Scheidler v. National Origination for Women, Inc.

United States Supreme Court

537 U.S. 393, 123 S.Ct. 1057, 154 L.Ed.2d 991 (2003)

 

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

     We granted certiorari in these cases to answer two questions. First, whether petitioners committed extortion within the meaning of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. §1951. Second, whether respondents, as private litigants, may obtain injunctive relief in a civil action pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §1964 of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). We hold that petitioners did not commit extortion because they did not “obtain” property from respondents as required by the Hobbs Act. We further hold that our determination with respect to extortion under the Hobbs Act renders insufficient the other bases or predicate acts of racketeering supporting the jury’s conclusion that petitioners violated RICO. Therefore, we reverse without reaching the question of the availability of private injunctive relief under §1964(c) of RICO.

 

     We once again address questions arising from litigation between petitioners, a coalition of antiabortion groups called the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN), Joseph Scheidler and other individuals and organizations that oppose legal abortion, and respondents, the National Organization for Women, Inc. (NOW), a national nonprofit organization that supports the legal availability of abortion, and two health care centers that perform abortions. Our earlier decision provides a substantial description of the factual and procedural history of this litigation, see National Organization for Women, Inc. v. Scheidler, 510 U. S. 249 (1994), and so we recount only those details necessary to address the questions here presented.

 

     In 1986, respondents sued in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois alleging, inter alia, that petitioners violated RICO’s §§1962(a), (c), and (d). They claimed that petitioners, all of whom were associated with PLAN, the alleged racketeering enterprise, were members of a nationwide conspiracy to “shut down” abortion clinics through a pattern of racketeering activity that included acts of extortion in violation of the Hobbs Act.

 

     The District Court dismissed respondents’ RICO claims for failure to allege that the predicate acts of racketeering or the racketeering enterprise were economically motivated. … The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed that dismissal. … We granted certiorari and reversed, concluding that RICO does not require proof that either the racketeering enterprise or the predicate acts of racketeering were motivated by an economic purpose. … The case was remanded to the District Court for further proceedings.

 

     After a 7-week trial, a six-member jury concluded that petitioners violated the civil provisions of RICO. By answering a series of special interrogatory questions, the jury found, inter alia, that petitioners’ alleged “pattern of racketeering activity” included 21 violations of the Hobbs Act, 18 U. S. C. §1951; 25 violations of state extortion law; 25 instances of attempting or conspiring to commit either federal or state extortion; 23 violations of the Travel Act, 18 U. S. C. §1952; and 23 instances of attempting to violate the Travel Act. The jury awarded $31,455.64 to respondent, the National Women’s Health Organization of Delaware, Inc., and $54,471.28 to the National Women’s Health Organization of Summit, Inc. These damages were trebled pursuant to §1964(c). Additionally, the District Court entered a permanent nationwide injunction prohibiting petitioners from obstructing access to the clinics, trespassing on clinic property, damaging clinic property, or using violence or threats of violence against the clinics, their employees, or their patients.

 

     The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed in relevant part. The Court of Appeals rejected petitioners’ contention that the things respondents claimed were “obtained”--the class women’s right to seek medical services from the clinics, the clinic doctors’ rights to perform their jobs, and the clinics’ rights to provide medical services and otherwise conduct their business--were not “property” for purposes of the Hobbs Act. The court explained that it had “repeatedly held that intangible property such as the right to conduct a business can be considered ‘property’ under the Hobbs Act.” … Likewise, the Court of Appeals dismissed petitioners’ claim that even if “property” was involved, petitioners did not “obtain” that property; they merely forced respondents to part with it. Again relying on Circuit precedent, the court held that “as a legal matter, an extortionist can violate the Hobbs Act without either seeking or receiving money or anything else. A loss to, or interference with the rights of, the victim is all that is required.” … Finally, the Court of Appeals upheld the issuance of the nationwide injunction, finding that private plaintiffs are entitled to obtain injunctive relief under §1964(c) of RICO. We granted certiorari … and now reverse.

 

     We first address the question whether petitioners’ actions constituted extortion in violation of the Hobbs Act. That Act defines extortion as “the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right.” 18 U. S. C. §1951(b)(2). Petitioners allege that the jury’s verdict and the Court of Appeals’ decision upholding the verdict represent a vast and unwarranted expansion of extortion under the Hobbs Act. They say that the decisions below “rea[d] the requirement of ‘obtaining’ completely out of the statute” and conflict with the proper understanding of property for purposes of the Hobbs Act. …

 

     Respondents, throughout the course of this litigation, have asserted, as the jury instructions at the trial reflected, that petitioners committed extortion under the Hobbs Act by using or threatening to use force, violence, or fear to cause respondents “to give up” property rights, namely, “a woman’s right to seek medical services from a clinic, the right of the doctors, nurses or other clinic staff to perform their jobs, and the right of the clinics to provide medical services free from wrongful threats, violence, coercion and fear.” … Perhaps recognizing the apparent difficulty in reconciling either its position that “giv[ing] up” these alleged property rights or the Court of Appeals’ holding that “interfer[ing] with such rights” with the requirement that petitioners “obtain[ed] ... property from” them, respondents have shifted the thrust of their theory. … Respondents now assert that petitioners violated the Hobbs Act by “seeking to get control of the use and disposition of respondents’ property.” … They argue that because the right to control the use and disposition of an asset is property, petitioners, who interfered with, and in some instances completely disrupted, the ability of the clinics to function, obtained or attempted to obtain respondents’ property.

 

     The United States offers a view similar to that of respondents, asserting that “where the property at issue is a business’s intangible right to exercise exclusive control over the use of its assets, [a] defendant obtains that property by obtaining control over the use of those assets.” … Although the Government acknowledges that the jury’s finding of extortion may have been improperly based on the conclusion that petitioners deprived respondents of a liberty interest, it maintains that under its theory of liability, petitioners committed extortion.

 

     We need not now trace what are the outer boundaries of extortion liability under the Hobbs Act, so that liability might be based on obtaining something as intangible as another’s right to exercise exclusive control over the use of a party’s business assets. Our decisions in United States v. Green, 350 U. S. 415, 420 (1956) (explaining that “extortion ... in no way depends upon having a direct benefit conferred on the person who obtains the property”), and Carpenter v. United States, 484 U. S. 19, 27 (1987) (finding that confidential business information constitutes “property” for purposes of the federal mail fraud statute), do not require such a result. Whatever the outer boundaries may be, the effort to characterize petitioners’ actions here as an “obtaining of property from” respondents is well beyond them. Such a result would be an unwarranted expansion of the meaning of that phrase.

 

     Absent contrary direction from Congress, we begin our interpretation of statutory language with the general presumption that a statutory term has its common-law meaning. … At common law, extortion was a property offense committed by a public official who took “any money or thing of value” that was not due to him under the pretense that he was entitled to such property by virtue of his office. … In 1946, Congress enacted the Hobbs Act, which explicitly “expanded the common-law definition of extortion to include acts by private individuals.” While the Hobbs Act expanded the scope of common-law extortion to include private individuals, the statutory language retained the requirement that property must be “obtained.” See 18 U. S. C. §1951(b)(2).

 

     Congress used two sources of law as models in formulating the Hobbs Act: the Penal Code of New York and the Field Code, a 19th-century model penal code. … Both the New York statute and the Field Code defined extortion as “the obtaining of property from another with his consent, induced by a wrongful use of force or fear or under color of official right.” … The Field Code explained that extortion was one of four property crimes, along with robbery, larceny, and embezzlement that included “the criminal acquisition of ... property.” … New York case law before the enactment of the Hobbs Act demonstrates that this “obtaining of property” requirement included both a deprivation and acquisition of property. …

 

     We too have recognized that the “obtaining” requirement of extortion under New York law entailed both a deprivation and acquisition of property. … Most importantly, we have construed the extortion provision of the Hobbs Act at issue in this case to require not only the deprivation but also the acquisition of property. … With this understanding of the Hobbs Act’s requirement that a person must “obtain” property from another party to commit extortion, we turn to the facts of these cases.

 

     There is no dispute in these cases that petitioners interfered with, disrupted, and in some instances completely deprived respondents of their ability to exercise their property rights. Likewise, petitioners’ counsel readily acknowledged at oral argument that aspects of his clients’ conduct were criminal. But even when their acts of interference and disruption achieved their ultimate goal of “shutting down” a clinic that performed abortions, such acts did not constitute extortion because petitioners did not “obtain” respondents’ property. Petitioners may have deprived or sought to deprive respondents of their alleged property right of exclusive control of their business assets, but they did not acquire any such property. Petitioners neither pursued nor received “something of value from” respondents that they could exercise, transfer, or sell. To conclude that such actions constituted extortion would effectively discard the statutory requirement that property must be obtained from another, replacing it instead with the notion that merely interfering with or depriving someone of property is sufficient to constitute extortion.

 

     Eliminating the requirement that property must be obtained to constitute extortion would not only conflict with the express requirement of the Hobbs Act, it would also eliminate the recognized distinction between extortion and the separate crime of coercion--a distinction that is implicated in these cases. The crime of coercion, which more accurately describes the nature of petitioners’ actions, involves the use of force or threat of force to restrict another’s freedom of action. Coercion’s origin is statutory, and it was clearly defined in the New York Penal Code as a separate, and lesser offense than extortion when Congress turned to New York law in drafting the Hobbs Act. New York case law applying the coercion statute before the passage of the Hobbs Act involved the prosecution of individuals who, like petitioners, employed threats and acts of force and violence to dictate and restrict the actions and decisions of businesses. …

 

     With this distinction between extortion and coercion clearly drawn in New York law prior to 1946, Congress’ decision to include extortion as a violation of the Hobbs Act and omit coercion is significant assistance to our interpretation of the breadth of the extortion provision. This assistance is amplified by other evidence of Congress’ awareness of the difference between these two distinct crimes. In 1934, Congress formulated the Anti-Racketeering Act, ch. 569, 48 Stat. 979. This Act, which was the predecessor to the Hobbs Act, targeted, as its name suggests, racketeering activities that affected interstate commerce, including both extortion and coercion as defined under New York law. Accordingly, the Act contained both a section explicitly prohibiting coercion and a section prohibiting the offense of extortion as defined by the Field Code and New York Penal Code. …

 

     Several years after the enactment of the Anti-Racketeering Act, this Court decided United States v. Teamsters, 315 U. S. 521 (1942). In Teamsters, this Court construed an exception provided in the Anti-Racketeering Act for the payment of wages by a bona fide employer to a bona fide employee to find that the Act “did not cover the actions of union truck drivers who exacted money by threats or violence from out-of-town drivers in return for undesired and often unutilized services.” … “Congressional disapproval of this decision was swift,” and the Hobbs Act was subsequently enacted to supersede the Anti-Racketeering Act and reverse the result in Teamsters. … The Act prohibited interference with commerce, by “robbery or extortion” but, as explained above, did not mention coercion.

 

     This omission of coercion is particularly significant in light of the fact that after Teamsters, a “paramount congressional concern” in drafting the Hobbs Act, “was to be clear about what conduct was prohibited.” … Accordingly, the Act “carefully defines its key terms, such as ‘robbery,’ ‘extortion,’ and ‘commerce.’” … Thus, while coercion and extortion certainly overlap to the extent that extortion necessarily involves the use of coercive conduct to obtain property, there has been and continues to be a recognized difference between these two crimes … and we find it evident that this distinction was not lost on Congress in formulating the Hobbs Act.

 

     We have said that the words of the Hobbs Act “do not lend themselves to restrictive interpretation” because they “manifest ... a purpose to use all the constitutional power Congress has to punish interference with interstate commerce by extortion, robbery or physical violence.” … We have also said, construing the Hobbs Act:

 

Even if the language and history of the Act were less clear than we have found them to be, the Act could not properly be expanded as the Government suggests--for two related reasons. First, this being a criminal statute, it must be strictly construed, and any ambiguity must be resolved in favor of lenity. …

 

     Because we find that petitioners did not obtain or attempt to obtain property from respondents, we conclude that there was no basis upon which to find that they committed extortion under the Hobbs Act.

 

     The jury also found that petitioners had committed extortion under various state-law extortion statutes, a separate RICO predicate offense. Petitioners challenged the jury instructions as to these on appeal, but the Court of Appeals held that any error was harmless, because the Hobbs Act verdicts were sufficient to support the relief awarded. Respondents argue in this Court that state extortion offenses do not have to be identical to Hobbs Act extortion to be predicate offenses supporting a RICO violation. They concede, however, that for a state offense to be an “act or threat involving ... extortion, ... which is chargeable under State law,” as RICO requires, … the conduct must be capable of being generically classified as extortionate. … They further agree that such “generic” extortion is defined as “obtaining something of value from another with his consent induced by the wrongful use of force, fear, or threats.” …

 

…[W]here as here the Model Penal Code and a majority of States recognize the crime of extortion as requiring a party to obtain or to seek to obtain property, as the Hobbs Act requires, the state extortion offense for purposes of RICO must have a similar requirement.

 

     Because petitioners did not obtain or attempt to obtain respondents’ property, both the state extortion claims and the claim of attempting or conspiring to commit state extortion were fatally flawed. The 23 violations of the Travel Act and 23 acts of attempting to violate the Travel Act also fail. These acts were committed in furtherance of allegedly extortionate conduct. But we have already determined that petitioners did not commit or attempt to commit extortion.

 

     Because all of the predicate acts supporting the jury’s finding of a RICO violation must be reversed, the judgment that petitioners violated RICO must also be reversed. Without an underlying RICO violation, the injunction issued by the District Court must necessarily be vacated. We therefore need not address the second question presented--whether a private plaintiff in a civil RICO action is entitled to injunctive relief under 18 U. S. C. §1964. …

 

 

Justice Ginsburg, with whom Justice Breyer joins, concurring.

     I join the Court’s opinion, persuaded that the Seventh Circuit’s decision accords undue breadth to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO or Act). As Justice Stevens recognizes, “Congress has enacted specific legislation responsive to the concerns that gave rise to these cases.” In the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994, 18 U. S. C. §248, Congress crafted a statutory response that homes in on the problem of criminal activity at health care facilities. … Thus, the principal effect of a decision against petitioners here would have been on other cases pursued under RICO.

 

     RICO, which empowers both prosecutors and private enforcers, imposes severe criminal penalties and hefty civil liability on those engaged in conduct within the Act’s compass. … It has already “evolv[ed] into something quite different from the original conception of its enactors,” warranting “concern[s] over the consequences of an unbridled reading of the statute.” … The Court is rightly reluctant, as I see it, to extend RICO’s domain further by endorsing the expansive definition of “extortion” adopted by the Seventh Circuit.

 

 

Justice Stevens, dissenting.

 

     The term “extortion” as defined in the Hobbs Act refers to “the obtaining of property from another.” 18 U. S. C. §1951(b)(2). The Court’s murky opinion seems to hold that this phrase covers nothing more than the acquisition of tangible property. No other federal court has ever construed this statute so narrowly.

 

     For decades federal judges have uniformly given the term “property” an expansive construction that encompasses the intangible right to exercise exclusive control over the lawful use of business assets. The right to serve customers or to solicit new business is thus a protected property right. The use of violence or threats of violence to persuade the owner of a business to surrender control of such an intangible right is an appropriation of control embraced by the term “obtaining.” That is the commonsense reading of the statute that other federal judges have consistently and wisely embraced in numerous cases that the Court does not discuss or even cite. Recognizing this settled definition of property, as I believe one must, the conclusion that petitioners obtained this property from respondents is amply supported by the evidence in the record.

 

     … For example, in United States v. Tropiano, 418 F. 2d 1069 (1969), the Second Circuit held that threats of physical violence to persuade the owners of a competing trash removal company to refrain from soliciting customers in certain areas violated the Hobbs Act. …

 

     The Tropiano case’s discussion of obtaining property has been cited with approval by federal courts in virtually every circuit in the country. … Its interpretation of the term “property” is consistent with pre-Hobbs Act decisions of this Court, … the New York Court of Appeals, … and with our recent decision in Carpenter v. United States, 484 U. S. 19 (1987).

 

      …First, the uniform construction of the statute that has prevailed throughout the country for decades should remain the law unless and until Congress decides to amend the statute. … Second, both this Court and all other federal courts have consistently identified the Hobbs Act as a statute that Congress intended to be given a broad construction. … Third, given the fact that Congress has enacted specific legislation responsive to the concerns that gave rise to these cases, the principal beneficiaries of the Court’s dramatic retreat from the position that federal prosecutors and federal courts have maintained throughout the history of this important statute will certainly be the class of professional criminals whose conduct persuaded Congress that the public needed federal protection from extortion.

 

     I respectfully dissent.