Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Third Circuit Gives TSA Agent Free Pass for First Amendment Violation
The Third Circuit ruled yesterday that a plaintiff couldn't bring a First Amendment claim against a TSA officer after the officer caused the plaintiff to be detained and charged with making a bomb threat at airport security. The case, which applied the Supreme Court's recent Bivens ruling, Ziglar v. Abassi, walks back circuit law authorizing a Bivens claim for First Amendment violations, and leaves plaintiffs with no federal judicial remedy for a TSA officer's violation of First Amendment rights.
The ruling is a faithful application of Ziglar, but also illustrates the sweep and significance of that decision in restricting constitutional tort claims, especially in areas in any way touching on national security.
The case arose when Roger Vanderklok attempted to pass through Philadelphia airport security with a length of PVC pipe, capped at both ends and containing a watch and heart-monitor for a half-marathon that he intended to run in Miami. TSA employee Charles Kieser performed a secondary screening, which Vanderklok alleged was unduly aggressive. Vanderklok said that he intended to file a complaint; Kieser then called the Philadelphia police and falsely reported that Vanderklok threatened to bring a bomb to the airport. Vanderklook was arrested and charged, but later acquitted, after airport surveillance footage undermined Kieser's story.
Vanderklok sued Kieser for a variety of violations, including a First Amendment violation, pursuant to Bivens. (The Third Circuit only addressed the First Amendment claim.) The court walked back its own circuit law, which applied Bivens to First Amendment claims, and ruled that Bivens didn't "extend" to Vanderklok's First Amendment claim.
The court noted that airport security created a new Bivens context, and that Bivens law had changed:
Our past pronouncements are thus not controlling in the specific circumstances now at issue. It is not enough to argue, as Vanderklok does, that First Amendment retaliation claims have been permitted under Bivens before. We must look at the issue anew in this particular context, airport security, and as it pertains to this particular category of defendants, TSA screeners.
Since Bivens was decided, judicial attitudes about the creation of new causes of action have changed considerably. Courts will no longer imply rights and remedies as a matter of course, "no matter how desirable that might be as a policy matter, or how compatible with the statute [or constitutional provision]." "Given the notable change in the [Supreme] Court's approach to recognizing implied causes of action . . . the Court has made clear that expanding the Bivens remedy is now a 'disfavored' judicial activity."
(Cites to Ziglar omitted.)
As to the Bivens analysis, the court said first that Vanderklok didn't have a remedy under the Federal Tort Claims Act, but may have had a remedy under the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program.
Ultimately, it didn't matter, though, because Vanderklok's claim failed on the second Bivens inquiry. In particular, the court said second that the special factor of national security counseled against a Bivens remedy here:
A special factor counseling hesitation in implying a Bivens action here is that Vanderklok's claims can be seen as implicating "the Government's whole response to the September 11 attacks, thus of necessity requiring an inquiry into sensitive issues of national security." In language laden with separation-of-powers concerns in the context of foreign affairs, national security, and defense, the court wrote that it's up to Congress, not the courts, to create a remedy for constitutional violations in this kind of situation.
The court added a final "practical concern" to authorizing a Bivens remedy. It wrote that because TSA employees aren't typically law enforcement officers, they aren't trained in probable cause determinations of the type that would've been necessary here. Therefore, the court said, "a Bivens claim is poorly suited to address wrongs by line TSA employees. Indeed, the inherent uncertainty surrounding the probable cause standard is itself a factor counseling hesitation."
The ruling ends Vanderklok's First-Amendment portion of his lawsuit.