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Professional Troublemaker ®

 Jonathan Corbett, Civil Rights Attorney

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TSA

A Full Decade of Litigating Against TSA

When you do something for long enough, it’s hard to remember life before you did that thing.

Now 10 years after young me — with no legal education — brought the first complaint against TSA body scanners, it’s hard to imagine a time when going into an airport was a comfortable experience before which you didn’t ponder what variety of molestation or harassment you’d encounter. Or a time when the sounds of metal detectors didn’t generate the same emotional response for me as nails on a chalkboard. But it’s also hard to imagine a time when I didn’t serve the public as an advocate for the privacy of humans as they move from one place to another.

I’ve learned that it matters not whether an “R” or a “D” appointed the administrator of the TSA: both sides are quite capable of authoritarian policy. While I’ve not been shy about being pleased to see Trump go, I promise to keep Biden’s appointee in check just as I did Trump’s, and just as I did Obama’s. Our system of government, and especially our system of justice, requires representation of both sides of any issue. Now with proper legal education and a decade of learning how to hold the government responsible, I look forward to continuing to represent those who have been wronged by poorly planned or executed government policy (or as I’ve bluntly referred to it in the past, government assholery), as well as continuing to pressure the government to create and implement prudent policy to avoid those injuries in the first place.

To those who have been here with me since 2010, thank you, so much, for your continued support. To those who have just had their first negative encounter with the government, I am sorry, and welcome aboard.

TSA Sued for Asking Child to Remove Pants to “Feel” Her Genitals

Transgender Pride FlagJamii Erway is a 16-year-old girl in North Carolina who is used to getting false alarms when she goes through TSA body scanners. The reason is that Jamii is transgender — she was born male and now lives as a young woman — and the TSA screener operating a body scanner must press a “Male” or “Female” button for each passenger.  If the operator presses “Female,” the machine will alarm if the traveler has external genitals.  If the operator presses “Male,” the machine will alarm they are wearing a bra.  (And, well, if you have a penis while wearing a bra, the machine will alarm no matter which button is pushed.)

I can only imagine that dealing with transitioning genders as a teenager is an extraordinarily difficult experience even without having to deal with the TSA.

TSA standard procedure for when the body scanner alarms on the “groin area” is that a quick pat-down using the back of the screener’s hands is done at the checkpoint to ensure that the traveler is not in possession of any prohibited items, as Jamii had experienced several times before.  But, when triggering the scanner last May at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, a confused scanner operator called over a supervisor who decided to invent a new procedure for transgender travelers: she told Jamii she must go to a private room, expose herself, and let her “feel up in there.”  That is, a TSA supervisor demanded to molest a child.  When Jamii’s mother, traveling with her, attempted to intervene, the supervisor told the mother to “mind her business” before trying to recruit her to pressure Jamii into submitting to the “search.”

TSA policies prohibit checkpoint screeners (and supervisors) from conducting strip searches (even though they continue to happen at the hands of “rogue” screeners, knowing that they are unlikely to face discipline).  Police and high-level TSA managers were called thanks to a mother unwilling to bend under pressure from a blue-shirted thug, and when police refused to back the search, Jamii and mother left the airport and drove 600 miles to their destination.

As best we can tell, neither the police nor TSA management took any action against the supervisor who wanted to violate Jamii — so on Monday I filed suit on behalf of Jamii in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.  The actions of the TSA here disgust me more than usual given that this is my first case on behalf of a child, and given the apparent discriminatory motivation.  I look forward to obtaining some justice for my clients and hopefully sending a message that transgender people are not second-class citizens while flying.

Erway v. TSA – Complaint (.pdf)

Woman Sues TSA for Inserting Fingers Inside of Her During “Search”

Leuthauser ComplaintMichele Leuthauser was traveling from Las Vegas-McCarran International Airport last June wearing yoga pants that should have made it quite easy to determine that she was concealing nothing on the lower half of her body.  But, because the TSA uses body scanners with a false positive rate somewhere in the range of 20-40% (some studies higher), Michele was flagged for additional screening: a pat-down of her “groin area.”

Unfortunately, a yet-to-be-identified TSA screener used this as an opportunity to violate Michele.  While typically body scanner alarms are resolved with a quick and limited (yet still often invasive) pat-down right next to the machine, the screener directed Michele to a “private room.”  Screening in a private room is supposed to be an option offered to passengers who feel more comfortable (an option I advise all travelers against taking at all costs), but for Michele it was mandatory.

TSA Footprints MatWhen doing pat-downs, the TSA has little mats with footprints painted on to indicate to the passenger how to stand.  But, the screener told Michele to spread her legs far wider than the mat — an order that seems common for TSA screeners about to inflict abuse.  She then proceeded to rub her hand on Michele’s vulva, pressing firmly enough to penetrate her labia with her finger through her leggings, and then continuing to rub her vulva until Michele, in shock, finally recoiled and told the screener to stop.

On Friday, I filed suit on behalf of Michele after TSA supervisors, local police, and TSA’s Office of the Chief Counsel refused to do anything about this incident.  While TSA policies (and the Constitution) obviously prohibit checkpoint body cavity searches, no one seems to care when normal screening turns to blatant sexual assault.  I look forward to giving TSA incentive to care in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada.

Leuthauser v. TSA – Complaint (.pdf)

Sanctions Motion Filed Against DOJ Attorney for Frivolous Argument in TSA Case

I’ve complained several times of “creative” (read: absurd) arguments put forth by Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachael Zintgraff in the DOJ’s Northern District of Oklahoma office in Rhonda Mengert’s case stemming from an illegal TSA strip search.  A partial list of Ms. Zintgraff’s next-level arguments have included:

  • That an illegal strip search in the back room of an airport is comparable to using a locker room (page 11)
  • That women in locker rooms regularly “observe” each other’s feminine hygiene products (page 11)
  • That an illegal strip search in the back room of an airport is not extreme or outrageous (requirements for an emotional distress claim) (page 15)
  • That an illegal strip search in the back room of an airport is comparable to a preschool nurse examining a child (page 18)
  • That classic PTSD symptoms, including uncontrollable shaking, nausea, sweating, tightness in throat, headache, and hot flashes whenever thinking about the incident are insufficient allegations of “severe” emotional distress (page 33)
  • That instead of a lawsuit, Ms. Mengert could have simply filed a complaint with the TSA or told a police officer, and that would be a sufficient remedy for being unlawfully strip searched in the back room of an airport (page 19)
  • That there are national security implications involved in this case (page 23)
  • That holding TSA screeners liable for illegal strip searches may cause them to hesitate when a real terrorist tries to get through the checkpoint (page 26)
  • That Ms. Mengert can’t prevail on her claim under one law (Federal Tort Claims Act), but since that law provides a way for her to seek redress, even though it doesn’t, the court shouldn’t allow another type of claim (Bivens remedies) because the first law adequately protects her (if this makes your brain hurt, you’re not alone) (page 17, fn. 8)
  • That perhaps TSA procedures allow for strip searches and thus exonerate the screeners, despite TSA spokespeople literally saying that TSA does not conduct strip searches in response to media inquiries in this case (page 10, fn. 9)
  • That ordering someone to drop their pants and panties in order to get a good look is not actually a strip search (page 10, fn. 9)

The bar for what is “frivolous” is high: it must not be merely wrong, it must be such that no reasonable attorney would think it reasonable to argue otherwise.  So, just maybe, it’s not frivolous to argue that a strip search is like a locker room, because perhaps consent is not something you value.

But in this entire pile of nonsense, there is one more argument in particular stood out as legally frivolous: that Mrs. Mengert should have brought her challenge in a different court (page 15).  Let me explain.

Congress wrote a law that basically says that written decisions of the TSA are to be directly appealed in the Court of Appeals.  These so-called “orders” of the TSA cannot be challenged in the normal trial court.  To try to invoke this law, the TSA has argued that many TSA orders are secret and therefore there is no way for us to know whether the strip search was conducted pursuant to an order or not, and therefore the case belongs in the Court of Appeals.

Notice how this argument is not that “TSA has ordered strip searches.”  It’s basically “maybe they have, so the plaintiff should have to try the Court of Appeals first.”  At the outset, that is a blatant attempt at delaying litigation.  If the defense is that they were following orders, they could simply say so, and no one knows better than me that they are happy to do so when it helps their case: my first case against the TSA, back in 2010, was dismissed on a successful argument that I was challenging a written order of the TSA and therefore was in the wrong court.  The case law for this concept literally bears my name in the caption.

Beyond that, we know that TSA doesn’t “order” strip searches because their spokespersons say so.  Because you can ask any screener at the checkpoint, and most of them are happy to tell you that TSA doesn’t do that.  Because they publish the same in their blog.  And because millions of women pass through TSA with feminine hygiene products each year, yet less than a handful have ever reported being strip searched for the same.  TSA policy is clear that strip searches by checkpoint screeners are prohibited.

An argument that maybe a secret order required the defendants to do something, when Ms. Zintgraff knows damn well that no such order exists, is legally frivolous.  No reasonable attorney in her position would have made such an argument, and that is why, after 21 days’ notice and demand to retract without reply, I filed my first motion for sanctions since becoming an attorney.

TSA: Making Woman Take Down Pants & Underwear “Not a Strip Search”

The TSA has been pretty clear that they do not conduct “strip searches” at the checkpoint.  In fact, they even re-iterated it to the media last year when I filed suit on behalf of Rhonda Mengert, a grandmother from Las Vegas, NV, who was ordered to take down her pants and underwear and show them a feminine hygiene pad.

So why does once a year or so a new news story gets published with new allegations of checkpoint strip searches?

Perhaps one reason is that the TSA doesn’t think forcing you to expose your genitals counts as a strip search.  From their latest filing in the Mengert case:

Here, the TSA attempts to borrow from a case in which police officers, sued for conducting an illegal strip search, argued that they really only conducted a “clothing search” that, incidentally, resulted in the person being searched ending up naked in front of a police officer.  Their attempt to try the same justification — essentially that the TSA screeners who violated Mrs. Mengert were not interested in looking at her body; rather, she was just incidentally exposed as they searched her clothes — is a bit curious since the case they cited told the police to pound sand:

“Whether or not the officers set out deliberately to inspect a prisoner’s naked body is not the question;  it is, rather, whether the officers did, in fact, perform such a search.”

Wood v. Hancock County Sheriff’s Dept., 354 F.3d 57, 64 (1st Cir. 2003), remanding the case back to the lower court for a jury trial.

I don’t imagine this will go well for them.

If you’re interested in qualified immunity, Bivens liability, and the lengths your government will go to defend blatant misconduct of their employees, the entire motion…

Supreme Court Declines To Consider Whether Travelers Have Standing to Challenge Random TSA Searches

After 5 years, my challenge to whether the TSA can disallow “opting out” of the body scanners has concluded with the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to hear the case.  The details of the case and the issue presented to the Supreme Court are well covered in a post earlier this year, so I won’t repeat them here.

The Supreme Court is busy, but it’s a bit disappointing that they didn’t take up this case, which raises a serious question as to when the citizens have standing to challenge infrequent or random searches — a question that the Eleventh Circuit approaches differently than any other Court of Appeals in the country.

The door is still open to anyone who wants to sue after being denied an opt-out request, but challenges exist there as well, and frankly, it is sad that the citizens have to wait to actually be violated by their government before they can ask the government to be enjoined from abuse.  That said, if you’ve recently asked to opt out of the body scanners in favor of a pat-down, but TSA has refused, please be in touch and I would gladly consider your case.

Barr DOJ Argues TSA Screeners Can Never Be Sued for Checkpoint Abuse

In the nearly a full decade that I’ve been filing lawsuits against the TSA, they have argued for a full panoply of immunities and protections to insulate them from any accountability.  They argue qualified immunity — that their screeners shouldn’t be liable except for violations of “clearly established law.”  They argue that if TSA screeners are following policy, that lawsuits in the normal federal trial court can’t proceed.  They argue that they are immune from state tort claims (.pdf) — ordinary false arrest, assault, etc..

But earlier this week, in the case of grandmother Rhonda Mengert who was strip searched by TSA without suspicion and in blatant violation of TSA policy, the TSA added it all up and argued that because of all of these immunities, there actually doesn’t need to be a way to sue screeners for checkpoint abuse, no matter how egregious, at all.  You see, what travelers should actually do instead of suing is just file complaints with the TSA:

Use the TSA's

Or!  Ms. Mengert, who was just sexually assaulted by a TSA screener, could have vindicated her rights by telling a cop or a manager!

Complain to both law enforcement and TSA management?

And so, because a traveler can file an online complaint or tell a cop or a supervisor, there is no need for a lawsuit with money damages:

Complaint Process Precludes Bivens Claim?

For the lawyers out there, yes, this argument is that a Bivens claim cannot lie against a TSA screener, after TSA has already argued that Federal Tort Claims Act claims also cannot lie, and that state tort claims are also precluded so long as the screener was even nominally performing their duties (even if performance was in direct contradiction to their training and TSA rules) — in other words, no money damages against TSA screeners for checkpoint abuse, ever.

I am sure the government would love it if the remedy for a cop falsely arresting you or beating you back at the precinct was that you get to file a complaint and no more.  That if the FBI searches your house without a warrant, you get to file a complaint and no more.  That if your free speech rights are violated, you get to file a complaint and no more.

Obviously, we are here because people have complained and the injuries keep happening.  Those who are injured by the government are, and should be, entitled to some compensation from the government.  The argument that TSA is special and should be protected from lawsuits no matter what is antithetical to justice and, frankly, legally frivolous, and I look forward to filing a motion regarding the same in due time.

Mengert v. TSA – Motion to Dismiss Individual Defendants (.pdf)

California Woman Sues TSA For Detaining Her, Forcing Her to Submit to “Groin Search”

Jessica Lundquist's TSA LawsuitThe blue-shirted TSA employees of which all travelers are familiar hold the job title, “Transportation Security Officer.”  But despite the “officer” title emblazoned upon the plastic badge on their chest, TSA screeners are not law enforcement officers, do not have the authority to make arrests or hold travelers for any length of time, and if you break the law at a checkpoint, their only option is to call the real police to deal with the situation.

Unfortunately, that plastic badge appears to occasionally cause TSA screeners to “forget” the boundaries of their authority.

Last September, Jessica Lundquist was traveling through Burbank Hollywood Airport (a smaller commuter airport in northern Los Angeles) when a body scanner alarmed.  In my experience from watching checkpoints, body scanners seem to alert on somewhere around 25% – 50% of passengers who pass through them, the overwhelming majority of which are patted down and found to have nothing.  The alerts are false positives, on machines that cost us billions of dollars, by an agency that spends billions of dollars a year annually.

But, Ms. Lundquist did something that TSA screeners don’t like: when told she would have to submit to a “groin search” to “resolve” the alarm, and the screener clarified that they would “need” to touch her genitals, she refused consent; she said no.  Notwithstanding that TSA screeners are not law enforcement and it is not a crime to refuse to continue the screening process, being told no hurts their ego, and so a screener, backed up by two supervisors, did what they may not: they told her she may not leave, and that they would force her to comply if she did not:

I feel for Ms. Lundquist because TSA screeners made the same exact threat to me in 2011.  I knew that TSA screeners were unable to force a traveler to comply, and that their only lawful option is to allow the traveler to leave the checkpoint into the non-secure area, so I continued my refusal until they let me go.  But, believing these “federal officers,” and under threat of forcible compulsion, and after making and being refused another lawful request — to have her screening video recorded — Ms. Lundquist submitted to the search, wherein the TSA touched her vulva and buttocks without her consent.  They, of course, found nothing.

Ms. Lundquist retained me as counsel, and yesterday I filed suit on her behalf in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.  These screeners violated TSA policy, they broke the law, and they disregarded my client’s constitutional rights under both the First and Fourth Amendments.  I look forward to continuing to advocate for Jessica and to remind the TSA, once again, that if they exceed the scope of their authority, there will be consequences.

Lundquist v. U.S. Transp. Sec. Adm. et al., 19-CV-10302 (C.D. Cal.) – Complaint (.pdf)

Supreme Court Petition Filed: When TSA Searches Travelers at Random, Do All Travelers Have Standing to Challenge the Practice?

This summer, I wrote that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit denied my challenge to the TSA’s decision to refuse to allow “some” travelers to opt out of the body scanner in favor of a pat-down.  Their reasoning was simple: that the “some” travelers selected at random for this special treatment happened rarely enough that I couldn’t show it was “substantially likely” to happen to me.

The problem with the Eleventh Circuit’s logic is that the U.S. Supreme Court has never required a “substantial likelihood of injury.”  What the Supreme Court required was “a likelihood of substantial injury, and the Eleventh Circuit, for the past 2 decades, has, on its own, moved that word “substantial” to modify “likelihood” instead of “injury.”

“The equitable remedy is unavailable absent a showing of irreparable injury, a requirement that cannot be met where there is no showing of any real or immediate threat that the plaintiff will be wronged again — a “likelihood of substantial and immediate irreparable injury.””

Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 111 (1983).

To hold otherwise would preclude the courts from ever enjoining unconstitutional government action — no matter how egregious — so long as the government does it to few enough people in an unpredictable way.  That’s not what the Supreme Court has said, nor is it what any of the other U.S. Courts of Appeals have understood the law to be.  (If you’re interested, my petition explores the correct standard and those used by the other circuits).

The Supreme Court takes only a tiny fraction of the cases presented to it, so the odds are against us here, but I am hopeful that because the Eleventh Circuit has pretty blatantly departed from every other court at its level, there is a chance they might take this one up.

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

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