Federal Express Corporation v. U.S. Department of Commerce, No. 20-5337 (D.C. Cir. 2022)Annotate this Case
Federal Express Corporation—commonly known as FedEx—challenged the Department of Commerce’s authority to hold it strictly liable for aiding and abetting violations of the 2018 Export Controls Act.
The DC Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of FedEx’s complaint, holding that Commerce’s regulation, 15 C.F.R. Section 764.2(b), and its strict-liability interpretation of it are not ultra vires. The court concluded that the statutory text, circuit precedent, and deference to the Executive Branch in matters of national security and foreign affairs all support Commerce’s interpretation.
The court explained that the first barrier to FedEx’s ultra vires challenge is that Commerce’s interpretation of its regulation to allow for strict liability in civil enforcement actions does not contravene any clear statutory command. Next, FedEx’s ultra vires argument runs into a second headwind—relevant circuit precedent. The court wrote that given that the DC circuit has already specifically held that Commerce can attach strict liability to the first term in the string of verbs “cause or aid, abet, counsel, command, induce, procure, permit, or approve[,]” 15 C.F.R. Section 764.2(b), there is no basis for the court to hold that Commerce acted ultra vires in attaching that same strict-liability reach to the next two verbs. Further, since FedEx has not shown that its asserted mens rea requirement for aiding and abetting liability was truly settled in the common law at the time the statute was promulgated, or that its common-law meaning fits within this specialized national-security scheme, FedEx’s argument does not come close to satisfying the strict standard for an ultra vires claim.