New California Human Rights Legislation

Amidst all the coverage of California’s new assisted suicide law, it may have been missed that Governor of California Jerry Brown signed important human rights legislation into law over the weekend. Specifically, AB 15 makes several significant changes to California law when it comes to the ability of victims of human rights abuses to obtain civil redress in the state’s courts.

First: The legislation extends the statute of limitations associated with civil actions for human trafficking (defined by California Penal Code§ 236.1) from five years to seven years. (For minors, the statute of limitations is now 10 years from the date the victim attains the age of majority.) These statutory limitations are subject to equitable tolling and estoppel in certain circumstances, such as when the victim is operating under a disability or the defendant has prevented the victim from filing suit in a timely manner. This change follows on the heels of an aggressive state-wide offensive against human trafficking, exemplified by, inter alia, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which requires retail sellers and manufacturers doing business in the state to disclose what efforts they are taking (if any) to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from their direct supply chains. (See this new resource guide issued by Attorney General Kamala Harris to help companies comply with the law.)

Second: The legislation extends the statute of limitation for assault, battery, or wrongful death from two to 10 years if the conduct in question would also constitute certain human rights abuses or a taking of property in violation of international law. (This provision aligns California law with the federal statute of limitations for human rights claims, which is also 10 years.) The operative text sets this higher statute of limitations for cases involving: 

(1) An action for assault, battery, or both, where the conduct constituting the assault or battery would also constitute any of the following:

(A) An act of torture, as described in Section 206 of the [California] Penal Code.

(B) An act of genocide, as described in Section 1091(a) of Title 18 of the United States Code.

(C) A war crime, as defined in Section 2441 of Title 18 of the United States Code.

(D) An attempted extrajudicial killing, as defined in Section 3(a) of Public Law 102-256 [the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA, 28 U.S.C. §1350 note)].

(E) Crimes against humanity.

(2) An action for wrongful death, where the death arises out of conduct constituting any of the acts described in paragraph (1), or where the death would constitute an extrajudicial killing, as defined in [the TVPA].

Crimes against humanity, which do not appear in the federal penal code as I’ve discussed, are defined by the new legislation in keeping with Article 7 of the Statute of the International Criminal Court. AB 15 thus marks one of the few instances in which crimes against humanity are defined within the United States. Other places where crimes against humanity exist in U.S. law:

  • Puerto Rico has a crimes against humanity statute (§ 4934 of the Penal Code), which dates from 2004.
  • Presidential Proclamation 8697 (2011) renders certain human rights abusers—including those who participated in crimes against humanity—ineligible for entry into the United States.

Third: Actions for the taking of property in violation of international law (when the property is present in the United States or is owned or operated by an agency or instrumentality of a foreign state that is engaged in a commercial activity in the United States), are also made subject to a 10-year statute of limitation.

Fourth: Actions seeking benefits under an insurance policy for a claim arising out of the above conduct also benefit from the longer statute of limitation.

Together, these provisions amend § 354 of the California Code of Civil Procedure, which extends statutes of limitations for situations of armed conflict generally as well as for claims involving Holocaust-era art work, insurance or looted assets arising out of the Armenian genocide or the Holocaust, and World War II forced labor. Notwithstanding these provisions, a California choice-of-law provision — which requires California courts to borrow statutes of limitation from the fora in which the cause of action arose — might still apply to block suits that would be barred by a foreign proscription period. This latter borrowing statute does not apply, however, to California citizens or to unlawful acts that occurred in whole or in part within California.

Plaintiffs who prevail in their suits will be awarded attorneys’ fees and costs. A provision that would have revived expired claims was not ultimately enacted.

This statute is consistent with those prognostications surrounding the Supreme Court’s rulings in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain (2004) and Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. (2013) that the next wave of transnational litigation would proceed in state courts, raising issues of federalism, removal jurisdiction, due process, and preemption. 

About the Author(s)

Beth Van Schaack

Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor of Human Rights, Stanford Law School; Former Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the U.S. State Department. All views are her own. Follow her on Twitter (@BethVanSchaack).