A federal appeals court in Washington last week blocked efforts by a whistleblower to make the International Monetary Fund produce documents as part of a lawsuit alleging assault.
The decision could scuttle the case brought by Eugène Nyambal, a former I.M.F. employee who said Monday he would now ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
Nyambal has claimed that he was summarily fired and then blacklisted from I.M.F. and World Bank premises after internally complaining of corruption in Africa in 2009.
The case underscores the patchy legal protections afforded to would-be whistleblowers at international organizations
Employers such as the United Nations, World Bank and I.M.F. enjoy sovereign immunity and are rarely vulnerable to legal action in local courts. Such organizations employ tens of thousands of staff members at locations around the world and their activities concern the welfare of millions of people.
Nyambal, a Cameroonian economist, says he was fired after reporting internally that a financial arrangement with the Cameroonian government would open the way for the embezzlement of tens of millions of dollars in public funds from a cobalt mining project.
The I.M.F. has said that an ethics investigation in 2010 did not substantiate Nyambal’s claim that he was dismissed in retaliation for denouncing the contract.
The mining company, Geovic Mining Corp. of Colorado, has been facing insolvency and has not responded to Nyambal’s allegations. Representatives were unavailable on Monday.
Because the I.M.F. enjoys sovereign immunity, Nyambal brought suit over an alleged 2009 incident at the employee credit union, during which he says security guards working for a company under contract with the I.M.F. wrongly removed him from the premises, damaging his reputation.
Commercial contracts with outside companies are a narrow area in which international organizations such as the I.M.F. may waive their blanket legal immunity.
At the trial court, the I.M.F. produced contracts with the security contractor and affidavits asserting that the I.M.F. had never agreed to any waiver of immunity in dealing with the contractor, Allied Barton Security Services.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan had allowed document discovery to proceed in order to determine whether his court could exercise jurisdiction over the I.M.F.
Discovery is the disclosure of documents which can form the factual basis for a lawsuit.
However the Circuit Court for Washington, D.C. on Wednesday reversed Sullivan’s decision, saying that discovery should be based on something more than the hope that “something may turn up.” The court portrayed Nyambal’s request as a fishing expedition.
In an opinion for the bench, Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown, a conservative, said Nyambal’s belief that an immunity waiver existed needed a sound, specific basis in order to allow discovery.
“Nyambal stumbles at this threshold hurdle of plausibility,” the court found, adding that Nyambal had made “little more than bare assertion” in support of allowing discovery.
The three-judge panel ordered the case returned to Sullivan for further processing. Nyambal said he hoped to lodge an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court without delay.
“We’ll do that as soon as possible,” Nyambal told 100Reporters.
It was unclear whether such an appeal would receive a hearing. The Supreme Court regularly agrees to consider only about 150 of more than 10,000 cases brought before it every year.
According to Nyambal’s attorney, John M. Shoreman, last week’s decision may put the D.C. Circuit Court at odds with the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.
That court held in 2010 that international organizations are granted the same immunities as foreign governments, with specific exceptions to immunity — particularly involving claims arising from commercial activity.
Disagreements among appeals courts may heighten the likelihood that the Supreme Court will choose to intervene, said Shoreman.
In a separate case, Nyambal has sued the contractor Allied Barton, accusing it of conspiring with the I.M.F. to bar him from I.M.F. and World Bank premises in Washington.
Allied Barton moved last week for dismissal, saying Nyambal lacked a basis for his claims.