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Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. United States

March 23, 2006; as amended May 16, 2006


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 04-cv-00537) District Judge: Honorable Timothy J. Savage.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambro, Circuit Judge


Argued September 30, 2005

Before: ALITO*fn1 and AMBRO, Circuit Judges RESTANI,*fn2 Judge.


This case raises a significant constitutional question of first impression in this Circuit: whether federal courts have authority, consistent with the separation of powers, to enjoin the executive branch from filing an indictment. Although federal courts have this authority in narrow circumstances, we conclude that this is not such a case and therefore reverse the District Court's judgment to the contrary.


A. Background

Appellee Stolt-Nielsen, S.A., through its subsidiary Stolt-Nielsen Transportation Group Ltd. (collectively "Stolt-Nielsen" or the "Company"), is a leading supplier of parcel tanker shipping services. In March 2002, Stolt-Nielsen's general counsel, Paul O'Brien, resigned. According to a complaint O'Brien filed against Stolt-Nielsen in Connecticut Superior Court in November 2002, and a subsequent article in The Wall Street Journal, O'Brien advised his superiors of illegal collusive trading practices between Stolt-Nielsen and two of its competitors, and resigned after the Company failed to take action to resolve the problem. On receiving O'Brien's November 2002 complaint, Stolt-Nielsen hired John Nannes, a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Antitrust Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, to conduct an internal investigation of possible antitrust violations by the Company and advise it regarding any criminal liability.

On November 22, 2002, Nannes met with the chairman of Stolt-Nielsen's tanker division, Samuel Cooperman. Cooperman informed Nannes that O'Brien "rais[ed] some antitrust concerns" in early 2002, and that in response StoltNielsen revised its antitrust compliance policy and disseminated it to its employees and competitors. Cooperman also told Nannes that he believed an internal investigation would demonstrate that the Company was in violation of federal antitrust laws and asked Nannes about the possibility of leniency from the Department of Justice. With Cooperman's permission, Nannes spoke with an Antitrust Division official later that day to inquire about amnesty if Stolt-Nielsen were to admit its violations, and the Government informed him that an investigation had already begun.

Specifically, Nannes inquired about possible protection for Stolt-Nielsen and its officers under the Antitrust Division's Corporate Leniency Policy. Under this Policy, the Government agrees "not [to] charg[e] a firm criminally for the activity being reported" if (in the case of an applicant who comes forward after an investigation has begun) seven conditions are met: (1) the applicant is the first to report the illegal activity; (2) the Government does not, at the time the applicant comes forward, have enough information to sustain a conviction; (3) the applicant, "upon its discovery of the illegal activity being reported, took prompt and effective action to terminate its part in the activity"; (4) the applicant's report is made "with candor and completeness and provides full, continuing and complete cooperation" with the Government's investigation; (5) the applicant confesses to illegal anticompetitive conduct as a corporation and not merely through individual confessions by corporate officers; (6) the applicant makes restitution where possible; and (7) the Government determines that granting leniency to the applicant would "not be unfair to others." The officers and directors of the corporation who assist with the investigation are considered for immunity from prosecution on the same basis as if they had come forward individually.

B. The Conditional Leniency Agreement

The Government informed Nannes that Stolt-Nielsen would not be eligible for amnesty under the Corporate Leniency Policy if O'Brien's departure was involuntary and due to his exposure of the Company's antitrust violations. Nannes assured the Government that O'Brien left voluntarily and detailed the changes to the Company's antitrust policy that were implemented in response to O'Brien's concerns. During the ensuing investigation, Nannes learned that between 1998 and 2001 a Stolt-Nielsen executive, Andrew Pickering, exchanged customer allocation lists with two of Stolt-Nielsen's competitors, presumably for the purpose of apportioning customers among the companies and restraining competition. In January 2003, Pickering's successor, appellee Richard Wingfield, provided Nannes with four such lists, which confirmed that Stolt-Nielsen had indeed engaged in illegal anticompetitive behavior. Nannes promptly turned these lists over to the Government, which entered into a Conditional Leniency Agreement (the "Agreement") with Stolt-Nielsen on January 15, 2003.

Under the terms of the Agreement, the Government agreed "not to bring any criminal prosecution against [StoltNielsen] for any act or offense it may have committed prior to the date of this [Agreement] in connection with the anticompetitive activity being reported." This promise was, of course, subject to Stolt-Nielsen's strict compliance with the aforementioned conditions, "[s]ubject to verification [by the Government] ...

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