Search

Professional Troublemaker ®

 Jonathan Corbett, Civil Rights Attorney

NYC: Don’t Ask Our Vaccine Mandate Inspectors to Show Their Vax Cards!

New York’s vaccine mandate program, dubbed “Key to NYC” and requiring all who enter bars, restaurants, gyms, theaters, and the like to show proof of at least one dose of a vaccine, has been a shit-show from its very inception. We can start with its questionable necessity, given that 83% of adults in the state already have at least one dose. We can look at the disparate racial impact, given that younger black residents are far less likely to be vaccinated, leading to a new means of discrimination and protests by BLM. We can realize that its efficacy is questionable given that any moron can print a vaccine card (so long as one is not illiterate) and there is absolutely no way for a business to verify its authenticity. And perhaps we can even think about the small business owners, already closed for many months and handicapped thereafter, who shouldn’t have to take city-provided conflict resolution courses to deal with people who get upset about having to show their medical records to have a bite to eat, as well as the hit to their much needed revenue, and the fact that it is simply not fair to place the burden of enforcing a public health mandate upon them.

If all of that doesn’t demonstrate that this policy was created in an ivory tower, I received a tip from a New York CIty venue who was inspected by the city for vaccine mandate compliance yesterday and had a simple request of the inspectors: show your vaccination card before entering, like any other person who enters. The inspectors had a simple reply: no. The venue was written up for “denying access” and presumably will face some kind of fine by mail.

These were just inspectors on a power trip, right? I contacted the Mayor’s “Office of Nightlife” chief Ariel Palitz, who told me:

“Inspectors are not required to be vaxxed because their presence is for a ‘quick and limited purpose.’ Exactly like unvaxxed patrons who are dining outside may go inside to use the bathroom or pick up food with a mask on.”

But as any establishment in NYC with a food service permit knows, city inspections can sometimes take hours, the inspectors are in people’s faces, putting their grubby hands all over things, and wandering into private areas, and is simply not the same risk as one who enters to use the bathroom and then leaves. Beyond that, the city seems oblivious to how it looks when they say, “All you people need to be vaccinated to come in… but we are special and will come and go as we please!”

Knock it off, Mayor de Blasio. The people are tired of rules for them, but not for you.

How to Request TSA Checkpoint Security Video

I am approached by potential clients multiple times per week describing pat-downs gone wrong. Sometimes, the case is black and white: “They strip searched me in the back room” is a scenario where there is no argument that the screeners were “just doing their jobs.” Often times, however, the situation they describe is abusive but close enough to TSA’s “legitimate” procedure that proving it crossed the line may be nearly impossible. These include allegations that the pat-down was done in a way to cause pain (generally, by hitting the groin area), or that screeners used the pat-down as an opportunity to grope rather than search. In these cases, I generally advise clients to get the CCTV video of the incident.

“You can do that? How?”

Every state in the country, plus the federal government, has some variety of public records law.  They may call it a “Freedom of Information” act or law, a “Sunshine” law, or merely a “Public Records Law,” but the idea is that members of the public have some right to request records from the government.  Records include pretty much anything, from paper documents to e-mails to video.  But, keep in mind that every state has a different version of a public records law, so the steps below are the general process in many states; an attorney can help you confirm that you’re doing what’s right for your state.

Public Records Request Contact at Miami International AirportStep 1: Find the Video Owner.  Security cameras at the airport are typically not owned or operated by TSA.  The footage generally belongs to the airport authority, which is most commonly the county in which the airport is located.  Google for “[airport name] public records request” and you will find that most airports have a process, or at least an e-mail address, for submitting public records requests.  If so, follow their procedure.  If not, you may have to dig around the county’s Web site, or call the county and ask.

Step 2: Write Your Request.  Public records requests generally don’t have to adhere to some kind of form: you simply ask for what you want and tell them how to get it to you.  What you want to make sure you do is describe the video you want in a way that is specific enough that they can find it.  Example: “All video showing a TSA pat-down of a blonde woman, 50 years old, 5’3″, 150 lbs., wearing a pink shirt and white pants, at XYZ airport, Terminal 1, South Checkpoint, second security lane from the left, on 1/1/2021, between 10:10 AM and 10:30AM.”

Step 3: Wait.  Send in your request and set a reminder on your calendar for 30 days, and don’t think about it again until then.  Sometimes you’ll have your records in a week, other times it takes much longer, but you cannot speed it up by contacting them every few days. If you don’t have your request in 30 days, then consider your request ignored.

Step 4: Deal with Pushback.  Sometimes, the airport authority will not provide the video, often citing that it is “Sensitive Security Information” (“SSI”).  However, as a general matter, TSA does not classify checkpoint video as SSI unless it shows computer screens or sensitive documents or similar.  Frankly, these security videos have never, in my experience, been detailed enough to make out what was on a computer screen.  An attorney can help you if your request is denied.  Likewise, if your request is ignored, and after 30 days you are unable to reach anyone to give you a status update, you may wish to have an attorney take a look.

Step 5: Review the Video.  Pretend you’re a random person on a jury.  In fact, perhaps have some objective friends watch it with you.  Based only on what you see in the video, are you convinced that this government employee went too far?  If the video has a clear view of the search but the misconduct simply isn’t apparent on tape, you may need to let this one go.  No one wants to let an abuser get away with it, but sadly justice isn’t done every time, and you don’t want to waste your time and money fighting a battle that simply can’t be won.  On the other hand, the video may make the misconduct quite clear.  In this case, send it on to an attorney for a professional opinion.

The most important part of this process is that you start it quickly.  CCTV videos are usually discarded on a rolling basis, most commonly after 30 days.  Failing to request the video within this retention timeframe doesn’t just deprive you of the video, but it may also allow the other side to suggest that your delay resulted in evidence being destroyed, and may work against you in your lawsuit.  Save a receipt for the sending of your request, whether it be an e-mail confirmation, a screen shot, or a certified mail receipt if you went the old-fashioned way (and there is certainly nothing wrong with that!).

Lawsuit: TSA Fined Disabled Veteran for Being *Unable* to Comply with Airport Screening

Rohan Ramsingh is a disabled veteran of the United States Army. His service to his country left him with multiple disabilities, including minimal use of one of his shoulders and severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sufficient that the government classifies him as having “permanent and total disability.” To give you an idea of the extent of the surgeries, medication, and other treatment he has required, his medical record with the Veterans Health Administration is nearly 900 pages.

A few months before the pandemic descended upon the world, Ramsingh went to the airport, presented himself at the security checkpoint, and candidly told TSA screeners about his disabilities at the start of screening. His shoulder injury precludes going through a body scanner (which requires a traveler to hold their arms above their head for several seconds) and his PTSD is triggered by having certain areas of his body touched by strangers. Upon hearing this, instead of working to find a solution, or at worst telling Ramsingh that they wouldn’t be able to clear him to enter, supervisors apparently interpreted Ramsingh’s medical limitations as disrespect of their authority and started to threaten him with detention, fines, and police intervention. Security video shows that the whole time, Ramsingh remained calm, not once yelling or create a scene, and after several minutes of being barked at, he asked TSA to allow him to leave the airport. Instead, TSA held him and police were called. The incident ended when the responding officer told Ramsingh that he wouldn’t be participating in detaining him and that he was free to go.

If only the story also ended there. Days later, Ramsingh received a letter proposing that he pay TSA a civil penalty of $2,050 for “interference” with the TSA screening process.

Surely this must be posturing by some supervisor with a hurt ego that will be abandoned once the adults in charge take a look, right? Wrong. Ramsingh retained competent counsel — yours truly — who retrieved the security video, the incident reports, and the medical records, and presented them to actual attorneys for TSA assigned to the case, David Hall and Bill Hernandez. Instead of dismissing, they argued that being disabled is no defense for failure to complete the screening process, and TSA court (yes, there is such a thing), of course, agreed:

“TSA did not dispute Respondent’s claims to STOSs Pagan and McClelland that he suffers from a condition preventing him from lifting both arms and PTSD, and it does not dispute Respondent’s VA medical documentation, in Exhibit A. … However, as discussed in Ruskai, supra, an individual’s bona fide medical condition does not invalidate the requirement to complete screening.

Order Granting TSA’s Motion for Decision, Mar. 4th, 2021, by Hon. Michael J. Devine, U.S. Coast Guard Administrative Law Judge

An appeal to the head of the agency was denied, and so on Friday we asked the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to explain to TSA that no, it cannot fine people for not completing screening when they are unable to do so. Case No. 21-1170 was assigned with briefing to begin next month.

One would think that a disabled veteran would be the last person the TSA would give grief to. In screening 2 million travelers daily, TSA could be expected to learn how to interact with people with disabilities generally. After all, according to the CDC, 1 in 4 Americans has some kind of disability. This behavior is a disgrace, and I look forward to fighting this battle in an actual Article III court.

Ramsingh v. TSA – Petition for Review w/ Exhibit (.pdf)

Farewell, Andy!

I usually don’t celebrate the downfall of others. So I will keep this exception to my general rule brief.

Governor Cuomo caused the deaths of ~10,000 seniors because he refused to use the USNS Comfort for political reasons, instead sending COVID patients to nursing homes. He set the tone for unnecessary restrictions around the world by declaring that “science” required a food curfew, bans on music, discrimination against other states, and more; the “science” supporting this has still not been released and our economy will feel it for years. And he did all this while being a creep to any woman who crossed his path.

The Governor was a bully and got what he deserved. Some may think he did the best he could with a tough situation. I respectfully but firmly disagree, and today I celebrated his resignation from downtown Denver, where I am representing those injured by United Airlines’ negligence on Flight UA328 earlier this year. It was a pleasant surprise to check my phone after leaving the federal courthouse to learn that it was champagne o’clock!

Best of luck to Kathy Hochul, next in line for the Governor’s Mansion. The systemic problems in Albany are not gone, and she has a lot of work to do.

Can Government Officials Block the Public on Twitter? N.Y. Gov. Cuomo Aide Melissa deRosa Wants to Find Out

[Update at bottom!]

Just a few short years ago, we elected a president who took to Twitter to communicate his public policy positions (in between insults, incoherent ramblings, covfefe, and the like). Trump, never known to take criticism well, also made a habit of blocking users who disagreed with him, resulting in a First Amendment challenge that did not go well for him. “We also concluded that when the President creates such a public forum [on Twitter], he violates the First Amendment when he excludes persons from the dialogue because they express views with which he disagrees.” Knight First Amendment Inst. at Columbia Univ. v. Trump, 953 F.3d 216, 217 (2nd Cir. 2020). The Fourth and Eighth Circuits held similarly in similar cases.

But the right has far from an exclusive claim on censorship, as well as on the use of Twitter to communicate with the public. N.Y. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, the man who ordered nursing homes to accept COVID patients to avoid using the USNS Comfort provided by Trump, resulting in many thousands of dead seniors, also likes to use Twitter, directly as well as through his staffers, including his right-hand-woman Melissa deRosa. After a year of regularly participating in public discussions started by the Governor and his staffers, today Melissa apparently decided she has had enough of my shit and blocked me.

When you take a public office and start creating public fora, you must have thick skin and accept that you’ll receive criticism (and that it will not always be polite!). My First Amendment right to be a part of the public debate has been curtailed, and I’ve written to Ms. deRosa to demand that she cease-and-desist from this unconstitutional behavior — or get sued.

Will update as things progress. [Update: I guess the C&D was well received… have been unblocked!]

Class Action Lawsuit Against United Airlines for Flight 328 Disaster

I usually focus my blog (and my law practice) on civil rights issues, but sometimes big corporations can step on human rights just as well as the government. United Airlines is one of those companies, missing no opportunity over the past several years to demonstrate that it simply does not care about anything but profit. From beating up its passengers, to killing the family dog, to refusing to block middle seats throughout the pandemic — all while taking $15 billion in federal coronavirus aid (and demanding $15 billion more) — it almost seemed like every time something went wrong with domestic plane flights, you could count on United to be involved.

So two weeks ago, when a Boeing 777-200 flying from Denver to Honolulu lost chunks of its engine a few minutes after takeoff, treating the passengers to an uncontrolled engine fire and an emergency landing, it wasn’t particularly a surprise to hear that United was the carrier.

A passenger’s view from UA328 on February 20th, 2021.

The ATC recording from the cockpit demonstrates that the plane was piloted by two calm and collected crewmembers, who thankfully were able to land the plane without any serious physical injuries, but were unable to extinguish the fire in-air (despite cutting fuel) and left the 231 passengers on board in fear for their lives for a total of 18 minutes.

Airplane engines don’t simply explode mid-air unless something was done wrong. The NTSB has preliminarily opined that “metal fatigue” caused one of the fan blades to separate (taking a second blade with it) and flew off into the fuselage, possibly further damaging the controls that would have been able to put out the fire. But how would United know that the metal was fatigued? Perhaps because the plane is 25 years old (making it one of the oldest 777s in service in the world), because there are straight-forward tests available to check for metal fatigue (and, early reports show that was last done five years ago), but most importantly, because the plane in question — tail number N772UA — has a sister plane — N773UA — that lost a fan blade for this reason in 2018!

To add insult to injury, the passengers on UA328 were rebooked on a “new plane” to get to their destination, but you won’t need 3 guesses as to which plane United chose: none other than N773UA. You can’t make this up.

It is time United stop playing games with safety. I was retained by a passenger on UA328 and today I filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all passengers on the plane who were subject to the intense emotional distress that comes along with watching your airplane on fire for 18 minutes, wondering if you’re going to make it safely to the ground or end up in a fiery crash. No one should have to live through that as a result of an airline’s refusal to take proper care of its planes and its customers, and I look forward to forcing United to make it right as best is possible.

Case is Schnell v. United Airlines, No. 21-CV-683, in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado.

Schnell v. United Airlines – Class Action Complaint (.pdf)

Lawsuit Challenges TSA Authority to Implement Mask Policy

Lawsuit CoverIt seems that masks reduce transmission of coronavirus: some studies showing reduction of as low as 20%, while others claim as high as 85%. I don’t really have a problem with mask requirements in crowded, confined spaces at the moment. They are not the cure-all that some make them out to be, but they provide some reduction and are a relatively small burden compared to some of the coronavirus measures imposed by the government.

What I do have a problem with is any expansion of the authority of one of the most abusive, inept, and inefficient agencies in the nation: the Transportation Security Administration. Transportation security involves passenger screening, cargo screening, managing intelligence relating to threats to civil aviation, technology to detect weapons and explosives, federal air marshals, and the like. This is clear just by looking at the index of law that Congress passed to assign duties to the TSA, 49 U.S.C., Subchapter I. Transportation security is not transportation safety. Transportation safety is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and when it comes to airplanes, their subagency, the Federal Aviation Administration (F.A.A.).

Despite it being completely out of their jurisdiction — or what lawyers call “ultra vires” (Latin: beyond power) — on January 31st, 2021, TSA issued several “security” directives to air carriers, airport operators, and even bus and train station operators, ordering them to enforce strict mask rules and to report passengers who do not comply to TSA (over the next few days, TSA Twitter accounts informed the public that it would issue fines of up to $1,200 against non-compliant passengers). TSA’s mask rules apply anywhere within the transportation system: from the curb outside of check-in, to TSA’s checkpoints, to the gate, lounge, bathroom, on the airplane, and even while seated in the food court (“the mask must be worn between bites and sips”):

Security Directive

It is unclear why this was necessary at all, given that all airlines and airports in the country require masks anyway. And, in fairness, TSA did not get the idea to implement a mask policy on its own. The day after inauguration day, new President Biden issued an executive order “promoting COVID-19 safety in domestic and international travel” that asked an alphabet soup of agencies to enforce mask regulations, and he made the mistake of including TSA on that list. He could have just named the FAA and CDC and been done with it; if you suggest to TSA that they assert more power, they will not hesitate to accept your invitation.

Notwithstanding, an executive order cannot increase the jurisdiction of an agency beyond Congress’ mandate, and if we do not stop them now, you can expect TSA will continue to issue more and more mandates for general public health and safety concerns. Therefore, after a 2-week process of getting myself admitted to the bar of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, I filed a petition for review of these orders and asked for an emergency stay pending the resolution of the case. (The Court of Appeals, rather than a district court, is the appropriate court because of a jurisdictional statute that says so.) Case is Corbett v. TSA, 21-1074, and I think it is likely the court will in some way address the emergency motion next week. Documents below.

Corbett v. TSA – Petition for Review (.pdf)

Corbett v. TSA – Emergency Motion for Stay (.pdf)


Fighting for civil rights in court is expensive and time-consuming!  Want to contribute to the fight against government assholery? Donate via PayPal, Venmo, Chace QuickPay, Bitcoin, or check.

U.S. District Court: TSA Not Immune in Right-to-Film Lawsuit

TSA says right on its Web site that photo and video at the checkpoint is no problem, so long as you’re not in the way and not trying to capture the content of their computer screen. It’s also a Fourth Amendment right to record government officials doing their work in public, as has been affirmed time and time again. So why was my client, who simply wanted to capture his husband’s pat-down on their cell phone camera, told by a TSA supervisor at Richmond International Airport that not only must they stop, but also delete the video that they started to take?

Probably some bad training, probably some bad attitude, but regardless, U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney, Jr., in the Eastern District of Virginia, wasn’t having it, and today denied TSA’s motion to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds, as well as rebuffing TSA’s attempt to preclude Bivens remedies from being applied to checkpoint abuse.

Bivens is the landmark case allowing for money damages for some constitutional violations, most often for Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure abuse. The U.S. Supreme Court has shown some hostility towards using Bivens in other contexts, recently calling it a “‘disfavored’ judicial activity” and requiring courts to accept pretty much any reason that might suggest that Bivens remedies should be disallowed as good enough to disallow it. Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S. Ct. 1843 (2017). And here, TSA argued them all: that it would harm national security, interfere with their ability to do their job, and cause great hardship in their screener training process. But making TSA screeners follow the Constitution doesn’t implicate some kind of state secrets, and regarding training, well:

Federal officials should not evade liability for constitutional violations because their employer has not provided adequate training.

…or in other words, if TSA isn’t already training their employees to follow the Constitution, now would be a great time to get started with that.

Regarding qualified immunity — the idea that government officials should get a pass if the courts hadn’t already made clear that similar conduct was illegal — the court had no trouble concluding that TSA is not “special:”

“[T]he First Amendment protects the right to record government officials performing their duties … to enable any citizen at any time to bring the government and any person in authority to the bar of public opinion …

In addition, when we protect the right to record public officials, we protect against the degradation of various other constitutional rights. This country’s racial unrest highlights this principle. Because a cell phone video captured George Floyd’s death, the world watched. The world’s reaction to this video — and others — sent millions into the streets in protest. Although the racial reckoning continues, this video and the protests it sparked bent ‘the arc of the moral universe … towards justice.’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution (Mar. 31, 1968). What if the officers had ordered the video that captured George Floyd’s death deleted?”

It certainly makes this civil rights lawyer warm and fuzzy to have a judge quote Dr. King while a ruling in his favor.

Dyer v. TSA – Motion to Dismiss, Denied (.pdf)

Second Circuit to Consider N.Y. Music Advertising Ban; Amicus Brief Filed

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already banned concerts by prohibiting any indoor food service establishment from any method of operation other than seated dining, and at sharply reduced capacity limits (35% in New York City, 50% elsewhere in the state). But, never content to be minimally invasive, the state also felt that it must prohibit advertising of any musical performances at restaurants, as well as the charging of admission to enter.

I was the first attorney to file suit against these advertising and ticketing restrictions as entirely arbitrary and lacking any relationship with stopping the pandemic — not to mention a restriction on free speech (yep, advertising is speech!). The state argued that the restrictions only apply to illegal events, rather than restaurants with incidental music, and so the court in my case accepted that and declined to grant a preliminary injunction. That case was New York Indep. Venue Ass’n v. Bradley, 20-CV-6870 (S.D.N.Y.).

This would be fair enough except for the fact that the government continues to publish this advertising and ticketing ban without any mention that it applies only to “illegal events,” so two more attorneys sued, and they won. Those cases were one in state court, Sportsmen’s Tavern LLC v. N.Y. State Liquor Auth., Index No. 809297/2020 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Erie Co., Oct. 15th, 2020) (permanent injunction issued), and one in federal court, Hund v. Bradley, 20-CV- 1176 (W.D.N.Y., Nov. 13th, 2020) (preliminary injunction issued).

The government has appealed in both cases, and while state court appeals move at a snail’s pace, the federal appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is almost ripe for review. Both sides have filed their opening briefs and the government’s reply brief is due this week. And, of course, I submitted an amicus (friend of the court) brief to make sure the Court understands that the government is engaged in misleading the courts:

[New York Independent Venue Association’s] position in the district court was, and still is, that the [N.Y. State Liquor Authority] intended a broader scope than it represented in court, and its lawyers “creatively” narrowed the scope post hoc in order to survive judicial review. The government’s opening brief in this case makes it painfully clear that NYIVA was correct and the attorneys for the government in the NYIVA case misled that court. Appellant’s Brief, p. 3 (“Holding advertised, ticketed shows is still prohibited by executive orders”), p. 10 (“bars and restaurants are prohibited from hosting ‘advertised and/or ticketed shows’”). In other words, the SLA here argues that the mere act of advertising or ticketing turns an otherwise lawful event into an unlawful one.

The government knows, or should know, that the Constitution prohibits it from banning advertisements of lawful goods and services absent exceptionally compelling reasons. Given that concerts are already prohibited as a result of the seated table service requirement, those reasons are utterly absent here. So why is Cuomo wasting time and taxpayer dollars on this? Probably just to distract from his nursing home scandal, wherein the state ordered nursing homes to accept its residents back from hospitals without regards to whether they were still infected in coronavirus, resulting in 13,000 seniors dead and a massive cover-up.

Let’s hope the Second Circuit affirms the glimmer of sanity provided by the district court in the Hund case.

Hund v. Bradley – Appellant’s (Cuomo’s) Brief (.pdf)

Hund v. Bradley – Appellee’s (Hund’s) Brief (public version available shortly)

Hund v. Bradley – Amicus NYIVA’s Brief (.pdf)

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑