ARLINGTON, Va.—Can you sue a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent when he or she violates your rights in an airport? On Monday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the answer to that question is indeed “yes.” The Institute for Justice (IJ) argued as an amicus in this case, urging the court to rule that TSA agents are indeed “law enforcement officers” who conduct “searches,” and thus are liable to be sued when they assault airline passengers.
“The government’s position in this case hinged on its argument that TSA agents don’t conduct searches. While the trial court accepted that argument, the appeals court’s ruling let common sense and accountability prevail,” said IJ Senior Attorney Patrick Jaicomo, who argued as amicus in the case. “This ruling is a major win for the millions of Americans who fly, ensuring that they have a viable avenue for justice when TSA agents violate their rights.”
In 2019, Michele Leuthauser was flying out of Las Vegas. When she walked through the TSA line, she was told to go to a private room for additional screening. Leuthauser describes the “groin search” that ensued as a traumatic invasion of her most intimate areas, wholly without justification. Leuthauser contacted the airport police about what happened but was informed that TSA agents were outside of their jurisdiction.
Seeking justice in court, Leuthauser sued the officer who conducted the groin search and her employer, the United States of America. She filed a claim against the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). Agreeing with the government that TSA agents don’t execute searches, a federal trial court dismissed Leuthauser’s case, leaving her without a remedy in court. Monday’s ruling by the 9th Circuit overturns the lower court ruling that the government could not be sued under the FTCA.
“A right without a remedy is no right at all, and if the government had its way in this case, there would be no meaningful remedy for Ms. Leuthauser,” said IJ Attorney Anya Bidwell.
Through its Project on Immunity and Accountability, IJ seeks to hold government officials accountable for violating the rights of everyday Americans. IJ currently has two petitions pending before the United States Supreme Court dealing with immunity issues: One on behalf of a Texas grandmother who was arrested for criticizing her city government, and another on behalf of an innocent then-college student who was beaten to a pulp by two plainclothes members of a federal task force, who are seeking a novel form of immunity under the FTCA. Among others, IJ is also currently fighting against immunity for a rogue judge who led a warrantless search of a man’s home during a divorce hearing, and against cops who arrested a citizen journalist for doing his job.