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Last week, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of Apple, Alphabet, Dell Technologies, Microsoft, and Tesla in a lawsuit brought against the companies on behalf of cobalt miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The suit sought

“to impose liability on five American technology companies for ‘forced labor’ used for informal cobalt mining in the DRC. The plaintiffs, former cobalt miners injured in mining accidents and their representatives, sued the companies under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (‘TVPRA’). That statute makes it unlawful to ‘participat[e] in a venture’ that engages in forced labor. The plaintiffs allege the technology companies participated in a venture with their cobalt suppliers by purchasing the metal through the global supply chain.”

The Court held that although the plaintiffs “have standing to pursue their damages claims, they have failed to state a claim for relief.” The decision looks into the cobalt market and whether, as the complaint alleged:

“the participants in the cobalt market intentionally use a murky supply chain to obscure the extent to which they rely on forced labor. This allows the Tech Companies and their suppliers to avoid formal association with forced labor…”

One interesting position of the Court was that the defendants were not in a position to exert enough control in the cobalt supply chain to

“force changes in mining practices. The only control apparent in the complaint, however, is the Tech Companies’ right to stop purchasing cobalt.”

What I find interesting about that statement is that technology companies – including the defendants – launched multiple internal and industry-wide responsible sourcing initiatives specifically intended to “force change in mining practices” more than 10 years ago and have supported those initiatives ever since. The Court apparently didn’t find those activities persuasive, which probably gives the companies mixed emotions.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile