The descendants of Armenian Genocide victims won a significant victory Friday when a federal appeals court ruled that they should be allowed to sue to recoup unpaid insurance benefits related to the atrocity.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals vacates the same panel's August 2009 ruling that lawsuits filed in state court were an unconstitutional intrusion into federal authority.
In 2003, Vazken Movsesian, a priest at St. Peter Armenian Church in Glendale, and thousands of other heirs of the 1.5 million Armenians killed between 1915 and 1923, sued several insurers in Los Angeles County Superior Court. They claimed breach of contract against the insurers for failing to pay descendants of genocide victims who bought policies between 1875 and 1923.
The lawsuits were filed under authority of a state law sponsored years ago by Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) when he served in the state Senate.
Two insurance companies, New York Life Insurance Co. and AXA, S.A., previously agreed to settle the cases for $37.5 million, according to Brian Kabateck, an attorney for Movsesian and others.
The case, Movsesian vs. Victoria Verischerung, has continued against two German insurance companies.
"It's the first time that an appellate court has recognized in such detail all of the efforts of genocide [recognition] in one place, and as a practical matter it gives the ability to seek reparations," said Mark Geragos, a lead attorney for the case and resident of La Cañada Flintridge.
Lawsuits have also been filed against a bank and the Republic of Turkey, said Geragos, and others may follow before the end of the year.
"I've argued for a long time the real 'R' word now should not be 'recognition,' it should be 'reparations,' making this case ground zero for the Armenian movement and cause," Geragos said.
Last year, the federal court panel said the lawsuit should be tossed out because only the federal government, not states, can craft policies that affect foreign affairs. But the court subsequently agreed to rehear the case, and on Friday, the panel voted 2-1 to reverse its 2009 decision, with Judge Dorothy Nelson changing her opinion.
"The whole argument as previously formulated is somewhat nonsensical. They were calling inaction [by Congress to officially recognize the genocide] a negative action. Nobody disputes the fact that a million and a half Armenians were slaughtered, except maybe Turkey and their agents," said Geragos.
Noting that Congress has several times failed to act on resolutions recognizing the Armenian Genocide — including past and pending resolutions authored by Schiff — the court said the federal government has failed to establish a policy and the families are free to sue in state court.
"While some 40 states recognize the Armenian Genocide, the federal government has never expressed any opposition to any such recognition," Judge Harry Pregerson wrote in his majority opinion. Considering…federal inaction in the face of explicit state support for such recognition, we cannot conclude that a clear, express federal policy forbids the state of California from using the term 'Armenian Genocide.'"
In his dissent, Judge David Thompson cited numerous comments from presidents of the United States, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, acknowledging the atrocities. He said the federal government has effectively weighed in and that California law should be preempted.
Schiff and Gov.-elect Jerry Brown, then state attorney general, had filed legal briefs in support of Movsesian.
"I welcome the decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse its previous ruling and conclude that there is no express federal policy forbidding states from speaking truthfully about the Armenian Genocide," said Schiff in a prepared statement. "The decision on Friday marks a renewed opportunity for descendants of genocide-era victims and survivors to pursue their rightful claims, and is a step in the right direction for widespread recognition of the genocide."
In addition to ongoing efforts for federal recognition of the Armenian Genocide, Schiff has entered testimony by numerous genocide survivors into the Congressional Record.
"This decision transcends the mere question of whether you can file a lawsuit relating to the Armenian Genocide," Kabateck said. "The 9th Circuit says states can redress the genocide and can enact laws regarding the genocide because the federal government has not occupied the field."
Neil Soltman, an attorney for the insurance firms, could not be reached.
Armenian National Committee of America Advisory Board member Zanku Armenian, a Glendale resident, said the ruling should help spur Congress to act on a genocide recognition resolution.
"The 9th Circuit decision supports states' rights to speak truthfully about the genocide and allows [victims] to pursue their claims," he said. "It is now time for the U.S. government to get aligned with the truth."