March 15, 2020

Federal court dismisses Helms-Burton claim

The US District Court for the Southern District of Florida has dismissed an action brought
 pursuant to Title III of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act, 22 USC §§ 6021-6091, known as the Helms-Burton Act, which creates a private right of action against any person who “traffics” in confiscated Cuban property.  This right of action was frozen until April 2019.

In his complaint, the plaintiff claimed that he inherited agricultural land in Cuba purchased by his grandfather in 1941, and that the Cuban government confiscated this property in 1964.  He sued, Inc. and Susshi International Inc., alleging that they have been selling charcoal produced on his land since 2017. 

The defendants moved to dismiss on the grounds that the plaintiff failed to allege sufficiently that the defendants knowingly and intentionally trafficked in the confiscated property, as required by the statute.  Defendants also argue that the plaintiff had not alleged an actionable ownership interest in the property, and that Susshi’s conduct was lawful and licensed by the US Department of the Treasury.

The district court agreed with the defendants, and dismissed the claim without prejudice on two of the three grounds, to wit:

1.The plaintiff failed to demonstrate when he acquired ownership of the property, when he became a US citizen, and whether and when his grandfather became a US citizen – all pertinent issues under the Helms-Burton Act, which allows actions only by US nationals, and requires proof that ownership preceded enactment of the law in 1996.
2. The plaintiff did not sufficiently allege that the defendants knowingly and intentionally trafficked in the confiscated property.

 The court declined to adjudicate Susshi’s claim that the general license allowing it to sell charcoal, as an itemized good that can be brought into the US under 312 USC § 515.582, constitutes trafficking, noting that the claim is an affirmative defense that cannot be alleged at this stage of the proceedings.