Thursday, December 10, 2020

Supreme Court Holds That RFRA Authorizes Damage Actions Against Federal Officials

The U.S. Supreme Court today in Tanzin v. Tanvir, (Sup. Ct., Dec. 10, 2020), held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act permits suits for damages against federal officials in their individual capacities. In an 8-0 opinion (written by Justice Thomas), the court described the case as follows:

Respondents Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah, and Naveed Shinwari are practicing Muslims who claim that Federal Bureau of Investigation agents placed them on the No Fly List in retaliation for their refusal to act as informants against their religious communities. Respondents sued various agents in their official capacities, seeking removal from the No Fly List. They also sued the agents in their individual capacities for money damages. According to respondents, the retaliation cost them substantial sums of money: airline tickets wasted and income from job opportunities lost.

Focusing on RFRA's authorization of suits seeking "appropriate relief" against the federal government or government officials, the Court said in part:

A damages remedy is not just “appropriate” relief as viewed through the lens of suits against Government employees. It is also the only form of relief that can remedy some RFRA violations.

Justice Barrett did not take part in the decision.