DOL Judge Awards Airline Pilot $500,000 in Compensatory Damages in AIR21 Whistleblower Retaliation Case
In a decision finding that Delta violated the anti-retaliation provision of the AIR21 whistleblower protection law, Judge Morris awarded pilot Karlene Petit $500,000 in compensatory damages for emotional distress, humiliation, and reputational harm.
Delta Pilot Suffers Retaliation for Raising Safety Concerns
While working as a first officer for Delta, Petit reported safety concerns, including inadequate flight simulator training, deviation from line check evaluation procedures, pilot fatigue, and inadequate training and falsification of training records. Soon after Petit raised her concerns, Delta grounded her from flying and referred her for a mental health evaluation. Delta’s selected psychiatrist diagnosed Petit with bipolar disorder, precluding her from maintaining the medical certificate necessary to operate commercial aircraft. The psychiatrist that Delta retained to evaluate Petit conducted no interviews in making his determination and failed to consult with the physician that had determined for several years that Petit was mentally fit to fly.
After the diagnosis, Petit sought another examination from a panel of physicians at the Mayo Clinic. Those physicians submitted a unanimous report concluding that Petit had no mental health impairment. Twenty-one months later, Delta reinstated Petit to flight status, after inflicting significant harm to Petit’s reputation and career considerably.
In his decision, Judge Morris held that Delta’s referral of Petit for a mental health evaluation was an adverse action in violation of the AIR21 whistleblower protection law because it placed at issue her career and livelihood. Formally questioning a pilot’s mental fitness stigmatizes that pilot in the eyes of the close-knit aviation community. Judge Morris also concluded that Petit’s submission of the safety complaint was a contributing factor in Delta’s decision to refer her for a mental health evaluation.
Evidence Warranting Award of $500,000 in Compensatory Damages
In determining an appropriate award of compensatory damages, Judge Morris surveyed awards under AIR21 and other whistleblower protection laws and found that compensatory damages are typically low, ranging from $3,000 to $100,000. He found that a higher award was warranted in Petit’s case because the retaliation was egregious and will continue to inflict harm for the remainder of Petit’s career. Judge Morris cited these factors in support of a $500,000 compensatory damages award:
The length of time Petit was unable to fly for Delta due to the retaliation – nearly two years;
The cruelty of informing Petit on Christmas Eve of Delta’s finding that she suffered from bipolar disorder;
Petit’s credible reports of sleeplessness due to the retaliation;
The strain of multiple psychological tests Petit was subjected to because Delta wrongly diagnosed her with a mental health disorder;
The permanent damage to Petit’s reputation as a pilot, regardless of the ALJ’s findings, including permanent records in her FAA medical file that could create special reporting requirements to the FAA;
Delta’s reporting the medical results that included the diagnosis to the FAA, in direct violation of Petit’s contract with the company and after the Mayo Clinic doctors had cleared her.
Further, Judge Morris found that throughout the years-long process during which Delta retaliated and Petit attempted to clear her record, Petit reasonably feared that her career as a pilot was over. She had worked tirelessly to become a successful pilot and had a lifelong passion for aviation, and the prospect of losing the career and position that she had worked so hard to achieve caused her to suffer severe mental distress and suffering. And due to the staffing structure in the airline industry, Petit will continue to work under the supervision of many of the Delta employees who retaliated in the first place, and will continue to be the subject of gossip and speculation about her ability to fly, regardless of the results of the case. Therefore, the retaliation will likely harm Petit’s future prospects of promotion, and Delta’s retaliation will cause permanent harm to her career and reputation.