Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Muslim plaintiffs can sue federal officers for religious discrimination

This case has not received the attention it deserves. The Court of Appeals finds that two Muslims are allowed to sue federal officers for religious discrimination because the were placed on the "no fly list" after refusing to serve as informants against other Muslims. This is a case of first impression.

The case is Tanvir v. Tanzin, decided on May 2. This case is brought under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The plaintiffs are in the U.S. lawfully but have family overseas. Federal agents asked them to spy on the Muslim community, but they rejected that request based on their religious beliefs. According to the complaint, in retaliation for declining to serve as informants, plaintiffs were prohibited from flying and could not visit their families overseas or travel abroad for work.

While the trial court dismissed the case on the basis that the RFRA does not permit recovery of money damages against federal officers sued in their individual capacities, the Court of Appeals (Pooler, Lynch and Katzmann) finds otherwise. Congress passed RFRA in 1993 in order expand religious freedom rights after the Supreme Court in 1990 scaled them back in a decision written by Justice Scalia. The question here is whether the statute authorizes individual capacity claims against federal officers. Under RFRA, a plaintiff can assert a violation of the statute "as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain relief against a government," defined as "a branch, department, agency, instrumentality, and official . . . of the United States." By its plain terms, RFRA allows plaintiffs to sue federal officers personally under the statute.

The statute also says you can sue federal officers for "appropriate relief." That relief includes money damages. While the statute does not define "appropriate relief," which is an ambiguous phrase, the legislative history surrounding the statute suggested Congress wanted people to recover damages for these violations. In Franklin v. Gwinnett County, 503 U.S. 60 (1992), the Supreme Court said that this exact phrase (in the context of a different statute) means that "federal courts may use any available remedy to make good the wrong done." Since RFRA was enacted one year after the Court decided Franklin, we can presume that Congress knew what the Court said in Franklin and intended that "appropriate relief" includes the damages that the Court recognized in Franklin. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how we interpret federal statutes.

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