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Professional Troublemaker

 Jonathan Corbett, Civil Rights Advocate

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lawsuit

Fully Briefed: Can TSA Refuse Body Scanner Opt-Outs?

This blog began in 2010 to document my lawsuit against the beginning of the TSA’s body scanner program.  From that time until 2015, the body scanner was “optional” for all passengers — so long as you didn’t mind being molested by a blue-gloved screener during their “full-body pat-downs.”  This was part of the reason that no court has struck down these body scanners as unconstitutional: because, they say, passengers are consenting to use them (even though that “consent” is coerced by offering the alternatives of “let us touch your junk” or “don’t fly”).  But, at the end of 2015, the TSA announced that they would reserve the right to refuse to allow these body scanner “opt-outs” at their discretion, and I immediately filed suit.

There are two really interesting issues in this case that I hope may cause a wrinkle for the TSA:

  1. The original body scanner rule in 2010 was issued without “notice-and-comment rulemaking,” a procedure required by Congress whereby agencies that make rules first have to ask the public for input.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit ruled that the TSA violated this procedure and, although normally that would require them to stop enforcing the rule (i.e., stop using the body scanners), the Court, fearful that the body scanners actually protect us, simply ordered the TSA to take comment after the fact.  The new body scanner rule limiting opt-outs was also issued without public comment, and I’ve asked the court to, this time, put some teeth into forcing the TSA to actually follow procedure before issuing a rule.
  2. The TSA is arguing that it needs to be able to force some passengers through the body scanner because, they allege, it is more secure than a full-body pat-down.  But, this is objectively untrue.  Besides the fact that I proved the scanners to be beatable in 2012, think about this: if one alerts a body scanner, the result is… a pat-down of the area of the body that generated the alert!  How could this possibly be more secure than a full-body pat-down that would have touched that area of the body and more?  The function of the body scanners is to narrow down those people who do not need to be patted down to save time, not to make a pat-down more secure.  Body scanners don’t find weapons — pat-downs do.

tsa_is_absurd

This case lives in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and the procedure for cases there is a written brief filed by the person filing the case, an opposing brief filed by the other side, and then a reply brief again by the filer, after which the court may rule on the case.  Yesterday I submitted my reply brief after nearly a year and a half of delay, and so, the case is now “fully briefed,” meaning the judges can decide it at any point (or can ask for the parties to argue in-person, or can ask for more evidence, or, basically, whatever they want).  Realistically, I expect it more likely that they will decide without in-person arguments, probably towards the end of the summer.  I’m not holding my breath — the game is rigged, and the TSA gets almost complete control over what evidence the court sees, some of which I don’t even get to see (wouldn’t want the public to see things like how often their testing shows the body scanners miss a weapon, because that would be, well, embarrassing).

Corbett v. TSA IV – Reply Brief (.pdf)

Corbett v. TSA IV – Appellee Brief (Redacted) (.pdf)

Corbett v. TSA IV – Opening Brief (article)

United Airlines Fiasco: Was It “Legal?”

United GestapoMost have heard by now of the blunder by United Airlines in forcibly removing a man who had paid for a ticket and already taken his seat on the airplane so that they could instead accommodate some of their own employees.  The man was injured when airport police apparently dropped him in the process, and the video taken by other passengers went viral.  To add some gasoline to the fire, the CEO of United tweeted to “apologize for having to re-accommodate” the man, proving that the company obviously misses the point.  This all comes two weeks after the airline was lambasted in the media for its sexist dress code when they denied boarding to two young girls in leggings (this time before the passengers entered the aircraft).

But, the question that I’ve received at least a dozen times in the past 48 hours is: Was what United did legal?  Relatedly, was the man doing something illegal?  Will he win in a lawsuit?

Let’s find out…

Could United legally remove him from the flight?

The answer to this question is “certainly yes.”  Here’s why.

When you are given permission to enter upon the property of another, legally you are given what is called a “license.”  The biggest difference between a “license” to use property and having, say, a lease giving you the right to exclusive possession of the property for a period of time, is that the license is freely revocable at all times, regardless of whether the licensee and licensor have a contract that says otherwise.

Why?  Because we are dealing with two different areas of law here.  Property law governs the ownership of property and the rights and responsibilities of property owners.  The above rule about revocability of licenses comes from property law.  Contract law, on the other hand, generally allows any party to breach their contract duties at any time, under penalty of having to pay damages to the non-breaching party (see also: “efficient breach” theory).

So, the question of whether the contract of carriage allowed United to remove this man is entirely irrelevant as to whether they had the power to do so.  Either way, United could legally oblige him to leave the aircraft because they are “allowed” to breach any contract they may have had with him, but if he had a contract allowing him to stay, he gets to ask for money.

Was the man doing something illegal?

A friend of mine, who is usually quite on top of things, pointed out that federal law requires compliance with crewmember instructions.  Or, at least, that’s what that pre-flight announcement says, if you aren’t busy blasting music through your headphones during the process.

Yes, but, no…

14 C.F.R. § 91.11 – Prohibition on interference with crewmembers.

No person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.

While some kinds of defiance may qualify as interference, the duty only attaches while the aircraft is “being operated.”  Before the doors close, not so much.

It is possible he could be charged under some state law for trespassing or resisting the officers, since as discussed above, legally he was obligated to leave, and therefore the officers had the lawful right to use reasonable force to remove him.  It is also possible that he lacked the intent required to be charged, since he believed he had the right to be here — a review of the law of the relevant state would be required and is outside of the scope of things that I care about, and thus this blog.  But, these would be petty misdemeanors, rather than a federal felony, and I do believe the police are now sufficiently embarrassed as to their inability to safely move one man 20 feet without sending him to the hospital that he will face no charges.

Will he win in a lawsuit?

Against whom?  For what?

The police?

In order to win against the police, since the officers were lawfully entitled to remove him, he would need to prove that the force they used was unreasonable.  That is, there was a safer way to do it, and a reasonable police officer under these circumstances would have done so.  This is regardless of whether he sues in battery (where “reasonableness” will be a defense) or in negligence (where lack of reasonableness will be an element of the tort).

This is a question for the jury, so I’ll leave it to you guys.  Watch the video with the fact that the police did have the right to eject him in the back of your mind.  Your verdict of liable or not liable depends on whether the police did the best they could given a non-compliant passenger, or whether the means by which they ejected him was unreasonable.

The airline?

The more interesting one.  The “for what” part of the question definitely matters.

  • For breach of contract?  Well, he paid for them to take him to another city, and they didn’t do so; therefore, United certainly owes him for the flight.  However, how much they owe him turns on whether he was “denied boarding” or not.  The reason is that federal law directly covers “denied boarding,” allows an airline to do it regardless of contract law, and provides a fixed payment schedule for how much the airline will owe the passenger for having done so.  Four hundred percent of the fare, to a maximum of $1,350, to be exact.  The question is whether asking someone already on the plane to leave is “denying them boarding.”  I fear the answer will probably be that it is, as the intent of the law was to cover refused transport without any reason to think that the Federal Aviation Administration intended to distinguish between refusal issued before or after the person passes the gate agent.  But, if not, United Airlines will be liable in contract for all foreseeable damages.  This includes not just the cost of the ticket, but a missed hotel reservation in his destination, missed work in the morning, alternate transportation (to the extent that it is more expensive), etc.  It does not include the police breaking his face — it is not “foreseeable” (although not really surprising either).
  • For his physical injuries?  United won’t be liable in contract for his physical injuries, but how about in tort under battery or negligence theories?  Were the people who took the man off the plane United employees or even contractors, yes, they might be liable for the battery or any negligence.  But, reports are that these were airport police, and as United does not have any control of how the police do their job, they do not have any liability.
  • For anything else?  It’s time to get creative here.  I think this man’s best chance of tort recovery is negligent infliction of emotional distress.  NIED requires two elements that are fairly obvious: 1) negligence, and 2) emotional distress.  Let’s assume he can prove the second, as his face was broken on video that was now seen around the world, and he can probably show that he was traumatized by the event.  Was United in any way negligent?  Well, would a reasonable airline have made sure that they were not oversold before boarding passengers?  Would a reasonable airline have found another way to deal with the situation?  Was emotional distress a foreseeable possibility?  These are the tough questions that any lawyer for this man will have to prove in court.  Luckily, United will be anxious to settle with this man after watching their stock value plummet $800,000,000 on Monday, and so this case will probably never make it to the clerk’s office, let alone a judge and jury.

The tl;dr version is that United was probably, mostly, in the legal right.  But, something need not be legally wrong to be morally wrong, or to be a good reason not to do business with someone, or to make you the butt of every joke on the Internet.  United cost itself a lot of money for doing something that its customers don’t like and then pretending that it was no big deal, and this loss will be far greater than anything the man can hope to win in court.

Insomniac Lawsuit Dismissed on Technicality, Policy Changed (For Now), Open Offer for Help

For those following my lawsuit against music festival producer and Live Nation subsidiary Insomniac, filed last year against their policy banning all OTC medicine and requiring a “consultation” to bring in prescriptions, some updates…

First, the lawsuit was tossed by U.S. District Judge Philip Gutierrez because, he says, I didn’t provide evidence that I asked Insomniac to change their policy before suing, which he reads as a prerequisite to a federal ADA suit.  There were also state discrimination law claims, but the law allows a federal judge to decline to hear a state claim after the related federal claim is dismissed, so he tossed that too.  No ruling was made on the true merits of the case: whether the medicine policy was legal.

I think Judge G misread the law regarding notice, and he certainly misread my filings alleging that I *did* give notice.  As I wrote about before, this judge is famous among federal judges for seeking ways to get cases out of his courtroom.  I could appeal, or I could re-file the state law claims in state court, but I won’t (in favor of a better plan… keep reading!) for 2 reasons:

  1. Insomniac ran up a fucking massive legal bill.  If the appeal failed, the attorneys have some likelihood of asking me to pay at least a part of that — plus whatever additional amounts they spend defending the appeal.  Insomniac agreed to pay their own bill in exchange for not appealing or re-filing.
  2. Insomniac removed the offending medicine policy from their Web site… for now.  This may be a sign that they are changing their ways, which would be mission accomplished.  But, even if it’s not, it makes it harder to sue them because they are no longer advertising discrimination.

So here’s the new, better plan: an open call for anyone who is ever refused entry over medicine or has their medicine thrown out at the gates of EDC to contact me.  If I think you have a good case, I will find and fund an attorney to fight the case, and offer my assistance to your attorney as his paralegal without cost to you.  If Insomniac did indeed decide to fix their policy, then this won’t be necessary, and if they didn’t, I’ll be able to get a second fight against it, with the benefit of the knowledge I gained the first time, with a different judge, without the “you didn’t give them notice” issue, and without the attorney’s fees and costs from this case able to be threatened.

Flash Factory Nightclub in NYC Sued for Groping Guests During Security Search

flash_factory_sued
The scene inside Flash Factory hosting Elrow on 12/23/2016

Continuing my quest to call out music and nightlife companies that think their patrons should bend over and accept any rule dreamed up, however offensive and illegal, today a friend of mine and I filed suit against New York nightclub “Flash Factory,” located in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan.

The basis of the suit is this: we were heading to a concert at Flash Factory, never before having been to this relatively new venue.  On the way in there was a pat-down, which we assumed was just a quick check of pockets for weapons as some New York nightclubs do.  But, both of us were shocked when a security guard, without warning, lifted my friend’s bra off her chest to feel her breasts, and likewise, decided to flat-out grab my genitals.  I don’t mean TSA-style “sliding hands up your legs until they ‘meet resistance,'” often bumping the sides of their hands into your crotch.  I mean straight-up, full palm and fingertips checking out my junk.

After the incident, I immediately wrote to, and my friend called, Flash Factory, and both of us were entirely ignored.  No apology, no acknowledgement, no response at all.  No one should have to deal with sexual assault to get into a nightclub.  It is atrocious that they feel the need to treat their customers this way, so, a new lawsuit against them for battery and negligence was filed in New York County Supreme Court.

Corbett & Domyan v. Flash Factory et al. – Verified Complaint (.pdf)

Good luck ignoring that, Flash Factory.

[Edit – Since posting, numerous people have shared their story of being molested by Flash Factory.  I’ve created a separate Web site dedicated to posting stories of abuse at Flash Factory.]

Eleventh Circuit: “Zero Fucks Given.”

Today the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in considering my case against the constitutionality of the body scanners, denied my motion to transfer, motion to stay the use of body scanners during the petition, and even denied my motion to file electronically — a routine motion that allows a non-lawyer to use the court’s e-filing system, as 3 other federal courts have for me already.

Their reason? Why, they didn’t say.

The court denied all three motions together in a 1 page order that offers no insight at all into their decision.

Perhaps the court thought it would be obvious as to why they denied a motion implicating fundamental constitutional due process rights that required 74 pages of briefs, plus exhibits, from the government and myself. Or perhaps, as I more suspect, the just don’t give a fuck. Just as the U.S. Supreme Court also didn’t care about whether the nude body scanners ever went to trial.

At some point, it gets frustrating when you’ve followed all the rules and still, now 2.5 years and several hundred pages of legal writing later, your issues aren’t even close to being given a fair hearing. My next step is to ask the judges to explain themselves. Should they fail to work out a solution, they will essentially hear my case solely on the evidence as presented by the government — an utter miscarriage of justice.

Corbett v. DHS – Summary Denial of Motions (.pdf)

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