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New Phase in US-Cuba Relations Adds New Layers of Complexity for Foreign Companies Doing Business in Cuba
By Arthur M. Freyre*
President Trump’s decision to end the waiver of Helms-Burton’s Title III lawsuits has dramatically changed how foreign companies do business in Cuba. Individuals who have a claim or may have a potential claim against the Cuban government for stolen property can now file suit against foreign companies who are trafficking or trespassing on property they used to own but confiscated by Cuba without compensation. The waiver that has been in the law since the signing of the bill in 1996, ended on May 2nd and Title III will finally be implemented. This post provides a general overview on the Title III lawsuit process. Let’s answer three basic questions: “Who are the plaintiffs?” “What is property?” and “What is the trafficking?”
Prior to discussing the three questions, counsels should note that pursuant to 22 U.S.C. §6082 (a)(8), the Attorney General was supposed to have prepared and published in the Federal Register a concise summary of the Act sixty days after the date of enactment. Now that the waiver has been lifted, we anticipate that the Attorney General will prepare and publish the Title III summary. Besides being familiar with the statute, attorneys filing or defending Title III lawsuits need to be aware of certain required actions (i.e. notice to parties and the wind down period) prior to the filing of the lawsuit.
The first question is “Who are the Plaintiffs?” Helms-Burton recognizes two groups of plaintiffs. The first group of plaintiffs is known as certified claimants. The second group of plaintiffs consists of individuals, or heirs of Cuban nationals, who are now U.S. citizens. These are known as uncertified claimants.
Certified claimants are individuals or corporations who were U.S. citizens when their property in Cuba was confiscated by the Castro revolution after 1959. These individuals provided evidence to the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission showing that the Cuban government confiscated their land without compensation. The Commission issued a certified claim to the claimant based on the property’s value. Prior to this implementation of Title III, certified claimants effectively had no access to federal court to file a lawsuit, except for a limited number of victims of terror with personal injury or wrongful death claims.
Uncertified claimants are persons whose families left Cuba after the 1959 communist takeover and whose property were also confiscated by the Cuban government. At the time of the taking, these property owners were not U.S. citizens, and were not eligible to present their matter before the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission when they arrived to the United States. Subsequently, they or their sons or daughters became U.S. citizens. Regarding this class of potential plaintiffs, Title III states that the federal courts may use the Commission as a special master to review the uncertified claim and make a finding on it’s validity and it’s value for the court to decide.
An additional question the courts may have to consider is the question of what is property? Pursuant to Title III, property is broadly defined to include intellectual property (i.e. trademarks, copyrights, patents, and so forth), real property (commercial and personal), and any item that may have a present, future, or contingent right, security, or other interest therein.
The third and final question is what is defines as trafficking? Trafficking in a confiscated property involves a person who knowingly and intentionally, and without authorization of any U.S. national who holds a claim to the property, engages in or benefits from a wide range of transactions in Cuba that include or relate to a confiscated property. There are several exceptions to the trafficking definition. It is important to discuss this matter with counsel.
One final point regarding trafficking, 22 USC § 6082(b) states the required minimum threshold for damages in federal court is $50,000 value of the property at the time of the confiscation. This amount is exclusive of interest, costs, and attorney fees.
Just because one believes that they might meet the minimal threshold of standing, there are other factors that one needs to consider. For instance, the Judicial Conference announced that there is an additional filing fee of $6,548.00 that one needs to pay the courts for the filing of a Title III action, Besides the filing fees, other costs may include service of process, and other fees and expenses we have not mentioned here regarding litigation.
In closing, companies doing business in Cuba should reassess their increased risk exposure during this time, as it may be significant. They need to make sure that they are not trafficking in stolen property. This was the case before May 2nd since there remains an economic embargo of Cuba. Counsel should read and understand Title III carefully and also review the economic sanctions regulations in conjunction with your Title III analysis. Failure to do this assessment may expose companies and individuals to potential lawsuits and liability. Reading and understanding Title III carefully is just as important for those who believe that they may have a Title III claim. Failure to comply with the notice provisions could lead to unnecessary expense and the dismissal of a Title III claim.
*Arthur M. Freyre, Esq., is an attorney at the Law Offices of Poblete Tamargo LLP. His practice area includes federal regulatory law and public policy. Mr. Freyre would like to thank Mr. Mauricio Tamargo, Esq., former Chairman of the Foreign Claim Settlement Commission and Mr. Jason Poblete, Esq., an expert in U.S. economic sanctions and export control laws, for their assistance and input in this blog post.
 The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, 22 U.S.C. §§6021-6091.