Three Muslim men were improperly placed on the federal government’s No Fly List. FBI agents promised to remove the men from the list if they agreed to spy on other Muslims for the FBI. The men refused, based in part on their religious beliefs. The men then sued the FBI agents involved for violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They argued that the agents had retaliated against them for exercising their religious beliefs and that, therefore, the FBI agents had imposed a substantial burden on that religious exercise, in violation of RFRA.
After the men filed their lawsuit, they were removed from the No Fly List, meaning that the only relief they could still seek was money damages. But the FBI agents argued that RFRA does not authorize lawsuits for money damages. The federal trial court agreed with the agents and dismissed the claims. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit disagreed and reversed the trial court’s decision. It held that RFRA’s statutory language, which provides that litigants may “obtain appropriate relief against a government,” permits lawsuits for money damages against individual federal employees when they are sued in their individual capacities.
In November 2019, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. We submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on the side of the Muslim men, explaining that they should be entitled to damages under RFRA. The brief also underscored the serious, substantial requirements that must be satisfied by any plaintiff bringing a claim under RFRA: If those requirements are followed, we argued, RFRA damages suits should not overdeter federal officials from taking legitimate actions.
The Supreme Court ruled in December 2020 that RFRA litigants may seek money damages against federal employees in their individual capacity.