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TSA agents cannot be held liable for abuse claims, appeals court rules

TSA agents cannot be held liable for abuse claims, appeals court rules
A Transportation Security Administration officer performs a pat-down search on a passenger at Los Angeles International Airport on March 31, 2011. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Transportation Security Administration officers who are accused of abuse on the job are immune from being held liable for damages, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 2-to-1 decision by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia this week means that passengers who file claims of abuse or invasive searches will have a tough time collecting damages from TSA officers.

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The decision springs from an incident in 2006 in which Nadine Pellegrino, a business consultant from Boca Raton, Fla., was arrested after a confrontation with TSA agents at Philadelphia International Airport.

According to court records, Pellegrino claimed that the TSA officers were too rough and invasive in searching her.

After she was ordered to repack her bags and leave the TSA checkpoint, the agency claims, she struck two agents with her luggage. Pellegrino was arrested on assault charges. The charges were later dismissed because one of the TSA agents involved no longer worked for the agency and did not appear in court to testify.

Pellegrino filed a claim with the TSA, asking for $951,200 in damages. The claim was rejected, and in 2009, she filed a civil rights lawsuit against the TSA and the agents involved in the incident.

A majority of the judges on the appellate court decided that the law waives immunity for federal employees facing “intentional tort claims” only if they are “investigative or law enforcement officers.” The judges ruled that TSA officers are instead federal employees who perform “administrative searches.”

TSA officers are not armed and do not have the power to arrest passengers who are found to be carrying a weapon or contraband. The agency’s officers typically call on airport police to make arrests in response to the discovery of weapons in luggage.

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