ARB Reverses ALJ and Finds Pilot Engaged In Protected Activity Under AIR-21

The Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board (ARB) found that Dawn Sewade, a helicopter pilot for Halo-Flight, Inc., engaged in protected activity under AIR-21 when she reported what she reasonably believed to be unsafe aircraft conditions to Halo-Flight. The ARB also held that Sewade’s allegations of constructive discharge following a retaliatory warning for her report were actionable under AIR-21. The ARB decision reversed a prior decision by the DOL’s Office of Administrative Law Judge s (ALJ) that Sewade’s complaint was not protected activity under AIR-21.

The ARB found that Sewade engaged in protected conduct when she reported a safety concern about her aircraft and refused to fly, claiming that her aircraft was violently pitching and that fuel sampling techniques used by Halo-Flight were not proper. Sewade also reported a mechanic who threatened Sewade’s job security after Sewade made her complaints.

Whistleblower Not Obligated to Produce Evidence of Retaliatory Termination

On March 20, 2015, the Department of Labor Administrative Review Board (ARB) reversed and remanded a decision by the DOL’s Office of Administrative Law Judges (OALJ) that held a railroad employee had not proved that his report of a workplace injury was a contributing factor to management’s decision to terminate his employment.

Robert Powers reported to his employer, Union Pacific Railroad Company, that he injured his hand while operating a rail saw at work in May 2007. Over slightly more than a year, Powers saw several doctors who prescribed various treatments. His doctors also imposed a series of work restrictions, including limits on lifting and repetitive motions.

Union Pacific became suspicious about Powers’ reported injuries and resultant work restrictions. The company hired a private investigator who filmed Powers performing tasks around his property, including using a sledgehammer and carrying boxes of ammunition. After an internal administrative procedure that determined that Powers had violated the company’s dishonesty policy and had failed to stay within his medical restrictions, the company terminated Powers’ employment.

Department of Labor Administrative Review Board Upholds Compensatory Damages Award Based on Unrebutted Psychiatrist Testimony

On November 3, 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor Administrative Review Board ruled that a pilot was entitled to compensatory damages for retaliation by Continental Airlines for his protected refusal to fly a plane without an inspection.

The 2014 ARB decision upheld the determination made by an administrative law judge on remand from a previous ARB decision. On January 31, 2012, the ARB had affirmed the earlier ALJ decision, which found that Continental Airlines retaliated against Roger Luder. However, in its 2012 decision, the ARB held that the ALJ had improperly granted both back and front pay to Luder and remanded the case to determine the proper amount of damages.

Luder’s claims date back to 2007, when he and a co-pilot were scheduled to fly a Continental flight from Miami to Houston. Before departure, Luder’s co-pilot informed him that the plane had experienced turbulence during the previous flight that had gone unreported. Federal regulations require that planes be inspected after experiencing turbulence. Accordingly, Luder insisted that the plane be inspected prior to taking off and wrote a log entry regarding the turbulence.

As a result, Continental temporarily suspended Luder and issued him a “termination warning” letter citing “unprofessional behavior.” Luder eventually claimed to suffer from an array of ailments arising from the retaliation, and claimed those ailments caused him to fail a flight simulator test and be disqualified from flying.

Luder brought the suit under the whistleblower protection provision of the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, also known as AIR 21, and its implementing regulations, 29 C.F.R. Part 1979 (2013). The ARB has authority to issue final agency decisions under AIR 21. The November 3, 2014 decision on damages was ARB Case No. 13-009.

The 2012 ARB decision had determined that Luder’s actions constituted protected activity under AIR 21 and that Continental’s suspension of Luder constituted an adverse action. The ALJ had awarded Luder compensatory damages for posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression resulting from Continental’s retaliation for his refusal to fly an uninspected and potentially damaged plane. The ALJ relied on testimony by Luder and a psychiatrist, Dr. Shaulov. The ARB remanded to the ALJ for determination, under a preponderance of the evidence standard, that the retaliation caused the harm.

The ALJ entered a Recommended Decision and Order on Remand, determining that Luder proved that the retaliation caused his psychiatric condition that prevented him from returning to work. The ALJ found “ample support for causation . . . when the entire record, including the credible testimony of Dr. Shaulov, Dr. Jorgenson, and Luder, is considered.”

A dissenting opinion in the ARB’s recent 2014 decision argued that a judge should still examine undisputed expert testimony under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 for “sufficient facts or data that properly applied reliable principles and methods,” but stopped short of advocating a Daubert hearing.

The Employment Law Group® law firm has an extensive nationwide whistleblower practice representing employees who have been victims of retaliation, including employees in the airline industry.

ARB Allows Whistleblower to Challenge Arbitration of Retaliation Claim

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board (ARB) said it would hear an airline whistleblower’s appeal of a decision forcing her into arbitration with her former employer, saying the delay of arbitration might jeopardize her rights under the the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR 21) — and therefore could undermine AIR 21 itself.