Wednesday, June 17, 2015
The Second Circuit ruled today that a civil rights case by former alien detainees against former AG John Ashcroft, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, former INS Commissioner James Zigler, and officials at the Metropolitan Detention Center can move forward.
The ruling is not a decision on the merits, but instead says that the bulk of the plaintiffs' case against the officials is not dismissed and can proceed to discovery.
Still, the ruling is significant, to say the least. It means that officials at the highest level of the DOJ will have to answer in court for their actions that led directly to the wrongful detention and mistreatment of aliens who were mistakenly swept up in the 9/11 investigation, even though, as the court said, "they were unquestionably never involved in terrorist activity."
The case, Turkmen v. Ashcroft, over thirteen years old, challenges the defendants' moves that resulted in the detention and mistreatment of aliens in the post-9/11 investigation, even though they had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks or terrorist activities. In particular, the plaintiffs claimed that they were detained between three and eight months, without individualized suspicion and because of their race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin, and subjected to various forms of mistreatment.
The plaintiffs alleged that the DOJ defendants took certain actions that resulted in their detention and unlawful treatment, with knowledge that the plaintiffs were wrongfully detained and mistreated. They also alleged that the MDC defendants took official actions that led to their abuse and knew about certain "unofficial abuse."
The defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, on qualified immunity grounds, and, for some claims, that Bivens did not extend a cause of action. The district court dismissed all claims against the DOJ defendants and some claims against the MDC defendants.
The Second Circuit (mostly) reversed and allowed the case to move forward. The court said that the plaintiffs adequately pleaded their constitutional claims (and met the Iqbal pleading standard) that the DOJ and MDC defendants acted directly to violate the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. Key to the ruling was the plaintiffs' carefully pleaded complaint, which incorporated most of two reports of the DOJ's Office of Inspector General, helping plaintiffs to meet the plausibility test. Also key was the plaintiffs' allegations that the DOJ defendants received regular information on the post-9/11 investigation, including detainees, and that they ordered and implemented certain policies and took certain actions that resulted directly in the plaintiffs' wrongful detention.
Along the way, the court ruled that the plaintiffs had Bivens claims (except for their free exercise claim), even though the DOJ defendants didn't argue Bivens on appeal. The court also ruled that the defendants weren't entitled to qualified immunity, because the law on pretrial detention and mistreatment was clear at the time.
The court concluded:
The suffering endured by those who were imprisoned merely because they were caught up in the hysteria of the days immediately following 9/11 is not without a remedy.
Holding individuals in solitary confinement twenty-three hours a day with regular strip searches because their perceived faith or race placed them in the group targeted for recruitment by al Qaeda violated the detainees' constitutional rights. To use such a broad and general basis for such severe confinement without any further particularization of a reason to suspect an individual's connection to terrorist activities requires certain assumptions about the "targeted group" not offered by Defendants nor supported in the record. It assumes that members of the group were already allied with or would be easily converted to the terrorist cause, until proven otherwise. Why else would no further particularization of a connection to terrorism be required? Perceived membership in the "targeted group" was seemingly enough to justify extended confinement in the most restrictive conditions available.
Judge Reena Raggi dissented.