Chiming in on the Potential Ahmed Mohamed Lawsuit

Michael GrossmanDecember 15, 2015 10 minutes

UPDATE: In what came as a surprise to absolutely no one, this case was all but laughed out of court when it finally came before a judge. It didn't even survive a motion for summary judgement, in which the bar is so low that Mr. Mohamed's attorneys simply had to prove there was some evidence which could ultimately result in them winning at trial. More simply put, this case never had any merit.

News broke recently that attorneys, acting on behalf of Ahmed Mohamed and his family have sent a Claims and Demand letter to the city of Irving, Texas. The letter alleges that the city violated Mohamed's civil rights by their conduct in the infamous September "homemade clock" incident. It also singles out Mayor Beth Van Duyne, Chief of Police Larry Boyd, and "numerous other city officials." The headline grabbing portion of the demand letter is that the attorneys are asking for $15 million in damages incurred by the family. $10 million of that claim is directed towards the city of Irving, while the other $5 million dollars is demanded from Irving Independent School District (ISD). If your forehead furrowed a little at that number, don't worry, ours did too.

Before we go any further, let me make my position clear. I realize that this issue has become highly controversial and politicized, and that people are quite divided with respect to where they stand on the matter. For some, this incident is proof positive that past allegations of racism against the City of Irving's leaders were accurate all along. For others, this incident illustrates little more than a misunderstanding that that has been blown out of proportion. But where I (and the law firm) stand on the issue is that any time a bona fide violation of a constitutional right occurs, that matters. All of the other details, however significant their moral or social implications may be, are just that: details. We don't care whether or not he actually built the clock. We don't care whether Muslims are good for America or bad for America. We don't care about the political correctness of the situation or the lack thereof. Again, our only focus in this article are the accusations against the officials who acted on behalf of the state, whether or not an American citizen's rights were violated, and the legal implications therein. Whether the government is infringing upon your right to keep and bear arms, your right to vote, your right to worship the way you prefer, or whatever particular right that you hold sacred, any effrontery to civil rights is something that should be addressed. But, like all matters, it should be addressed fairly.

All that to say that it seems as if Mr. Mohamed's rights probably were violated, but it also seems apparent that his lawsuit, no matter how meritorious it may be, is reaching a bit too far.

Some of the claims that Mr. Mohamed's lawyers make are not as unreasonable as they may appear at first blush, while others seem like a bit of a stretch. Under 42 U.S.C. §1983 local officials can be held civilly liable for violations of an individual's civil rights, even when the offender is acting in an official capacity. In the normal course of their duties, most elected officials have immunity from civil claims. This concept is called "the doctrine of sovereign immunity" or "governmental immunity," and it's an idea as old as Western law itself, which basically states that the government cannot be sued for misconduct. However, §1983 of the U.S Code dissolves that immunity, when officials acting in their official capacity use the power of the government to violate a person's civil rights. The ideas behind §1983 is the premise that civil rights are important and that even a minor violation of these laws is unjust. This law came into effect on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s wherein many people had their rights blatantly violated, as was shown on newscasts all around the world. After reading the allegations that the Mohamed's lawyers make, it seems quite plausible that Mr. Mohamed's civil rights were violated. Specifically, the strongest allegation is that Mr. Mohamed was detained without being informed of his 5th Amendment rights not to incriminate himself.

It is alleged that Mr. Mohamed was not Mirandized prior to his two hour interrogation by multiple police officers and school administrators. So in essence, at least 5 adults, acting on behalf of the state, surrounded a child without informing him that he had a right to keep silent, seek counsel, or end their interview. The claims letter further states that during this time officials attempted to extract a confession of some sort from Mr. Mohamed. Whatever we think of the subsequent media storm, that the government would attempt to get a 14-year-old boy to incriminate himself without being made aware of his rights, as is required by law, is a situation that should trouble all of us. At the very least, it appears that the police and the school were quite possibly bullying the young man.

The other claims in the demand seem like a bit more a stretch. First, the attorneys allege that a coordinated effort took place among the city officials to deprive Mr. Mohamed of his rights. This effort included Mayor Van Duyne. The most ridiculous of part of this claim concerns an appearance that Mayor Van Duyne made on a program hosted by Glenn Beck, which also doubles as the only evidence that Mr. Mohamed's attorneys offers as to how Mayor Van Duyne fits into this conspiracy. The letter sent to the city alleges that Mayor Van Duyne injured Mr. Mohamed when she appeared on a Mr. Beck's program to relay her version of the facts surrounding the case to the public. After recounting her version, Mr. Beck reportedly spoke at length about how the incident may be an Islamist plot to lower our guard in the face of potential terrorist threats. Mr. Mohamed's attorneys allege that Mayor Van Duyne nods while Mr. Beck goes on his bizarre rant. Attempting to rival Mr. Beck in the realm of overreaching interpretations, Mr. Mohamed's attorneys interpret the Mayor's nodding as affirming Mr. Beck's views.

Essentially, Mr. Mohamed's lawyer is asserting that Mayor Van Duyne had a duty to contradict Mr. Beck, or clarify that his remarks had no bearing on Mr. Mohamed's situation. In essence, Mr. Mohamed's representative alleges that the Mayor is liable for something that Mr. Beck said, simply because she was nodding while Mr. Beck was speaking. This strikes me as a pretty thin argument, given that plenty of people nod when they are listening to a person, not necessarily because they agree with them, but because that is something people do unconsciously (that also might explain why I get flak from my co-workers for my blank, emotionless stares when they're speaking). Unless there is a more compelling argument to be made about Mayor Van Duyne's appearance on Mr. Beck's program than nodding while Mr. Beck was speaking, or evidence that is not mentioned in the Claims and Demand letter, this stands out as far and away the weakest claim put forward by Mr. Mohamed's legal team.

The rest of the claims made by Mr. Mohamed's attorneys are neither as strong as the claim that Mr. Mohamed was denied the right to contact his parents before being interrogated by the police, or as weak as the claim regarding Mayor Van Duyne and her appearance on the Glenn Beck program. Based on the facts as presented in the Claims and Demand letter, it certainly appears that Mr. Mohamed has legitimate grievances against the city of Irving and the Irving ISD, under 42 U.S.C. §1983. Until Mr. Mohamed's attorneys have a chance to flesh out their arguments and the city is given the chance to respond, it is difficult to say what the outcome of the case would be. That's why we have courts and juries, to makes those decisions with all the evidence presented by both sides.

Of course, no one is talking about this Claims and Demand letter because of what it alleges; The headlining grabbing portion of the letter is the demand for $15,000,000 in damages. As to how the attorneys arrived at this number, even they don't appear to be too sure when they write:

It is difficult to say how much monetary damage is caused by any of the following...[while] other damages are more conducive to quantification.

The list of hard to quantify damages includes:

Ahmed being portrayed as the 'Clock Boy' on a Halloween costume web site; [and] having Ahmed's name, and particularly his likeness, forever associated with arguably the most contentious and divisive socio-political issue of our time."

I'm fully aware of how what I'm about to say may be perceived as cynical, but one could argue that Ahmed Mohamed gained quite a bit from the controversy, including a White House invitation, a scholarship to a school in Qatar, and an admittedly non-binding offer to study at MIT some day. I have no doubt that many people in this country genuinely despise this child, which must surely cause him some concern, and I can also see how it's all a bit unfair since he never asked for any of this. Yet, it's still hard to deny that many people now view him as a hero and a celebrity.

We often think of our firm's injury cases in terms of "what would you think is fair payment in order to voluntarily go through what our client experienced?" That's not exactly how court works, but it's a good thought experiment. When you apply that analysis to, say, one particular client of ours who just recovered from a second surgery that involved peeling his face off so that doctor's could rebuild his damaged skull such that his eye would sit in the correct part of his face, most people would probably only be willing to endure something like that for a sizable amount of money, and many people, if not most, would say that no amount of money would be worth having your face caved in by an 18-wheeler whose driver ran through a stop sign. But when you apply that same analysis Mr. Mohammed's situation, I strongly suspect that many people would be more than willing to endure what he did, provided that they also attained his same status. I get it, that's pure happenstance, and this whole thing could have ended much for negatively for Mr. Mohammed, but that's my point. I don't doubt that Mr. Mohammed has suffered, but it strains credulity to suggest that he's suffered to the tune of $15 million.

When dealing with civil rights violations, those whose rights have been violated have suffered damages as a matter of law, which is a fancy way of saying that even if victims of an overbearing government cannot show a receipt for a single penny lost by their situation, the law recognizes that the only disincentive for government officials who would seek to violate the rights of American citizens is being forced to pay money. As such, the simple answer is that virtually any genuine violation of a citizen's rights has an economic cost as imposed by a jury. So, it can certainly be said that, should he prove that his rights were violated, that he has incurred damages as a matter of law, but it's doubtful that any jury would think the value of those damages to be anywhere close to $15 million.

Nevertheless, the only quantifiable damage that Mr. Mohamed's attorneys allege is that the Mohamed family children were unable to attend school and deprived of their right to an education. However, the evidence to support this claim is that the principal of MacArthur High School made an announcement two days after the incident, in which he supposedly called the Mohamed family liars. If the principal's statements may be considered slanderous (which as best I can tell is not something covered by Section 1983), it is not exactly clear how they prevented the Mohamed's from attending school. Without that clearly quantifiable claim, the rest of the Claims and Demands appears to be little more than a fishing expedition.

While the incident of Ahmed Mohamed, the clock, and various parts of the Irving city government generated a fair amount of controversy, with grandstanding all across the political spectrum, it is difficult to see how it resulted in $15,000,000 worth of damages to the Mohamed family. The assertion that "Ahmed's reputation in the global community is permanently scarred," is a microcosm of the whole demand letter. Certainly, Mr. Mohamed's civil rights were violated when he was questioned without his parents' being notified, or being informed of his constitutional rights. It seems very likely that both the school and the police failed to respect Mr. Mohamed's 5th Amendment rights. However, to get from there to "Ahmed's reputation in the global community is permanently scarred," is both quite the exaggeration and demeaning to the Qatari's who certainly don't hold the young man in low-esteem, or the Saudi's who reportedly paid for the young man to attend this year's Hadj.

So far, the city shows no indication of settling with the Mohamed family, and at that price who can blame them? Compared to the $6.4 million paid to Freddie Gray's family or the $5 million, which LaQuan McDonald's family received in unrelated, potential Section 1983 violations (police shootings), the Mohamed's demands seem especially ridiculous. From a quick glance at new reports of damages in other Section 1983 cases, mostly dealing with wrongful termination, typical damages ranged in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars. I really cannot see a reasonable explanation for how Mr. Mohamed's counsel could arrive at the $15 million figure. In the end, reasonable people certainly would not conclude that Mr. Mohamed was damaged nearly as badly (if he was damaged at all) as someone who died as the result of alleged police misconduct or someone who had lost their job because of unlawful behavior, which shines the Claims and Demand letter in the light of a publicity stunt, as opposed to serious attempt by a lawyer to strike a bargain.

Now, you may be wondering why we care? After all, our attorneys are personal injury attorneys, so the realm of the law under which we practice is perhaps different. Well, frankly, we care because the public is largely unaware of that distinction. All that many people see when they hear about stories like this is a headline that they interpret as saying, "Greedy lawyer blows something out of proportion to the tune of millions of dollars."While there are certainly lawyers out there who abuse the justice system, our firm, and the overwhelming majority of other firms, play by the rules and use the court to help people who have legitimately been wronged. For instance, we currently have a case against a truck driver who rear-ended a parked car, causing a toddler to suffer a horrific head injury that will affect her the rest of her life. We have another case against an oilfield company who just plumb forgot to open a valve in a pressurized line, which caused molten oil to back up until the line burst, badly burning a man on his face and body. We have another case where a young woman was badly injured and she watched her best friend burn to death when a drunk driver ran into their car head-on. The point is that, while Mr. Mohammed probably does deserve compensation for having his civil rights violated, his attorneys choosing to swing for the fence with their demand letter sends the wrong signal about how the justice system works. Is there some combination of jurors out there that would pay him $15 million for what he went through? Sure. Anything's possible. But the whole idea behind a demand letter is that it serves as an opportunity for a lawyer to basically say, "I know what a reasonable jury would do in a case like this, and since they'd make you pay X because you're so darn guilty, my client is willing to accept Y to settle." In other words, all of the attorney's leverage comes from what a jury would make a defendant pay, and I have a personal problem with anything that leads the public into thinking that juries are insane. All that this kind of sensationalism does is fuel the fire of the so-called "tort reformers" who want everyone think that juries are all fools and the sky is falling, when, in actual fact, we are all incredibly fortunate that we live in a country where the rule of law matters, regular people have the final say in legal disputes, and a bunch of smart people 200 years ago had the foresight to create system capable of dispensing so much justice.