Ever since Congress established the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, there have been complaints about the way TSA agents do their job. Accusations of unnecessary searches, groping during searches and other misconduct have plagued the agency since its inception. Now, a disabled patient of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has filed suit over a June 30, 2015 incident at a Memphis International Airport checkpoint.
Hannah Cohen’s lawsuit accuses the TSA and airport police of discrimination and assault causing physical and emotional injury to her and emotional injury to her mother, Shirley Cohen. The suit seeks reasonable damages up to $100,000 for pain, medical expenses, emotional injury and embarrassment.
According to the Cohens, Hannah, 19 at the time, was impaired by radiation therapy and surgery to remove a brain tumor when she and her mother were passing through a security checkpoint and an alarm went off. The alarm and security agents’ attempt to search Hannah caused her to become disoriented. When she resisted the search, an agent brought her to the ground, where she struck her head and began bleeding. Airport police barred Mrs. Cohen, who had attempted to intervene, from helping her daughter. Hannah was arrested, but charges were eventually dropped.
The case raises questions about whether Hannah, in her condition, had a right under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to a reasonable accommodation, and whether the TSA violated that right by failing to provide an alternative method of screening her. The answers depend on what TSA agents on the scene knew or should have known at the time of the incident. Were they told of Hannah’s condition before the alarms went off? Would Hannah’s impairment have been obvious to any reasonable person observing her? Or would a reasonable person have felt that Hannah was a threat to herself or others?
On its face, TSA’s treatment of Hannah Cohen may appear extreme and insensitive. But in light of recent terrorist attacks and ongoing threats, a highly agitated person at a security checkpoint could suggest an imminent threat that requires swift action. In certain parts of the world, women and children have acted as suicide bombers. Whether TSA’s reaction in this instance was appropriate, excusable or absurd depends on numerous additional facts that may only come to light when the defendants file their response. It is likely the defendants will assert that Hannah’s condition was not obvious, that she has no rights under ADA because TSA had no notice of her disability, and that the Cohens were themselves at fault for not seeking an accommodation prior to the alarms sounding.
No matter how this case is resolved, it should serve as a cautionary tale for disabled or impaired individuals who may need special treatment at airport checkpoints.
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