Employment Discrimination: TSA Worker’s Discrimination Claim Barred By Federal Statute Preemption

Aviation and Transportation Security Act precludes causes of action under the Rehabilitation Act. Field v. Napolitano, 663 F.3d 505 (1st Cir. 2011)

Summary: The First Circuit held that a disgruntled Logan Airport security screener could not bring a discrimination claim against the Transportation Security Administration (“TSA”) under the Rehabilitation Act. Mr. Field was a security screener at Logan Airport who suffered a diabetic ulcer on his foot, preventing him from fulfilling his regular job functions. Despite adjustment of his role at the airport, Mr. Field did not report to work for several months and as a result he was terminated. First Circuit affirmed the dismissal of his claims of discrimination and retaliation, ruling that the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (“ATSA”) precluded a cause of action under the Rehabilitation Act.

Discussion: The ATSA was enacted along with the formation of the TSA as a response to the 9-11 terrorist attacks. The ATSA gives the Under Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security a wide degree of discretion to create and enforce employment standards for airport security screeners. Pursuant to the language of the ATSA “notwithstanding any provision of law,” the TSA Administrator may hold security screeners to a standard much higher than those set out in the Rehabilitation Act. Specifically, the ATSA calls for a more heightened physical requirement such as the ability to distinguish colors and to lift baggage weighing seventy pounds. The ATSA took the position that hiring and retaining those employees who fall below the heightened standards would be unsafe for the person, other employees, and the public. In light of this policy choice, the First Circuit held that the disparity in employment standards between the ATSA and the Rehabilitation Act must be resolved by allowing the ATSA’s employment standards to trump that of the Rehabilitation Act in order to allow the TSA to carry out its objectives. Therefore, Mr. Fields was prevented from bringing a discrimination claim under the Rehabilitation Act against the TSA because he had fallen below the ATSA’s heightened standards. As for the protection normally afforded of employees with disabilities, the First Circuit was satisfied that the TSA’s directive allows employees to request reasonable accommodation as long as they meet the ATSA’s employment standards for security screeners.

Implications: The First Circuit ruled in accordance with every other circuit that has tackled the issue of the relationship between the ATSA, the Rehabilitation Act, and airport security screeners. In addition, the Court noted that the ATSA might preclude a cause of action under other statutes as well, such as the ADEA. This means that even if another statute affords a cause of action, the claim will likely be precluded if the action is inconsistent with the ATSA and its mandates.

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