Chattanooga mom sues TSA for slamming her disabled daughter's head into the ground

In a lawsuit filed on June 28, 2016, Shirley Cohen says that federal agents slammed her disabled 19-year-old daughter's head into the ground. Hannah Cohen was on her way back home from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital after undergoing cancer treatment when her sequined owl t-shirt set off the scanner.
photo Hannah Cohen was on her way back home from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital after undergoing cancer treatment when TSA agents slammed her head into the ground, according to a lawsuit. She is disabled in her left eye and ear after undergoing cancer treatment for much of her life.

A pattern of sequins in the shape of an owl on Hannah Cohen's T-shirt may have triggered the alarm at a Memphis airport security checkpoint, setting in motion a chain of events that led to the disabled teen's face being bloodied, allegedly by federal agents, as her mother looked on in horror.

Cohen was on her way home to Chattanooga after undergoing treatment at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital when the alarm at the checkpoint began to sound. Disoriented, the teen didn't immediately heed instructions to undergo further scanning, her mother said.

Cohen, who is blind in her left eye and deaf in her left ear, is impaired from radiation and removal of a brain tumor, and is limited in her ability to talk, walk, stand, see and hear. Her mother, Shirley Cohen, says she begged Transportation Security Administration screeners to let her help her disabled daughter through the checkpoint, but she said they called for backup instead.

"They were grabbing her from both sides," Shirley Cohen alleged Friday. "One of them slammed her down, hit her head on the cement, and there was blood everywhere."

As two agents thrust their knees into her daughter's back and clapped handcuffs around her wrists, another agent grabbed Shirley Cohen and pulled her away from her daughter, she said.

Later, in an interrogation room, a TSA agent told her that her daughter had struck one of the agents, and the agency was going to press charges, Cohen said. After a night in the hospital with two guards standing watch outside the door, officers booked her daughter into jail.

Though prosecutors eventually dropped the charges and refunded her bail bond, Cohen said that hardly justifies the way her daughter was treated.

Though Hannah Cohen is now tumor-free, her run-in with the Memphis screeners shattered her life. The 19-year-old has now graduated from high school and started taking classes at Chattanooga State Community College, but she's since dropped out of school and is taking a semester off.

The family lives in Harrison, just north of Chattanooga.

"The stress of all this, she wasn't able to continue full-time hours so she lost her scholarship," her mother said.

In a lawsuit filed on June 28 that named the TSA and the various agencies that manage the airport as defendants, Cohen asked for damages not to exceed $100,000 for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as negligent infliction of emotional distress.

In the lawsuit, Cohen alleges that the TSA didn't provide any reasonable accommodation for screening given Hannah Cohen's disability, and assaulted her in the airport without cause.

"They think they are above the law," she said. "The one time they let me go back [into her daughter's hospital room] to take her some food, one of them was grinning at me the whole time, and I was like, 'We'll see.'"

TSA spokesman Mark Howell and Jerry Brandon, chief of public safety of the Memphis International Airport Police Department, told the Associated Press the department could not comment on pending litigation.

"Anybody can file anything, and we don't comment on active litigation," Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority president and CEO Scott Brockman told The Commercial Appeal newspaper. "Clearly there are additional facts in this matter, and we won't comment until we address the litigation."