Absent Proof of Government Ownership on an EEA Sovereign Immunity Defense is All Black and White

By on August 5, 2021
Posted In Trade Secrets

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of a motion to dismiss an indictment, charging four Chinese companies with violations of the criminal provisions of the Economic Espionage Act (EEA) and finding no sovereign immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) in view of the defendant’s commercial activities and failure of proof. United States of America v. Pangang Group Company Ltd. et al., Case No. 19-10306 (9th Cir. July 26, 2021) (Collins, J.)

No company in China had been able to develop a clean and efficient technology to produce titanium dioxide, a white pigment used in products such as paints, sunscreen, lotions, paper and plastics. A group of related Chinese steel companies (collectively, the Pangang companies) wanted to obtain such technology.

In the United States, after many years of research and development, DuPont had managed to develop a process to produce titanium dioxide and was unwilling to sell or license the technology to Chinese companies. Chinese government officials approached US businessman and former DuPont research engineer Walter Liew to obtain DuPont’s trade secrets. Liew agreed to become a corporate spy and managed to gain access to DuPont’s technology. Liew unlawfully transferred the trade secrets to the Pangang companies. The Pangang companies also conspired with unknown computer hackers to access DuPont’s computers to further steal DuPont’s trade secrets.

The Pangang companies were indicted on one count of conspiring to commit economic espionage for the benefit of a foreign government or instrumentality to steal DuPont’s trade secrets and one count of attempting to commit such economic espionage in violation of the EEA. The Pangang companies pleaded not guilty and moved to dismiss a criminal indictment for violations of the EEA, arguing that they were “instrumentalities” of the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and were entitled to sovereign immunity under the FSIA. The district court denied the motion, holding that the Pangang companies were not immune in light of the FSIA’s commercial activity and waiver exceptions. The Pangang companies appealed.

The Ninth Circuit found that the Pangang companies failed to show that they were instrumentalities of a foreign sovereign within the meaning of the FSIA. For a company to be considered a foreign instrumentality under FSIA, a government must own the majority shares in the company. The indictment included several allegations about the ownership structure of the Pangang companies. The indictment alleged that the Pangang Group Company was a “state-owned enterprise controlled by the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council” (SASAC), a “special government agency” of the PRC. The other Pangang companies were alleged to be direct or indirect “subsidiaries” of the Pangang Group Company. The Ninth Circuit found that the allegations, taken as true, affirmatively negated the premise that the other Pangang companies could be considered agencies or instrumentalities of the PRC because the indictment described all three of these entities as being “subsidiaries” of the fourth defendant (i.e., the Pangang Group Company). Because the corporate law concept of a “subsidiary” refers to a company in which the parent “has a controlling share,” the other companies were not directly owned by the foreign state and could not be an instrumentality of a foreign state.

As to the ownership structure of the Pangang Group Company, the indictment alleged that “at all times relevant” the Pangang Group Company was a “state-owned enterprise controlled by SASAC.” The Ninth Circuit found the allegations insufficient to establish a prima facie case that the Pangang Company was an agency or instrumentality of the SASAC because an allegation of “controlled-by” is not enough. The crucial question is whether a “majority of the Pangang Company’s shares or other ownership interest is owned” by SASAC or the PRC. The Court concluded that because the Pangang companies relied solely upon allegations in the indictment and presented no evidence to support their motion to dismiss, they necessarily failed to establish a prima facie case that they were a “foreign state” entitled to immunity under FSIA.

Jodi BenassiJodi Benassi
Jodi Benassi focuses her practice on litigation and investigations. Jodi has experience in federal court district actions in California, Texas, Florida and Michigan and actions before the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) of the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). She has also conducted internal investigations on behalf of audit committees from high profile Fortune 500 organizations to Silicon Valley start-ups. Jodi Benassi's full bio.

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