Supreme Court Rules Unanimously in Favor of Debevoise Clients, American Muslims Who Were Placed on No-Fly List

10 December 2020

Today, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the plaintiffs in Tanzin v. Tanvir, who are represented pro bono by Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, the CLEAR Project at CUNY School of Law and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). Justice Thomas, writing for an 8-0 court, found that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) allows the plaintiffs to seek monetary damages from individual FBI agents who improperly placed or kept plaintiffs on the No-Fly List as retaliation for refusing to become informants on their Muslim communities.

As a result of being on the No-Fly List, the plaintiffs were unable to see their families overseas, lost jobs that required air travel, and gave up plane tickets that could not be used. The men initially sued to be removed from the No-Fly List and for damages. After years of being prevented from flying, and just days before the first major hearing in the case, the men each received a letter informing them they were no longer on the List. A judge then dismissed the remaining portion of their lawsuit, which sought damages for the emotional and financial harm the men had suffered, but a federal appeals court reinstated the case. The Trump administration appealed to the Supreme Court, and oral argument was heard in October 2020.

The Court found that RFRA’s provision of “appropriate relief…against a government” unambiguously allows suits for monetary damages against federal officials sued in their individual capacity. The Court noted that a damages remedy “is the only form of relief that can remedy some RFRA violations” and that given the “textual cues” in the statute “it would be odd to construe RFRA in such a manner that prevents courts from awarding such relief.” The case now returns to the district court for further proceedings.

“Today’s decision is a victory for religious communities against improper government intrusion,” said Jennifer R. Cowan, Pro Bono Counsel, “and it is the result of our clients’ determination to stand up for their rights. We look forward to continuing this fight in the district court.”

The Debevoise team is led by Ms. Cowan and includes counsel Erol Gulay and associates Christopher Ford, Sandy Tomasik, William Mattessich, Ryan Mullally, and Omar Debs. Associates Timothy Cuffman, Sebastian Dutz and Nicole Flores also contributed.