Posted December 10th 2020 1:23 pm by Amy Howe
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that three Muslim men who say they were placed on the no-fly list after refusing to become FBI informants can sue the FBI agents they used there for monetary damage . The decision was relevant not only to the plaintiffs, but also to cases involving violations of religious rights in the broader sense.
The three men – Muhummad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah and Naveed Shinwari – are all US citizens or holders of a green card. They filed the lawsuit that led to a decision Thursday after being put on the no-fly list that prevented them from boarding commercial flights in the United States. They alleged that their listing violated the Restoration of Religious Freedom Act, a federal law that prohibits the government from “placing materially burdensome” on an individual’s practice of religion unless and when the burden is and is conducive to an overriding government interest no less restrictive way to achieve this interest. They asked the court to order the government to remove their names from the no-fly list and sought redress for violations of their rights, including money for plane tickets they couldn’t use and income they lost when they couldn’t Employment opportunities were available.
After the lawsuit was filed, the Department of Homeland Security notified the men that they could fly. A federal district court rejected their remaining requests for financial relief, ruling that the RFRA would not allow the men to sue the FBI agents for monetary damages in their personal capacity. However, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned this decision and caused the federal government, which represented the FBI agents, to go to the Supreme Court.
In a brief and unanimous statement from Judge Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court upheld the 2nd circuit’s decision. Thomas referred to the text of the RFRA, which enables a person whose practice of religion has been incriminated, “to get adequate relief against a government”. That phrase, Thomas explained, allows someone who has been injured to sue government officials in their personal capacities.
If government officials can be sued in their personal capacity, Thomas continued, the next question is whether monetary damage is “reasonable relief.” After investigating various lawsuits against federal, state and local government officials, Thomas concluded that monetary damage “has long been given as reasonable relief.” Indeed, Thomas said there will be some cases – like this one involving plane tickets or a 1990 case of an autopsy that violates plaintiffs’ religious beliefs – where monetary damage is the only way plaintiffs can get relief. In view of the text, Thomas emphasized: “It would be strange to interpret RFRA in such a way that courts cannot grant such relief.”
Thomas acknowledged that the 2011 Sossamon v Texas Supreme Court ruled that states fail for violations of the Religious Land Use Act, a law similar to the RFRA that also allows plaintiffs to “obtain reasonable relief Can be sued for monetary damages against a government for violations. “The obvious difference,” said Thomas, “is that in this case, a lawsuit is brought against people who do not enjoy sovereign immunity.”
Thomas also opposed the government’s proposal to hold government officials liable for monetary damage “could raise concerns about separation of powers”, noting that “this exact means has coexisted with our constitutional system since the beginning of the Republic”. There may be reasons why government officials shouldn’t be held liable, Thomas admitted – but these are political reasons for Congress rather than the court.
The court’s newest judge, Amy Coney Barrett, did not participate in the case, which was argued before it was confirmed that she would fill the position vacated by the death of Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
[Disclosure: The author of this post, and other attorneys who assist this blog in various capacities, were among counsel at Howe & Russell, P.C., and Akin, Gump, Srauss, Hauer & Feld, LLP, for the petitioner in Sossamon v. Texas.]
This post was originally published on Howe on the Court.
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Amy Howe, Opinion Research: Judges Allow Muslim Men on No-Fly List to sue FBI agents for monetary damage.
SCOTUSblog (December 10, 2020, 1:23 p.m.), https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/12/opinion-analysis-justices-allow-muslim-men-placed-on-no-fly-list-to – sue-fbi-agents-for-money-damages /