Department of Labor Awards Delta Air Lines Whistleblower $500,000 in Compensatory Damages

On December 21, 2020, a Department of Labor (DOL) Administrative Law Judge awarded a whistleblower $500,000 in compensatory damages and found that Delta Air Lines (Delta) violated the whistleblower protection provision of the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR 21).

Karlene Petitt is currently employed as a First Officer for Delta. In March of 2011, Petitt “complained about Captain Thomas Albain’s simulator training.” Years later, in January of 2016, Petitt met with two Captains and provided Delta “with a 43-page written safety report entitled ‘Assessment of Delta Air Lines ‘Flight Operations’ Safety Culture,’” according to the decision. A different Captain presented Petitt with a March 17, 2016 letter that “advised her that she was removed from service…based on alleged concerns regarding [Petitt’s] mental health and whether she still met the standards required for a First Class Medical Certificate.” 

Petitt “underwent neurological testing” at the behest of the company and after meeting with two different doctors was deemed “medically non-qualified.” She filed an AIR 21 complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in June of 2016. In June of 2017, Mayo Clinic, which was Petitt’s pilot medical examiner, and a separate Neutral Medical Examiner both assessed that Petitt “was fit to work as a pilot,” and on August 22, 2017, “the [Federal Aviation Administration] Medical Appeals Board deemed [Petitt] eligible to retain her First Class Medical certificate and reinstated her.”

Since Petitt’s original AIR 21 complaint, the case was moved to the DOL’s Office of Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) and throughout the duration of the case, several motions and orders were filed until ALJ Scott R. Morris’ final December 21, 2020 decision.

Some of the safety issues Petitt reported in her January 2016 safety report included “inadequate flight simulator training,” “pilot fatigue, and flight and duty time issues,” “inadequate training and errors in training manuals,” and “falsification of training records,” among other concerns.

“The preponderant evidence shows that Complainant has succeeded in her burden to demonstrate discriminatory retaliation under the Act,” the decision states. Additionally, the Office of Administrative Law Judges wrote that Delta “has failed to establish by clear and convincing evidence the existence of legitimate, nondiscriminatory grounds for its decision to put [Petitt] through the Section 15 psychiatric evaluation process.”

Judge Morris has ordered Delta to “henceforth compensate Complainant at a wage no lower than the highest salary” for any other first officer working for the company. Judge Morris has also ordered that Petitt receive $500,000 in compensatory damages and be reinstated the vacation days she used “to avoid being placed on disability” or $52,522.03, the monetary equivalent of said vacation days. Additionally, the court has ordered Delta to reimburse Petitt for attorney fees and “deliver an electronic copy of the decision directly to all of its pilots and managers in its flight operations department.”

Read the full decision here.

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