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 Jonathan Corbett, Civil Rights Attorney

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TSA – Lawsuit

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)

TSA: Forced Strip-Search No More Offensive Than Voluntarily Using a Locker Room

TSA's Motion to Dismiss Mengert Lawsuit
The TSA fails to appreciate the value of consent.

In June, my client Rhonda Mengert filed suit against the TSA for forcing her to expose herself and show them a feminine hygiene product she was wearing.  The strip-search of this 51-year-old grandmother was flatly against TSA’s own rules, yet strip-searches happen over and over at airports across the country, perhaps as a result of poor training, high turnover, failed background checks, or… well, who really knows why they can’t get it together?

What we do know from the TSA’s 24-page reply to the lawsuit (.pdf), a motion to dismiss filed Friday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma, is that they don’t think they should be held responsible.  Much of their rationale is the standard technical stuff that one expects of defense lawyers and we’ll respond to that in due course.

One of their rationales, however, is so absurd, offensive, and regressive that I am shocked to see it written by anyone in 2019, let alone a well-educated woman from the U.S. Department of Justice.  In her motion, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachael Zintgraff writes that a forced government strip-search just isn’t that big of a deal as to justify a lawsuit:

These allegations amount to no more than indignities, annoyances, and petty oppressions. Even if it was subjectively “embarrassing,” “disturbing,” “humiliating,” and “offensive,” for Plaintiff to lower her clothing and show the feminine hygiene product she was wearing, the intrusion on her privacy was no more severe than what could be routinely experienced in a women’s locker room, where states of partial undress and feminine hygiene products are subject to observation by other members of the same gender.

Is a rape victim’s trauma is no greater than they would have had during consensual sex?  Can peeping toms now use this same defense?  If not, then how can one possibly argue that having 2 uniformed federal employees force my client into a back room to show them her most intimate areas is in any way comparable to one voluntarily using a locker room?

The difference between “extreme and outrageous” and “just locker room embarrassment,” Ms. Zintgraff, is consent.  And respectfully, while I don’t personally have a lot of experience with women’s locker room etiquette, I must assume that inspecting each other’s pads is generally not a part of the experience.  At least DOJ attorneys have moved on from arguing that kids detained for weeks don’t need blankets or toothbrushes… it’s just unfortunate that they’ve now taken up selling out on women’s rights in order to avoid paying a woman who they violated.

Lawsuit Against TSA Mandatory Body Scanner Policy Dismissed: No “Standing” Because It “Probably” Won’t Happen to You

The TSA’s body scanner program had always been put forth as an “optional” way for passengers to be screened: there was always the “pat-down option,” as unpleasant as that option may also be.  But, towards the end of 2015, the TSA announced that for “some” passengers, body scanners screening would be mandatory.  I immediately filed suit.

Fast-forward nearly 4 years, and the Court on Friday finally made a ruling on the matter: my case is dismissed for failure to demonstrate “standing.”

What is “standing?”  The U.S. Constitution allows the federal courts to hear only real, live “cases or controversies.”  All that means is you have to actually have a specific legal “injury” to complain of.  A violation of your rights, or your pocketbook, is an injury (with the exception of “I pay taxes to support this,” which is generally not considered a legal injury for standing purposes).  No standing = no lawsuit.

After thorough briefing, the TSA clarified that “some” passengers means “only selectees” — those on a TSA watch list but who have not made it to the no-fly list. And since I’m not on the selectee list, I’m not injured, and therefore the court should show me the door.

Two problems with this: 1) the rule issued by the TSA in 2015 doesn’t specify that it applies only to “selectees,” meaning they are free to change their mind at any time, and more importantly, 2) the TSA also treats regular passengers as selectees on a random basis! On any day you go to the airport, you too could be “selectee for a day!”  What are the odds?  Redacted:

What are the odds? Redacted!

So to be clear, we won’t tell you the odds, we can change the odds at any time, we can get rid of the odds completely at any time, but don’t worry, your legal rights have not been affected.

“But Jon, what’s the big deal? Why not just wait until it happens and then sue?”

Because challenges to the TSA’s policies, that they call “orders” so long as they are written down and “final,” are made under a statute that requires you to file within 60 days of the date of the order.  In other words, by the time you figure out if a policy will actually be applied to you, it may be too late to challenge it.  (There may be other ways to get a court to hear the issue, such as suing for the cost of your missed flight if you are selected and then refuse a mandatory body scan, but there are challenges there too.)

I will be considering an appeal on the issue of whether a member of a group who will be randomly affected by a law has standing to challenge it, even if the random selection is rare.  This would either be trying to distinguish, or to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to partially overrule, the leading case on the matter, Los Angeles v. Lyons.  [Update: I’ve decided I will be petitioning the full Eleventh Circuit to reconsider the case en banc.  Stay tuned for an update next month…]

Corbett v. TSA VI – Dismissed on Standing (.pdf)

Early Documents — Petitioner’s, Respondent’s, and Reply Briefing

Justice is Slow: TSA Case Waiting 2 Years, Gun Rights Case Now 5 Months

Fully Briefed in 2017

I have two significant cases pending at the moment:

My readers regularly ask me (in comments, on Twitter, by e-mail, etc.) for updates, and my answer is always the same: I’ll post them as soon as I have them.  The gun rights case above has had the government’s motion to dismiss pending before the court, fully briefed (that is, all parties have been completely heard and we are just waiting on a ruling), for 5 months.  Especially considering the government shutdown earlier this year, that’s not abnormal.

However, yesterday marked the 2 year anniversary of the TSA case being fully briefed before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which has neglected the case for that amount of time.  This is not the usual amount of time to wait on an appeal, so I sent that court an anniversary card this afternoon.  I wouldn’t exactly say that courts “appreciate” reminders that they are taking too long, but at some point, the prejudice to my case and our rights outweighs the risk of offending a judge’s feelings.

There is no statutory limit to how long a court can take, although courts often rule within 6 months because they have to report to Congress when cases take longer.  Be patient with me — and I promise I’ll post updates as they come.

 

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