Court: FBI Agents Can Be Held Accountable For Tossing Immigrants On The No-Fly List Because They Refused To Be Informants

from the time-for-some-settlements-and-retraining dept

The Second Circuit Appeals Court has revived a lawsuit brought by a group of Muslim men who allege the FBI placed them on the “no fly” list after they refused to become informants. This is not unusual behavior — on the part of the FBI. Documents obtained by The Intercept show the CBP and FBI routinely pressure immigrants and visitors to become informants, threatening them with deportation or adverse decisions on visa requests.

In this case, the lead plaintiff, Muhammad Tanvir, claims the FBI pursued him for months. The effort to convert Tanvir into an informant led to him being detained for hours any time he tried to fly, as well as being subjected to periodic visits from FBI agents at his workplace. Despite being a lawful resident, Tanvir was threatened with arrest and deportation for refusing to submit to a polygraph test. After returning from a trip to Pakistan to visit his family, Tanvir was detained for five hours by federal agents and his passport confiscated for six months. This confiscation was leveraged against Tanvir, with agents telling him he would be deported if he did not cooperate.

These tactics are expressly forbidden by the DOJ and yet, they appear to be in common use. Tanvir’s experience with the FBI roughly aligns with that of his co-litigants. They sued the FBI agents who harassed and threatened them, claiming the tactics violated their religious freedom. In the plaintiffs’ view, becoming an informant meant violating their religious beliefs. The district court ruled they could not pursue these claims against the federal agents under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The Appeals Court disagrees [PDF]. Violations and damages alleged by Tanvir — including the inability to travel by air, which resulted in the loss of his job as well as prevented him from visiting his family in Pakistan — can be recouped from the agents responsible.

The government argued RFRA does not permit lawsuits against individual government employees. The Appeals Court points out the plain language of the statute clearly permits doing exactly that.

RFRA’s use of the word “official” in the statutory definition of “government” does not mandate that a plaintiff may only obtain relief against federal officers in official capacity suits. In ordinary usage, an “official” is generally defined simply as “one who holds or is invested with an office” and is roughly synonymous with the term “officer.” Merriam?Webster Unabridged, http:/unabridged.merriam?webster.com/unabridged/official (noun definition). There is no reason to think that, in using this ordinary English word, Congress intended to invoke the technical legal concept of “official capacity,” rather than simply to state that government “officials” are amenable to suit. Moreover, the statute permits suits against “officials (or other person[s] acting under color of 7 law).” 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000bb?2(1). The specific authorization of actions broadly against “other person[s] acting under color of law,” undercuts the assertion that the term “official”’ was intended to limit the scope of available actions.

The wording of the statute is not as clear when it comes to defining “appropriate relief.” The government argues this does not include money damages, even if the court finds individual agents can be sued under RFRA. The court again disagrees. Precedential decisions — including those of the Supreme Court — dealt with lawsuits brought against government officials in their official capacity. Sovereign immunity may have ended those attempts to obtain “appropriate relief,” but are not helpful here. This suit is filed against agents personally, not against the agencies or the federal government as a whole.

Although the Supreme Court and our sister circuits declined to construe the phrase “appropriate relief” to amount to an explicit waiver of sovereign immunity, Plaintiffs’ individual capacity suits against Defendants present no sovereign immunity concerns here. This is so because Plaintiffs seek monetary relief from those officers personally, not from the federal or state government.

The government claimed this conclusion turns “appropriate relief” into “a chameleon,” leaving the government unsure of where its stands when facing lawsuits under RFRA. The court points out the definition of the term “appropriate relief” is malleable because circumstances surrounding claims brought under the statute are rarely static or easily comparable.

[W[e are tasked with interpreting the meaning of RFRA’s phrase “appropriate relief,” an inquiry that is “inherently context?dependent.” Sossamon, 563 U.S. at 286. Indeed, the word ‘appropriate’ does not change its meaning; rather, the question addressed in each of these various contexts is what sort of relief is ‘appropriate’ in that particular situation. And, since the relevant animating principles vary appreciably across legal contexts, the meaning of ‘appropriate’ may well take on different meanings in different settings.

Having decided the lawsuit can continue, the Appeals Court decides it doesn’t need to reach a finding on the agents’ qualified immunity assertions. This will be handled on remand by the lower court, which will first have to make this decision before deciding what (if any) damages the plaintiffs are entitled to.

This is far from a victory for the plaintiffs but it does open the door for similar lawsuits against federal officers for harassment and intimidation tactics deployed in hopes of turning lawful residents and visitors into government informants. Raising the possibility of a successful lawsuit above the previously-presumed zero percent should hopefully act as a minor deterrent against future abuses of power.

Filed Under: , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Court: FBI Agents Can Be Held Accountable For Tossing Immigrants On The No-Fly List Because They Refused To Be Informants”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
24 Comments
David says:

Just wait for the angry old men

to discover that your parents are half-female and you don’t even have proof that your father’s parents were both male.

You’ll be deported to Lesbos unless you agree to report on your spouse. Or was that to Amazonia?

You’ll have to forgive me being rusty on chauvinism, it’s been some time since I have been to the U.S.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Just wait for the angry old men

You’ll have to forgive me being rusty on chauvinism, it’s been some time since I have been to the U.S.

C’mon; be fair. It’s inspiring to watch America wrestle with difficult philosophical questions like this one, in addition to "Should people have health care" and "Are Nazis bad."

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Just wait for the angry old men

Yes – it is true, some members of society are nuts – most everywhere.

It is of interest though, studying the “raise” of idiocy in the US. Seems that religious fundamentalism played a large part, even with the huge hypocrisy required some seemingly will accept anything in return for what? I don’t get it because they get nothing, I think they end up worse. Are these the “useful idiots” I heard about?

Wendy Cockcroft says:

Re: Re: Re: Just wait for the angry old men

Seems that religious fundamentalism played a large part, even with the huge hypocrisy required some seemingly will accept anything in return for what? I don’t get it because they get nothing, I think they end up worse. Are these the "useful idiots" I heard about?

They get to be The Decider. That’s basically it. I’ve had conversation after conversation after conversation with these people and it all boils down to this:

  1. Anything outside the bubble they live in either doesn’t exist or doesn’t apply
  2. Anyone they don’t personally know is automatically suspect
  3. It’s their money, damn it, and it ain’t going to anyone they don’t approve of (see point #2)

Rinse and repeat.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Just wait for the angry old men

To any resident of not-US or reader of international news it’s pretty clear the US is not alone in chauvinism, discrimination, or just about any other topic. It’s fun to pick on the US but the rest of the world is just as bad if not worse at times.

David says:

Re: Re: Just wait for the angry old men

Of course the U.S. is not alone in chauvinism, discrimination, sexism. This is part of our tribal nature. It needs to be habitually checked as part of being a member of civilization rather than a tribe.

The U.S. is pretty much alone in considering themselves above the necessity of such checking because of some ingrained sense of superiority while at the same time considering itself part of modern civilization.

That defines their maddening stance towards “Nazis”: they stand up to their person/hero cults, their names, their symbols and hate them for all that with a vengeance. They don’t mind what they want to do and do it themselves.

It’s sort of cargo cult antinazism.

Valkor says:

Re: Add "Filed Under: Good News"

Derp. Use tab not enter…

So, this belongs in a news category that highlights people actually doing their job right.
I’m happy that this is a judge telling a defendant that words mean what people think they mean, not the legal pretzel that lawyers think they mean. I just wish it didn’t seem so surprising!

David says:

Re: Re: Add "Filed Under: Good News"

It’s not “lawyers”, it’s government lawyers in particular. They work from the premise that everything their clients do is legal and lawmakers just phrase it in a lot of different ways. It’s then their job to explain to lesser gifted people how every single law means “the government cannot do wrong”.

There is an occasional judge who did not get the memo and gets annoyed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: RFRA for Muslims

While there are probably some people like that, I think a decent number of RFRA supporters would look at this case more in the context of individuals vs. Big Bad Government and decide that, if RFRA is the way to make the government lose, then that’s a good use of RFRA, regardless of the religion of the plaintiffs.

Personally, I think it’s a bit weird that RFRA ends up being the vehicle for seeking relief from government misconduct, rather than a law more directly written to keep government agents on good behavior. I worry that if RFRA is the vehicle, then it may not be applicable for protecting plaintiffs who were harmed for reasons unrelated to their religion. However, if misbehaving government agents lose this round, and the court didn’t need a “novel” interpretation of the law to make it happen, I’m not going to complain about exactly which law provided justice to these plaintiffs. I just hope it doesn’t encourage the government to invent some non-religious pretext (such as national origin, or preferred countries of travel) for its next round of harassment.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: RFRA for Muslims

I just hope it doesn’t encourage the government to invent some non-religious pretext (such as national origin, or preferred countries of travel) for its next round of harassment.

Whether they tried to extort them into becoming informers because they’re muslim or because of where they came from/go to, the reason the judge granted this ‘win’ to the plaintiffs would still apply, because it was thanks to their religious beliefs, not where they came from, that they refused.

They sued the FBI agents who harassed and threatened them, claiming the tactics violated their religious freedom. In the plaintiffs’ view, becoming an informant meant violating their religious beliefs

That One Guy (profile) says:

"Sure we're guilty... you still can't touch us."

I find it both disturbing and telling that the government didn’t seem to even try to claim that what they did was anything other than mob-style extortion(‘Nice life you got there, be a shame if something were to happen to it…’), unless that was covered elsewhere in the document, and instead merely went straight to ‘you can’t sue us no matter what we did!’.

While it’s nice that the court found that the victims can go after the ones who wronged them directly, the fact that they had to go through such a convoluted mess to do so is anything but comforting.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Before this, was the FBI ever held accountable for no-fly?

Last I checked, the FBI could put whoever they wanted on no-fly or terror-watch. Victims can petition to be taken off, which doesn’t assure they are, and they can be put back on for no reason.

So if they’re being held accountable this time for putting someone on the no-fly list, it very well may be the first time ever they’ve been held accountable at all.

So, this is a major step forward, but it’s really that bad.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Why the RFRA?

I believe the point they were making is that a muslim is able to refuse to become an informant due to religious reasons, and can use the RFRA as a shield and to sue. An atheist, or even a theist who doesn’t have a ‘religious reason’ to refuse wouldn’t have that to fall back on and would therefore have no grounds to sue(because extortion is apparently fine so long as it’s not violating your religious beliefs).

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Loading...