Monday, December 14, 2020
The Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act authorizes plaintiffs, when appropriate, to obtain monetary damages against federal officials in their individual capacities.
The case, Tanzin v. Tanvir, tested the limits of RFRA's remedies. The plaintiffs are Muslims who sued federal officers under RFRA for putting them on the No Fly list in retaliation for refusing to act as informants against their religious communities. The plaintiffs sued for injunctive relief and monetary damages under RFRA's remedies provision. The government argued that RFRA didn't authorize monetary damages against federal officials.
The Supreme Court disagreed. Justice Thomas wrote for a unanimous Court (except Justice Barrett, who did not participate). He noted that RFRA's remedies provision says that a person may sue and "obtain appropriate relief against a government," and that RFRA defines "government" to include "a branch, department, agency, instrumentality, and official (or other person acting under color of law) of the United States." Justice Thomas wrote that "official" means an actual person (and not just an office), and that the "acting under color of law" language drew on language from 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. That provision authorizes monetary damages against state officials in their individual capacities for violations of the federal Constitution and law. "Because RFRA uses the same terminology as Section 1983 in the very same field of civil rights law, 'it is reasonable to believe that the terminology bears a consistent meaning.'"
Justice Thomas went on to write that monetary damages are "appropriate relief," because "damages have long been awarded as appropriate relief" in suits against government officials. He said that monetary damages were particularly appropriate in a case like this, where only monetary damages could remedy a violation.
He rejected the government's argument that this reading would raise separation-of-powers concerns. "But this exact remedy has coexisted with our constitutional system since the dawn of the Republic. To be sure, there may be policy reasons why Congress may wish to shield Government employees from personal liability, and Congress is free to do so. But there is no constitutional reason why we must do so in its stead."