On December 10, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Tanzin v. Tanvir, holding that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) permits litigants, when appropriate, to obtain money damages against federal officials in their individual capacities.
Three practicing Muslims sued various FBI agents in both their official and personal capacities, claiming that the agents placed the plaintiffs on the federal No Fly List in retaliation for their refusal to act as informants against their religious communities. The plaintiffs sought removal from the No Fly List and money damages to reimburse them for wasted airline tickets and income from lost job opportunities. The claims for injunctive relief were mooted during litigation when the Department of Homeland Security informed the individuals that they could now fly. The district court then dismissed the claims for money damages, ruling that RFRA does not permit monetary relief. The Second Circuit reversed.
The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that RFRA permits litigants, when appropriate, to obtain money damages against federal officials in their individual capacities. The Court relied primarily on RFRA’s text allowing injured parties to “obtain appropriate relief against a government.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(c). The Court first concluded that injured parties can sue government officials in their personal capacities, because RFRA defines “government” to include an “official (or other person acting under color of law) of the United States.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-2(1).
The Court also held that “appropriate relief” includes monetary damages against federal officials. Because “appropriate relief” is open-ended language, the Court looked to “context,” finding that “[i]n the context of suits against Government officials, damages have long been awarded as appropriate relief” and “damages against federal officials remain an appropriate form of relief today.” The Court further emphasized that RFRA’s purpose was to reinstate the protections and rights available prior to Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), which included the “right to seek damages against Government employees.” Lastly, the Court explained that damages is “the only form of relief that can remedy some RFRA violations,” such as wasted plane tickets. If Congress wished to limit the remedies for RFRA violations to equitable relief, the Court concluded, it knew how to do so.
Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except Justice Barrett, who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.