Pellegrino v. U.S. Transp. Sec. Admin., 15-3047

Decision Date11 July 2018
Docket NumberNo. 15-3047,15-3047
Citation896 F.3d 207
Parties Nadine PELLEGRINO ; Harry Waldman, Appellants v. UNITED STATES of America TRANSPORTATION SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DIV. OF DEPT. OF HOMELAND SECURITY; TSA TSO Nuyriah Abdul-Malik, Sued in her individual capacity; TSA STSO Laura Labbee, Sued in her individual capacity; TSA TSO Denice Kissinger, Sued in her individual capacity; John/Jane Doe TSA Aviations Security Inspector defendants sued in their individual capacities; John/Jane Doe TSA, Official Defendants, sued in their individual capacities
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

Nadine Pellegrino and Harry Waldman, Unit 1205 South, 550 South Ocean Boulevard, Boca Raton, FL 33432, Pro Se Appellants.

Mark J. Sherer, Esq. (Argued), Office of United States Attorney, 615 Chestnut Street, Suite 1250, Philadelphia, PA 19106, Counsel for Appellees.

Paul M. Thompson, Esq. (Argued), Sarah P. Hogarth, Esq., McDermott Will & Emery, 500 North Capitol Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20001, Matthew L. Knowles, Esq., McDermott Will & Emery, 28 State Street, 33rd Floor, Boston, MA 02109, Court Appointed Amicus Curiae.

Before: AMBRO, KRAUSE and SCIRICA, Circuit Judges


KRAUSE, Circuit Judge.

In Vanderklok v. United States , 868 F.3d 189 (3d Cir. 2017), we declined to imply a Bivens cause of action against airport screeners employed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in part because they "typically are not law enforcement officers and do not act as such." Id. at 208. We now must decide a related question that we anticipated, but did not resolve, in Vanderklok : whether TSA screeners are "investigative or law enforcement officers" under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).

This question, one of first impression among the Courts of Appeals, arises because Appellant Nadine Pellegrino has asserted intentional tort claims against TSA screeners. Although under the FTCA the United States generally enjoys sovereign immunity for intentional torts committed by federal employees, this rule is subject to an exception known as the "law enforcement proviso," which waives immunity for a subset of intentional torts committed by employees who qualify as "investigative or law enforcement officers." 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h). Pellegrino’s claims may proceed only if TSA screeners fall into this category.

Based on our review of the statute’s text, purpose, and legislative history, as well as precedent from this Court and other Courts of Appeals, we now reach the conclusion that we foreshadowed in Vanderklok and hold that TSA screeners are not "investigative or law enforcement officers" under the law enforcement proviso. Pellegrino’s claims are therefore barred by the Government’s sovereign immunity, and we will affirm the District Court’s judgment dismissing this action.

I. Facts and Procedural History
A. Airport Security and Screeners

To place what follows in proper context, we briefly describe the structure of the TSA and the screeners’ place within that structure. Congress created the TSA in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with the enactment of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), Pub. L. No. 107-71, 115 Stat. 597 (2001). The head of the TSA is the Under Secretary of Transportation for Security, 49 U.S.C. § 114(b), who is responsible for security in all modes of transportation, including civil aviation, id. § 114(d).

Pertinent here is the Under Secretary’s responsibility to "provide for the screening of all passengers and property, including United States mail, cargo, carry-on and checked baggage, and other articles, that will be carried aboard a passenger aircraft operated by an air carrier or foreign air carrier in air transportation or intrastate air transportation." Id. § 44901(a). With exceptions not relevant here, this screening is required to be performed "by a Federal Government employee." Id. These employees were referred to as "screeners" at the time of the ATSA’s enactment but were reclassified as "Transportation Security Officers" (TSOs) in 2005 as part of an effort to improve morale and combat employee-retention problems. The Transportation Security Administration’s Airline Passenger and Baggage Screening: Hearing Before the S. Comm. on Commerce, Sci., & Transp. , 109th Cong. 7 (2006) [hereinafter Screening Hearing ] (statement of Edmund "Kip" Hawley, Assistant Secretary, Transportation Security Administration).1 In 2016, the TSA screened more than 2 million passengers per day. See Bob Burns, TSA Year in Review , Transp. Sec. Admin. (Jan. 12, 2017),

TSOs form just one part of the airport-security apparatus. The Under Secretary may also designate employees to serve as "law enforcement officer[s]." 49 U.S.C. § 114(p)(1). An employee so designated may carry a firearm, make arrests, and seek and execute warrants for arrest or seizure of evidence. Id. § 114(p)(2). The Under Secretary is required to deploy law enforcement personnel at each screening location; typically, at least one such law enforcement officer must be at each location. Id. § 44901(h)(1)(2). Screening locations are thus staffed by both TSOs and law enforcement officers.

B. Factual Background2

In 2006, Pellegrino and her husband, Harry Waldman, arrived at the Philadelphia International Airport, where they planned to catch a flight home to Florida. Pellegrino brought three bags to the security checkpoint: a rolling tote, a larger rolling bag that would fit in the overhead compartment of the airplane, and a small black canvas bag. After Pellegrino passed through a metal detector, a TSO directed her to step aside for further screening. A few minutes later, TSO Thomas Clemmons arrived and began to search Pellegrino’s bags, but because Pellegrino believed that Clemmons was treating neither her nor her bags respectfully, she asked for a private screening. According to Pellegrino, Clemmons then "walked off with a very arrogant, negative, hostile attitude," Pellegrino Dep. 85:24–86:2, D.Ct. Dkt. No. 156, and TSO Nuyriah Abdul-Malik came to perform the screening in Clemmons’s stead.

As Abdul-Malik prepared to search Pellegrino’s bags, Pellegrino "had the distinct feeling" that Abdul-Malik’s gloves were not clean and asked her to put on new ones. Pellegrino Dep. 90:18–22, D.Ct. Dkt. No. 156. Abdul-Malik did as Pellegrino asked, but Pellegrino asserts that this request engendered hostility from Abdul-Malik. Abdul-Malik and Pellegrino then proceeded to a private screening room, where they were joined by TSA employees Laura Labbee, a supervisory TSO, and Denise Kissinger, another TSO.3 Kissinger swabbed Pellegrino’s shirt and left the room to test the sample (for the presence of explosives), while Abdul-Malik inspected Pellegrino’s luggage. Pellegrino contends that Abdul-Malik’s screening was unnecessarily rough and invasive—extending to her credit cards, coins, cell phone, and lipstick.

At some point, Pellegrino asked Labbee why she was being subjected to this screening, and Labbee responded that it was an "airline-designated search." Pellegrino Dep. 104:12, D.Ct. Dkt. No. 156. Pellegrino took this to mean that her airline ticket had been marked in a way that prompted the search, and because she and Waldman had accidentally switched tickets, she sought to stop the search by explaining that she believed that Waldman should have been searched instead. Nevertheless, the search continued, and Pellegrino told Labbee that she was going to report her to TSA authorities.

Once Abdul-Malik finished searching the rolling tote, Pellegrino, who believed that Abdul-Malik had damaged her eyeglasses and jewelry, asked Abdul-Malik to leave her items outside the tote so that Pellegrino could re-pack it herself. Abdul-Malik refused and the interaction continued to deteriorate. First, Abdul-Malik had trouble zipping the tote closed and had to press her knee into it to force it shut. Next, when Pellegrino asked Labbee for permission to examine the tote, which she believed Abdul-Malik had damaged, that request was also denied. Pellegrino then told Labbee and Abdul-Malik they were "behaving like bitches." Pellegrino Dep. 114:13–14, D.Ct. Dkt. No. 156. Finally, after Abdul-Malik had searched Pellegrino’s largest bag, which contained clothes and shoes, and Kissinger finished swabbing and testing, Pellegrino was told that she could leave.

But simple closure was not to be. Instead, Pellegrino saw that Abdul-Malik had not re-packed her shoes, asked if she intended to do so, and was told "no." Pellegrino Dep. 122:2, D.Ct. Dkt. No. 156. At that point, intending to re-pack her bags outside of the screening room, Pellegrino tossed her shoes through the open door toward the screening lanes and began to carry her largest bag out of the room. In the process, according to Labbee and Kissinger, she struck Labbee in the stomach with the bottom of the bag. When Pellegrino then returned to the screening room for her smaller rolling tote, Abdul-Malik allegedly stood in her way, forcing her to crawl on the floor under a table to retrieve it. According to the TSOs, Pellegrino then struck Abdul-Malik in the leg with this bag as she was removing it. Although Pellegrino denied (and has consistently denied) that either bag touched either TSO, Labbee and Abdul-Malik immediately went to the supervisor’s station to press charges against Pellegrino.

Philadelphia police officers arrived at the scene a short time later, arrested Pellegrino, and took her to the police station, where she was held for about 18 hours before being released on bond. Eventually, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office filed ten charges against Pellegrino: two counts each of felony aggravated assault, see 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2702 ; possession of instruments of a crime, see id. § 907; reckless endangerment, see id. § 2705; simple assault, see id. § 2701; and making terroristic...

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