SAN FRANCISCO (Combined Sources)—A federal appeals court Thursday rejected a California law that allowed heirs to Genocide victims to seek payment on life insurance policies of victims’ relatives.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the law amounted to unconstitutional meddling in US foreign policy.
It based its 2-1 ruling on a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down another California law designed to help Holocaust survivors collect on Nazi-era insurance policies.
“The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals is an affront to the Armenian American community and, if allowed to stand, sets a dangerous precedent by rewarding the Turkish Government’s efforts on the federal level to deny and cover-up the Armenian Genocide,” said Armenian National Committee-Western Region board chairman Vicken Sonentz-Papazian.
“The message this decision sends is that if you can threaten, cajole and stonewall the U.S. government into inaction on a ‘foreign policy’ issue, you can eliminate a valid and righteous claim of an American citizen in a U.S. court of law,” added Papazian.
The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that Judge Harry Pregerson dissented from the majority opinion by Judges David R. Thompson and Dorothy W. Nelson. Pregerson wrote that the District Court had correctly judged the California statute as “within the state’s traditional area of competence” in regulating the insurance industry, according to the LA Times.
Lawyer Brian Kabateck, who represents Armenian-American heirs, plans to appeal.
“The ruling is wrong. It’s a disaster,” Kabateck told the Associated Press. “The one million Armenians that live in California today have been told by the court that even the use of the word ‘genocide’ by a government is illegal.”
Vartkes Yeghiayan, the lawyer for lead plaintiff Father Vazken Movsesian of St. Peter Armenian Church, described the ruling as “devastating,” reported the Los Angeles Times.
The California Legislature passed the law giving heirs of Armenians who died or fled to avoid persecution until the end of next year to file claims for old bank accounts and life insurance policies. European banks and insurers are said to have retained assets valued in 1915 at about $15 million, a sum worth substantially more at today’s value.
Class-action lawsuits brought by Armenian descendants in California and other states led to a $20 million settlement with New York Life Insurance Co. in 2005 and a $17 million settlement the same year with French life insurer AXA.
William Werfelman, a spokesman for New York Life, said the company had no intention of trying to get back any of the money it paid out under the 2005 settlement, the Associated Press reported.
“By acting honorably, and in keeping with our company values of humanity and integrity, New York Life made many friends in the Armenian community and we cherish these friends,” Werfelman told the Associated Press.
Thursday’s ruling reversed a lower court judge who refused to dismiss another class-action suit against the German life insurance companies.
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, who as a state assemblyman co-wrote the law that was overturned by the 9th Circuit, was perplexed by the court’s reasoning, according to the Associated Press.
“You have a group of people that has a government that hasn’t had the will to recognize the genocide and as a result of that failing, are being told they don’t have valid insurance claims,” he told the AP.