Justice Prevails: MLFA’s Legal Division, CLCMA – Overcomes Dismissal Hurdle in University of New Mexico Discrimination Case.
Written by Chelsea Glover – Civil Litigation Senior Staff Attorney
The Civil Litigation department within the Muslim Legal Fund of America’s (MLFA’s) legal division: CLCMA, has secured an early win in client Said El Hamdani’s case against the University of New Mexico (UNM) by defeating Defendants’ motion to dismiss his lawsuit against them.
Mr. El Hamdani is suing UNM and UNM Professor Stephen Burd for violating his right to be considered for a national security scholarship without being subjected to race and national origin discrimination. Mr. El Hamdani, a successful graduate student at UNM’s Anderson School of Management who specializes in cybersecurity, applied for the UNM CyberCorps Scholarship for Service, known as the SFS Scholarship. Mr. El Hamdani met all the requirements for the scholarship, including that he “be able to apply for and receive a high-level security clearance.” However, UNM Professor Burd disagreed. In an interview for the SFS Scholarship, Professor Burd subjected Mr. El Hamdani and his wife to extensive questioning about his family in Morocco and how frequently he travels to visit them. Professor Burd also made unsolicited comments during the interview about the Middle East, 9/11, Muslims, and Arabs in an apparent effort to tie Mr. El Hamdani’s background to the 9/11 attacks. When Professor Burd denied Mr. El Hamdani the SFS Scholarship, he wrote in an email to Mr. El Hamdani that the “primary reason for this decision is my assessment that there is a significant risk that you will be unable to obtain a high-level security clearance[.]” In a follow-up email, Professor Burd reiterated his belief that Mr. El Hamdani could not obtain the required security clearance, and he advised Mr. El Hamdani to look for jobs outside of the federal government. Of course, Professor Burd’s belief proved to be unfounded, as Mr. El Hamdani obtained the required security clearance and currently works as a security engineer supporting the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base.
On January 23, 2023, CLCMA (MLFA’s Legal Division) filed a lawsuit in federal court against UNM and Professor Burd for violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race or national origin in programs receiving federal funding, and Section 1981, which protects people in the US from racially discriminatory impairment of the right to make and enforce contracts. Note that both of these statutes are federal law statutes, not state law statutes.
Almost two weeks before their deadline to respond, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss that probably appeared to be a slam dunk but fundamentally misunderstood Mr. El Hamdani’s claims. Defendants’ primary argument was that the Court lacked jurisdiction to hear Mr. El Hamdani’s case because he failed to follow the notice requirements of the New Mexico Tort Claims Act (NMTCA). In response to this motion, CLCMA’s lawyers pointed out that the NMTCA’s notice requirement applied only to claims brought under the NMTCA, not those brought under federal statutes. Moreover, CLCMA reminded opposing counsel that, in order to receive federal funding, the Civil Rights Act requires state entities like UNM to agree to be sued in federal court for violations of Title VI.
The Court agreed with CLCMA. On May 18, 2023, District Judge Johnson of New Mexico issued a short opinion denying Defendants’ motion to dismiss. In his words, “Defendants’ first argument for dismissal blatantly misunderstands the law.” He also wrote Defendants’ argument that Mr. El Hamdani needed to satisfy the New Mexico state notice requirement prior to bringing federal claims “is just plain wrong.” Judge Johnson agreed with CLCMA that the “notice requirement has nothing to do with claims brought under federal statutes.” Finally, Judge Johnson reminded opposing counsel that Title VI provides a waiver of a state entity’s sovereign immunity to suit: “Defendants’ arguments to the contrary are devoid of merit.”
CLCMA appreciates the Court’s strong and clear language denying Defendants’ motion to dismiss. MLFA’s Legal Division: CLCMA, filed an amended complaint on June 1, 2023, and Defendants now must properly research federal law to respond to Mr. El Hamdani’s allegations, or risk another embarrassing opinion from the Court. The attorneys in MLFA’s Legal Division will continue to represent Mr. El Hamdani and ensure that he proceeds as far as possible to preserve his rights.