TSA Screeners Can't Be Sued for Abuse, Federal Court Rules

The court admits the victims of TSA abuse "will have very limited legal redress."


Andy Abeyta/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners cannot be held liable for abuse claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), a federal court ruled Wednesday.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a dismissal of a lawsuit filed against the TSA by Nadine Pellegrino and her husband. According to The Hill, Pellegrino was upset after she "was randomly selected for additional screening" at Philadelphia International Airport in July 2006.

As USA Today recounts, Pellegrino asked for a private screening, though she took issue with the way the officers treated her bags. When the officers were done searching her luggage, she took her larger bag and started to leave, but not without incident. According to USA Today:

The bag struck one of the TSA officers in the stomach, according to the officers. Pellegrino said an officer stood in her way as she tried to retrieve her smaller bag, and the bag hit him in the leg as she left, according to the officers.

Pellegrino was detained, and two TSA officers decided to press charges. Though she was acquitted in 2008, Pellegrino and her husband sued the TSA in 2009 for "false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution," Reuters reports.

In a 2-1 ruling, the 3rd Circuit said TSA officers are immune to abuse claims from passengers like Pellegrino. The court reasoned that agency employees are not classified as "investigative or law enforcement officers" under the FTCA, which is the law that enables people to file claims against federal employees.

In his dissent, Judge Thomas Ambro argued that the FTCA's definition of "investigative or law enforcement officers" includes people with the "legal authority" to carry out searches looking for violations of the law. Ambro also noted that it will now be very difficult for victims of TSA abuse to get the justice they deserve. "By analogizing TSA searches to routine administrative inspections, my colleagues preclude victims of TSA abuses from obtaining any meaningful remedy for a variety of intentional tort claims," he wrote.

Writing for the majority, Judge Cheryl Ann Krause noted that the court was "sympathetic to the concerns" the ruling may raise, and recognized that "individuals harmed by the intentional torts" of TSA officers "will have very limited legal redress."

Pellegrino, who said she's reviewing the court's ruling, could take several different courses of action.

"If I were the plaintiffs, I'd get new counsel with a proven track record of winning cases at the Supreme Court and appeal this decision," Patrick Eddington, a policy analyst who studies civil liberties at the Cato Institute, told Reason. Eddington said Pellegrino and her husband could "make this an issue" in their local House race, which might put the ruling on Congress's radar.

"There's nothing to stop the House member representing the plaintiffs from filing impeachment articles against all involved TSA employees," Eddington says. "Just filing the impeachment resolution might be enough to make TSA give the implicated screeners the boot."