Sep. 28, 2012 at 6:22 AM ET
When Stephanie Lambert packed peanut butter and jelly to keep her two small children happy on a cross-country flight in June, she didn't mean to pick a fight with the Transportation Security Administration. But after a long security line argument, and the confiscation of the peanut butter (but not the jelly), she felt she had no choice.
Then, after churning through the four-page “SF-95 Tort Claim Package forms,” she got something else she never expected: a $3.99 refund from the U.S. Treasury Department.
Lambert was traveling with her husband, a 6-month-old and a 2-year-old on an ungodly early flight in June, and arrived at the airport about 5 a.m. She was flying from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh, and she needed the usual bag of distractions and food to keep her kids -- and other passengers -- sane during the trip. But, she says, her efforts to ensure a smooth flight were foiled when a TSA agent with a bad attitude singled out her family for additional screening. After the usual pat-downs and questions, discussion centered on the jar of peanut butter.
"He just really fixated on the peanut butter and a jar of apple sauce I had," she said. "I keep saying, 'It's not a liquid; it's pureed apples,' but we go went around and around. He also screened my husband multiple times. I asked to speak to the terminal manager, but he never arrived. ... We were there 30 minutes."
Eventually, the screener let the apple sauce (and the jelly) go, but he drew the line on the peanut butter.
"I said, ‘Fine.’ I left the peanut butter, but I took down names," she said. "The screener was asking for my all my details, so I figured I'd ask for his."
When the family arrived in Pittsburgh, Lambert asked a TSA screener on her way out about peanut butter -- Was it considered a liquid or not? -- and got a vague answer. So when she got home, she turned to the Internet and the found the SF-95 Tort Claim Package forms. Generally, they're filled out by fliers who think the TSA lost something valuable while screening bags, such as laptop computers. But Lambert was after satisfaction, and she didn't see why she couldn't make a claim for the cost of her seized peanut butter.
"At the airport, my husband kept saying, 'Would you just let go of the peanut butter? We're going to miss the plane.' But these things really fire me up," Lambert said. "So when I said, 'Honey, I'm going to file a claim,' he wasn't surprised."
Lambert is a rare consumer who was in a perfect position to file such a claim. For starters, she had the original receipt from Whole Foods showing the price she paid for the spread.
Who keeps receipts for peanut butter? Lambert explained that she started her family during the recession, and from the start has carefully watched her money. She saves receipts from every purchase, enters everything into a spreadsheet and tracks every expense. She also has a binder, where she records refunds, returns, rebates and any other correspondence that involves money.
"I fill out forms and keep track of them all the time, so this was easy for me," she said. "I'm responsible for the family finances. If it takes me months, it takes me months. I'm very firm when companies owe me money."
She had another motivation behind her ferocity regarding the confiscated peanut butter, however.
"When they first put in the liquid (security) rules on flights, a screening agent took a $7 lip gloss I had just purchased. Then, the very next day, they changed the rules and lip gloss was allowed. I was furious," she said. "I remember the TSA agent actually took a basketball shot with my lip gloss into the trash bins as I went through security. I'm still mad about that, and I was thinking, 'This is not happening again.'"
On her complaint form, Lambert said TSA agents unnecessarily screened her husband twice, and removed everything from her carry-on bags during the 30-minute ordeal.
"At the time I was carrying my 6-month-old and trying to keep my 2-year-old calm," she wrote. "(The agent's) behavior was completely unwarranted."
She submitted the claim on June 19. To her surprise, she received a letter dated Aug. 24 from TSA that read: "Your claim against the United States in the amount of $3.99 has been granted in full." On Sept. 14, the "refund" was electronically deposited into her bank account.
Naturally, Lambert wasn't really after the money. She says she was trying to make a point.
"I think people really do need to fight for themselves," she said. "In this case, the peanut butter was important to me. I was thinking, 'Hey, I need that. If I have a crisis with a child on a five-hour flight this peanut butter may help me.’ I wasn’t hopping to Phoenix, I was flying across country and there’s no food on the flight for children."
As it turns out, the TSA website does list peanut butter as a banned liquid/gel, if carried onto a plane in containers exceeding 3.4 ounces. Jellies, jams and "creamy dips and spreads" are also banned in bigger portions. There are some exceptions for mothers traveling with infants, however, involving breast milk, juice, baby food and other liquids and gels, which muddies the discussion considerably.
Part of the problem, Lambert says, is that the rules seem to vary from airport to airport, and even from agent to agent.
"I think it depends on how well the information goes down the chain," she said.
Lambert said she spoke via telephone with a TSA representative as she was filling out her tort claim and thought the agent was very pleasant and competent. The agent even promised to review security tape to see if the incident required follow up. That conversation, and her refund, actually leaves her with more good than bad feelings about the TSA. The problem, she said, is that most of the trouble for passengers occurs on the front lines, in the chaos of someone rushing to make a flight with agents who sometimes are too eager to exert their power.
TSA spokesman David A. Castelveter told NBC News that peanut butter jars in excess of 3.4 ounces are generally not permissable as carry-on items, but that screeners can exercise "common-sense discretion." Exceptions generally involve medical needs, he said.
He also pointed to a press release about TSA agents in Los Angeles who stopped suspects allegedly trying to sneak marijuana onto an airplane in a modified jar of peanut butter last year.
The agency has no readily available statistics on tort claims, Castelveter said, but added that Lambert's peanut butter refund claim was "the first time I'd ever heard of something like that."
The Los Angeles Times investigated tort claims against TSA last year, and found that 1,702 claims were made against the agency by passengers traveling through Los Angeles International Airport from 2007 through 2010. Most claims involved items that were damaged or disappeared fromchecked baggage. The average damage claim was $1,437, but most were denied. Roughly 13 percent of those who claimed the loss of a laptop computer were granted relief, but less than 1 percent of those saying they lost or damaged digital camera were reimbursed.
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One key to having successful dialogs with TSA agents at checkpoints is time; passengers rushing to make a flight have no time to make their case. In Lambert's situation, she had time to put up a fight because, ironically, her husband is a frequent traveler and the family qualified for express screening.
If you feel like the TSA has wrongly confiscated an item from you at a checkpoint, you can obtain the necessary forms at this page.
Note that if the TSA denies a claim, it can only be appealed by filing a lawsuit in federal court. By law, small claims courts have no jurisdiction over TSA cases.
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