Thursday, August 16, 2007

A legal squabble in a lawsuit brought by Muslim imam passengers is escalating among lawyers over the question of who is being sued over their removal from a flight last year.

“John Doe” passengers are named as parties in the litigation for reporting suspicious behavior of the six men, which led to their removal from the flight. Employees of U.S. Airways and a Minneapolis airport are also targets of the lawsuit now proceeding through a federal court.

One of the attorneys representing the six Muslim men says they do not intend to pursue the passengers in litigation, but the Becket Fund, which is aiding the defendants in the case, says “John Doe” passengers remain listed as a party to the lawsuit and are still targets of the litigation.

Frederick J. Goetz, the imams’ attorney in Minnesota, said the passengers are no longer included in the lawsuit, and referenced a footnote in one motion of several he filed on Aug. 2. The footnote says, “Plaintiffs also agree to strike paragraphs 21 and 22 of the first amended complaint and the dismissal of the parties named therein” — the paragraphs that identify unknown “John Doe” passengers who reported some of the imams’ activities to flight attendants.

“The issue is moot. I don’t know why [the Becket Fund] is grandstanding,” Mr. Goetz told The Washington Times.

Pat Hogan, a spokesman for the airport, said its attorneys have not been alerted that the passengers have been released from the lawsuit filed on March 12.

Kevin J. Hasson, president of the Becket Fund, a religious-freedom advocacy group that has requested “amicus” status in the lawsuit, says those who are listed as parties to the lawsuit will remain so until the court is formally asked, and formally agrees, to release the airline passengers from the litigation.

Mr. Hasson said he sent Mr. Goetz a pre-written draft notice of dismissal, urging the imams’ attorney to sign the document that would release the “John Does” from the case.

“Now we”re making it easy for them; if they truly mean not to sue the passengers, all they have to do is sign on the dotted line,” Mr. Hasson said.

The plaintiffs’ failure to formally dismiss the passengers from the suit is “another sign that what they’re really up to is trying to intimidate future airline passengers from coming forward with their suspicions,” Mr. Hasson said.

“That is outrageous and has nothing to do with religious liberty. And we will continue to fight them every step of the way,” Mr. Hasson said of the imams’ lawsuit.

Mr. Goetz said he will not respond to the Becket Fund’s request, because the court has yet to approve the group’s amicus brief, filed Aug. 1, that requests charges against the “John Doe” passengers be dropped.

The Becket Fund has also offered free representation to any passenger later named in the complaint.

The imams were booked on a flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to Phoenix on Nov. 20 when passengers and the flight crew contacted U.S. Airways to report the suspicious behavior of the men.

The men prayed loudly before boarding and later formed seating patterns officials said mirrored the September 11, 2001, hijackers. Some of the men asked for seat-belt extenders not needed and criticized President Bush and the war in Iraq.

President Bush signed into law last month legislation that will prevent passengers from being sued if they report suspicious behavior.

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