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4 min read

Strict Liability in FedEx's Appeal: Implications for Export Controls



In a gripping legal showdown that captivated the nation, the Federal Express Corporation (FedEx) found itself embroiled in a highly contentious dispute with the United States Department of Commerce. At the heart of this high-stakes battle was the Department's interpretation of the Export Controls Act and its application of strict liability for aiding and abetting violations. In this in-depth analysis, we delve into the intricate details of this landmark case, exploring both sides of the argument and the potential ramifications for future regulatory actions.

The Crucial Role of the ALJ's Decision in High-Stakes Legal Battles

In this high-stakes legal battle, the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision holds tremendous weight. ALJs play a crucial role in the administrative adjudication process, ensuring fair and impartial resolution of disputes between the government and individuals or organizations. Their decisions can significantly impact the outcome of cases and have far-reaching implications.

In the case of FedEx and the Department of Commerce, the ALJ's decision will be pivotal in determining the course of action. The ALJ will carefully consider the evidence presented by both parties and evaluate whether the Department of Commerce's restrictions on certain exports were justified under the Export Administration Regulations. This is a complex task, requiring the ALJ to navigate the intricate web of statutes, regulations, and legal precedents governing export controls.

The ALJ will also assess whether there is substantial evidence to support the Department of Commerce's contention that FedEx violated the export control laws. Substantial evidence refers to the quantum of evidence that a reasonable person would find sufficient to support a conclusion. The ALJ's decision must be based on a thorough analysis of the facts and a sound application of the law.

Once the ALJ reaches a decision, it is not binding but carries significant weight. Either party can request a review of the decision by the Appeals Council, the next level in the administrative appeals process. The Appeals Council will scrutinize the ALJ's decision to determine if it was in accordance with the law and supported by substantial evidence. They may affirm, modify, or overturn the ALJ's decision based on their findings.

Ultimately, the ALJ's decision and any subsequent decisions by the Appeals Council can be subject to further judicial review. Parties dissatisfied with the outcome can seek redress in the federal district court, where the decision will be evaluated based on the legal interpretation, procedural adherence, and fairness of the administrative proceedings. The district court's jurisdiction in these cases is governed by the Administrative Procedure Act and corresponding statutes.

This case between FedEx and the Department of Commerce highlights the importance of the ALJ's decision in shaping the outcome of disputes involving export controls. Their expertise in navigating the intricacies of appellate law and the ALJ's decision will ultimately determine the course of action for both parties involved. As the legal battle unfolds, it will be fascinating to witness the ALJ's decision and its impact on the broader landscape of export controls in the United States.

FedEx's Alleged Transgressions: Unearthing Violations and Settlement Agreements

The catalyst for this legal saga began in 2011 when the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security (Bureau) issued a "charging letter" accusing FedEx of knowingly violating the Export Administration Regulations. The charges alleged that FedEx had transported items to Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and China without the requisite licenses. Responding to these allegations, FedEx and the Bureau reached a settlement agreement, imposing a substantial civil penalty of $370,000 on the courier company.

However, the resolution of the first set of allegations did not bring an end to FedEx's troubles in the realm of export controls. In 2017, the Bureau once again sent a charging letter, accusing FedEx of 53 additional violations related to the export of civil aircraft parts. The repeated accusations and subsequent legal battles thrust FedEx into the national spotlight while raising crucial questions about the intricacies of export control compliance.

FedEx's Pursuit of Justice: An Appeal Against the Department of Commerce

Frustrated and undeterred by the district court's dismissal of their complaint, FedEx made the decision to appeal the ruling. At the core of the appellate court's deliberation was the question of whether the Department of Commerce had overstepped its statutory authority by interpreting 15 C.F.R. § 764.2(b) as imposing strict liability. FedEx argued that the Department had exceeded its authority and sought nonstatutory review. However, the court upheld the Department's interpretation, emphasizing that for ultra vires review to succeed, an error must be "patently a misconstruction of the Act" or a violation of a "specific command of a statute."

The Crucial Question of Mens Rea: Striking a Balance with Strict Liability

Central to this captivating case was the intense debate surrounding the appropriate mens rea (or mental state) in civil aiding and abetting liability. FedEx contended that a lesser mens rea standard should apply, insisting that they did not possess the requisite intent to aid and abet any violations. In contrast, the court held that Congress had not explicitly precluded strict liability in this context. To support this stance, the court referenced precedent-setting cases, highlighting Iran Air v. Kugelman as an example of a supporting Commerce's interpretation of "causing" as a strict liability offense. Additionally, the court noted that the omission of a mens rea requirement from the regulation had long been an established practice.

Weighing Deference and National Security Concerns

Throughout the appellate process, the court consistently stressed the importance of according substantial deference to the Department of Commerce due to the gravity of national security and foreign policy concerns. With national security interests hanging in the balance, the court underscored the need to preserve the Department's interpretive prerogative in implementing export controls. Judicial precedent supported this principle of deference, recognizing the expertise and unique perspective that the Department possesses in navigating complex international trade dynamics while safeguarding the United States' strategic interests.

Implications for Future Regulatory Actions

The resolution of FedEx's appeal against the Department of Commerce carries significant implications for future regulatory actions in the realm of export controls. The court's affirmation of the Department's interpretation of strict liability in civil aiding and abetting liability sets a potential precedent for future cases. As regulatory agencies continue to grapple with the challenges of enforcing export control measures, this decision serves as a guidepost for interpreting and applying relevant regulations.


The gripping legal showdown between FedEx and the Department of Commerce over the interpretation of the Export Controls Act has shed light on the complexities of appellate law and the authority of administrative agencies. As the case continues to make waves in legal circles, it stands as a reminder of the intricate intersection between government regulations, international trade, and national security. The outcome of this battle will shape future legal battles and influence the trajectory of regulatory actions in the realm of export controls.

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