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Schuler v. Rainforest Alliance, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Vermont

February 12, 2016



Christina Reiss, Chief Judge United States District Court

Pending before the court is a motion for judgment on the pleadings filed by Defendant Rainforest Alliance, Inc. ("RA"). RA seeks judgment as a matter of law in its favor on all claims set forth in the First Amended Complaint filed by Plaintiffs Alain Pascal Bernard Galley Schuler and Jean Christian Philippe Galley Schuler (the "Galleys"). The grounds for RA's motion are twofold. First, RA requests that the court decline jurisdiction pursuant to the doctrine of international comity. Second, RA asks that the Galleys' negligence, defamation, and slander of title claims be dismissed for failure to state a claim.

The Galleys oppose the motion, arguing that international comity should not bar this court's jurisdiction and asserting that they have alleged plausible claims for relief. In adjudicating the pending motion, the Galleys have requested the court to take judicial notice of thirteen exhibits which supplement or provide context for the factual allegations set forth in their First Amended Complaint. Pursuant to an Entry Order Granting in Part and Denying in Part Plaintiffs' Request for Judicial Notice dated February 10, 2016 (Doc. 66), the court took judicial notice of certain facts which are incorporated herein.

The court heard oral argument on RA's motion on October 13, 2015. Thereafter, the court permitted supplemental briefing on the issues of whether this court is authorized to determine title to real estate located in Mexico, whether all or some of the Galleys' claims must be adjudicated in accordance with Mexican law, and whether this court should take judicial notice of certain information submitted by the Galleys. This supplemental briefing was completed on January 27, 2016.

RA is represented by Robert S. DiPalma, Esq. The Galleys are represented by Ann L. Al-Bahish, Esq. and Thomas P. Aicher, Esq.

I. The First Amended Complaint and RA's Answer.

A. The Parties.

The Galleys[1] are foreign nationals who, since 1992, have owned five contiguous parcels, consisting of approximately 8, 076 acres/3, 268.41 hectares, in Campeche, Mexico (the "Galley Property"). They allege that they "purchased this land for commercial reasons and to gain economic benefit from the land" and that the deeds for the Galley Property "are properly filed in the Public Registry of Property and Commerce in Campeche, Mexico." (Doc. 22 at 4, ¶ 17.)

RA is a global nonprofit corporation which is registered to do business in Vermont and which has its "Forestry Headquarters" in Richmond, Vermont. RA is accredited to perform Forest Stewardship Council ("FSC") sustainability and certification analyses and is in the business of providing landowners with independent certification services for forestry operations and products. The Galleys allege that RA "is the leading certifier for the FSC Forest Management Certification." Id. at ¶ 16. The Galleys further assert that, at all relevant times, RA transacted business within the State of Vermont and published the alleged defamatory statements here.

In addition to their claims against RA, the Galleys originally alleged claims against Defendant Forest Stewardship Council-US, which is the trade name for a nonprofit organization that does business in Vermont, and against Defendant U.S.

Working Group, Inc., which is a nonprofit organization that owns the Forest Stewardship Council-US. The Galleys refer to these Defendants collectively as "FSC" and allege that FSC "is a national office of the internationally headquartered Forest Stewardship Council, A.C., which sets global standards for forest management and promotes the marketing of certified products and products that come from certified forests." Id. at 2, ¶ 6. The Galleys allege that "FSC, together with related entities, directs and supervises certifiers' application of the FSC standards" and "promotes entities that have received FSC certifications and/or the right to use the FSC logo." Id. at 3, ¶14. The Galleys have voluntarily dismissed FSC without prejudice.

B. The Mexican Land Dispute.

On or about April 13, 2003, non-party Agropecuaria Santa Genoveva, S.A.P.I. de C.V. ("AGSA"), which owns property adjacent to the Galley Property, allegedly entered the Galley Property without notice or permission and took possession and control of over 1, 547.11 hectares (approximately 3, 823 acres) (the "Disputed Parcel"). In response, on April 16, 2003, the Galleys filed two lawsuits in Mexico; one against AGSA and the other against Consorcio Agroindustrial Guepell, S.A. de C.V. ("CAG") to recover possession of the Disputed Parcel. The two lawsuits were consolidated into a single action (the "Trespass Action").

On January 15, 2010, the Mexican trial court issued a decision in the Trespass Action (the "2010 Order").[2] The 2010 Order Concludes that the Galleys failed to prove that CAG was in possession of the Disputed Parcel and that "the suit for recovery of possession [by the Galleys] is declared inadmissible" and that "therefore, [CAG] is acquitted of all compensation claimed by the plaintiff." (Doc. 36-17 at 14.)

With regard to AGSA, the 2010 Order provides in relevant part:
... we proceed to the study of the main action in this proceeding, taking into consideration that the suit for recovery of possession is incumbent on [the party] who does not have possession of the thing owned ... [to] prove: a). - Ownership of the property in this suit; b). - Possession by the respondent of the property pursued, and c). - Its identity, that is, there can be no doubt as to the thing it is intended to recover and to which lawsuit supporting documents make reference to, specifying location, area and boundaries, facts demonstrated by any of the evidence acknowledged by law. Once the elements in the suit for recovery of possession have been identified, we will analyze each of them to determine whether the plaintiff properly credited said elements. Regarding the FIRST ELEMENT (ownership of that which is claimed), [the Galleys] ... are the owners of the properties stated in their corresponding deeds. .. . However, although with the aforementioned title deeds, the plaintiff certified as to owning the property mentioned in said deeds, for the suit for recovery of possession at issue, we should indicate that the respondent presented, as a defense, the categorical denial of the alleged invasion of measurements of which plaintiff complains, arguing completely opposite facts, as he states as important argument, that there are flaws in the original title deeds covering the areas of land claimed by the plaintiff, by virtue of which the plaintiff omits the exact location of their properties, and that. . . there is a topographical surveying .. . producing a surplus of 1, 601-77-00 hectares, in favor of [CAG] no document determines where the surplus is located, so the question arises as to the property it is intended to recover possession of in the suit, and also as to the authenticity of the lawsuit supporting documents. As a preface, it should be noted that, as can be seen, there are a number of contradictions between what is intended by the plaintiff, based on his respective property titles, and what is opposed by the respondent; and that given the magnitude of the area in litigation, and the visible differences with respect to the exact location to date of the land that was split up, its boundaries, adjacencies, directions, among others, [more evidence is needed.]
* * *

[In light of the dispute, the parties offered expert evidence which is described.] In accordance with said expert opinions it is appraised that it was not possible to locate the areas that are covered by the property titles exhibited by the plaintiff, due to the incongruity that, given the directions the title deeds reveal, margins of error were found to exist outside the angular and linear tolerance, errors affecting their areas, perimeters and, hence, their geometric shape, except for property Tucan 1.

* * *

[I]n this case, we have [the] property titles displayed by the plaintiff, in their capacity of foundational property titles for the action for recovery of possession, do not correspond to the area of land he claims the respondent has in his possession.

* * *

In turn, regarding the property Tucan 1, . . . [i]t can be seen . . . that in no way was the material occupation that is claimed against the neighboring property shown[.] . . . Under these circumstances, we have that in the specific case of Tucan 1, the alleged possession by the company named [AGSA] was not proven, as the second constituent element of the suit for recovery of possession; it is therefore meaningless, to initiate the study of these elements, with regard to the rest of the properties claimed by the plaintiff[.]

* * *

For the reasons and legal considerations set forth, and by failing to demonstrate the elements of the suit for recovery of possession, the claim for recovery of possession is dismissed, the suit brought on by [the Galleys] against [AGSA and others], and, therefore the respondent is hereby absolved of all compensation claimed by the plaintiff.

Id. at 18-24 (emphasis supplied).

The Galleys allege that the 2010 Order "proved that they were the owners of the property stated in their deeds, " (Doc. 22 at 5, ¶ 23), but acknowledge that the Mexican trial court found that the Galleys "had not met their burden to prove all of the elements of the Trespass Action." Id. at 6, ¶ 24. The Galleys appealed the 2010 Order, which was affirmed by a Mexican appellate court. They point out that although the Mexican courts did not find they had title to the Disputed Parcel, those courts also did not affirmatively find that AGSA owned it.

The Galleys allege that AGSA submitted to RA a "2011 Mexico Court Order titled 'Amparo directo 48/2011 en materia civil'" (the "2011 Order") regarding the Disputed Parcel, and that the "2011 Order likewise did not hold that AGSA is the legal owner of the [Disputed Parcel]" and that AGSA "wrongfully claimed that the Order proved that it owned the [Disputed Parcel], and [RA] accepted that claim without performing any due diligence to verify its veracity." Id. at 5-6, ¶¶ 23-24.

C. RA's Certification of the Disputed Parcel.

In 2006, AGS A initiated the process of obtaining FSC Forest Management Certification ("FSC certification") from RA. On or about November 6, 2006, Plaintiff Alain Pascal Bernard Galley Schuler notified RA and Forest Stewardship Council, A.C. that he opposed FSC certification because AGSA's request for certification included the Disputed Parcel and because AGSA's forestry operations did not comply with FSC principles. Notwithstanding his objection, on or about August 28, 2009, RA issued its first FSC Forest Management Certificate to AGSA for property AGSA purportedly owned in Campeche, Mexico. This Certificate did not include the Disputed Parcel and was valid for five years with annual audits. The Galleys do not identify any false or defamatory statements in this initial FSC certification, which is available on FSC's website.

FSC Principles and Criteria for Forest Stewardship ("FSC Principles") provide that "[f]he goal of FSC is to promote environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world's forests, by establishing a worldwide standard of recognized and respected Principles of Forest Stewardship." (Doc. 36-14 at 4.) "FSC and FSC-accredited certification organizations will not insist on perfection in satisfying [FSC Principles]. However, major failures in any individual Principles will normally disqualify a candidate from certification, or will lead to decertification." Id.

FSC Principles leave this determination to "individual certifiers[.]" Id. FSC Principles further provide:

Appropriate mechanisms shall be employed to resolve disputes over tenure[3]claims and use rights.[4] The circumstances and status of any outstanding disputes will be explicitly considered in the certification evaluation.
Disputes of substantial magnitude involving a significant number of interests will normally disqualify an operation from being certified.

Id. at 6.

In 2010 and 2011, RA conducted subsequent audits related to AGSA's FSC Certification. The Galleys allege no false or defamatory statements in either of these audits. In its 2012 audit, however, RA expanded the scope of AGSA's FSC Certification to include the Disputed Parcel (the "2012 Audit").[5] The 2012 Audit states in relevant part:

The certified area increased from 10, 035.81 hectares to 11, 584.90 hectares because AGSA proved possession of 1, 547.11 hectares that were in dispute with its neighbors and which AGSA lawfully owns. The change in the certified ...

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