A federal appeals court has blasted the U.S. government for its poor handling of a longstanding lawsuit over a former graduate student’s placement on the no-fly list.
POLITICO reports that Malaysian citizen Rahinah Ibrahim first launched her lawsuit ten years ago. She won, five years back, after U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup ruled that her due process rights were violated by being placed on the no-fly list.
When the case went on trial, an FBI agent testified that he’d misunderstood a form and accidentally placed the former Stanford student on a list often reserved for terror suspects and international criminals.
But that didn’t settle the suit. According to POLITICO, Ibrahim’s attorneys applied to recoup $3.6 million in legal fees and another $300,000 in expenses.
Earlier this week, a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Alsup’s miscalculations led him to slash the fee request by some 90 percent.
Along with altering Alsup’s verdict, the 9th Circuit said there’s considerable evidence indicating that Justice Department attorneys acted in “bad faith,” prolonging Ibrahim’s lawsuit even after she was vindicated by trial. Judge Kim Wardlaw, writes POLITICO, said Alsup was too quick to discard the plaintiff’s claims of bad faith.
“The government played discovery games, made false representations to the court, misused the court’s time, and interfered with the public’s right of access to trial,” Wardlaw wrote on behalf of eight members of the 11-judge panel. “Thus, the government attorneys’ actual conduct during this litigation was ethically questionable and not substantially justified.”
Wardlaw and the panel digressed from resetting the award or listing an actual dollar amount, but said Ibrahim’s attorneys are entitled to “the vast majority of fees they requested.”
She also blasted the government’s handling of the case, which led to Ibrahim being tossed back and forth between the no-fly list and even being refused permission to attend her own trial.
“From the suit’s inception, the government agencies’ actions, including their on-again, off-again placement of Dr. Ibrahim on various government watchlists; refusal to allow her to reenter the United States at all, even to attend her own trial; and delay of her U.S.-born, U.S.-citizen daughter’s attendance at trial, were unreasonable and served only to drive up attorneys’ fees,” Wardlaw wrote.
Ibrahim, recounts POLITICO, filed a lawsuit after she was denied boarding at a San Francisco airport. She was briefly detained, interrogated and released.
The only reason Ibrahim was on the list, says POLITICO, is that she’d participated in an interview with a San Jose-based FBI agent as part of a mosque outreach program.
The agent said during trial that he’d meant to put Ibrahim on a “selectee” list that ensures additional scrutiny at airports but isn’t an all-out ban akin to that of the no-fly list.
Regardless, Alsup dismissed Ibrahim’s lawsuit twice. Both times his decisions were reversed by appellate courts, bringing the case to trial in 2013.
After winning her trial in 2014, Ibrahim and her lawyers said they hoped the verdict would bring some relief to Muslims and others erroneously placed on the no-fly list.
“Each year our offices hear from hundreds of individuals who are visited by the FBI and face travel related issues,” said Zahra Billoo, executive director of California’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Many have lost hope about clearing their names, but this case will renew our collective desire to continue forward with the courts on our side.”
Attorney James McManis, who worked with Ibrahim on the suit, applauded the 9th Circuit Court’s decision to provide compensation for fees and expenses.
“I am personally grateful that the 9th Circuit recognized that work and said it should be properly compensated,” he said. “Some other firms wouldn’t touch this. I’m really thrilled that a little law firm like ours took on the U.S. government in a case like this and won.”