(CN) – A Pakistani man failed to adequately plead his case that top U.S. officials unconstitutionally placed him in a maximum-security prison unit because he and “thousands of Arab Muslim men” had been deemed “of high interest” after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday on a 5-4 vote.
Javaid Iqbal was arrested in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks, when the Department of Justice ramped up its investigations of alleged terrorists and their affiliates.
The FBI questioned more than 1,000 people with suspected links to the attacks or terrorism in general, and detained 762 of them on immigration charges. Iqbal was part of a subset of 184 detainees deemed “of high interest” to the investigation. Those inmates were held under restrictive conditions to keep them from communicating with the general prison population or the outside world.
Iqbal pleaded guilty to charges of immigration-related fraud and was placed in a maximum-security unit of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
In the special housing unit, Iqbal said prison authorities made detainees stay in their cells 23 hours a day, banned them from contacting anyone outside the prison, placed them in handcuffs and leg irons, forced them to have four officers escort them everywhere, monitored them by video cameras inside their cells, and put them through a “communications blackout” – all without due process or evidence linking them to terrorism.
After he was released and removed to Pakistan, Iqbal lodged a 21-count complaint against a slew of state and federal officials. The appeal involved allegations against the FBI, former Attorney General John Ashcroft and former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who argued for qualified immunity.
According to Iqbal, “thousands of Arab Muslim men” were held in highly restrictive conditions after the terrorist attacks, in violation of their First and Fifth Amendment rights. He added that top officials “knew of, condoned, and willfully and maliciously agreed to subject” him and other Arab or Muslim prisoners to harsh confinement based on their race, religion or national origin.
The district court and the 2nd Circuit denied the government’s bid for immunity, saying Iqbal had a private right of action, as outlined by the high court in Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents.
Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy stressed that Iqbal had to plead and prove that the officials, and not their subordinates, acted with a discriminatory motive. Supervisory liability under Bivens can’t be established solely on a theory of respondeat superior, Kennedy added.
Iqbal insisted, however, that because U.S. officials knew that their subordinates were using discriminatory criteria to classify inmates, the supervisors violated the Constitution.
“We reject this argument,” Kennedy wrote. “[Iqbal’s] conception of ‘supervisory liability’ is inconsistent with his accurate stipulation that petitioners may not be held accountable for the misdeeds of their agents.”
The high court concluded that the lawsuit “fails to plead sufficiently facts to state a claim for purposeful and unlawful discrimination against petitioners.” The court reversed and remanded, expressing no opinion on Iqbal’s claims against prison officials.
Dissenting Justice Souter said the majority opinion rests on the assumption that only two outcomes are possible: respondeat superior liability or no supervisory liability. “Even if an employer is not liable for the actions of his employee solely because the employee was acting within the scope of his employment, there still might be conditions to render a supervisor liable for the conduct of his subordinates,” Souter wrote.
Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer joined the dissenting opinion.