA's enactment date, March 12, 1996.
The case presented many novel issues of law and fact. The plaintiff alleged that American Airlines "trafficked" in a Cuban airport by operating flights between Miami and Cuba. He further claimed that the Castro regime confiscated the airport from a Cuban company owned by his father, which the plaintiff allegedly then inherited decades later. But the plaintiff's father was a Cuban national at the time the property was allegedly confiscated and until his death, and the plaintiff did not become a U.S. national until after March 12, 1996. The Southern District of Florida adopted a magistrate judge's report and recommendation in relevant part and dismissed the López Regueiro complaint on those two bases.
First, as reflected throughout Congress's stated purpose and findings in the HBA, the HBA creates a judicial remedy only with regard to property confiscated from U.S. nationals. The "plain language" of the HBA "affords no broader construction." Because the airport was allegedly confiscated from a Cuban company owned by a Cuban national, the HBA does not provide a cause of action for alleged trafficking in the airport.
Second, for property confiscated before the HBA's enactment date—March 12, 1996—the HBA requires a plaintiff to have been a U.S. national at the time of confiscation or at least before the enactment date. That requirement flows both from the HBA's reference to "such national" acquiring a claim as of that date and from clear legislative history reflecting Congress's intent to prevent foreign nationals from relocating to the United States solely to take advantage of the HBA remedy. As a result, because the plaintiff was not a U.S. national before the HBA's enactment date, he could not bring an HBA lawsuit for alleged trafficking in the airport. This is the first time a court has relied on this ground as a basis for dismissing an HBA suit.
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