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In recent months we have seen the Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA") aggressively pursuing civil penalty actions against various air carriers and maintenance facilities. In some instances the penalties proposed by the FAA have been millions of dollars. And although the media has a field day each time the FAA announces proposed civil penalties, we usually don't hear anything else about the case until it is resolved with a civil penalty actually assessed against the targeted air carrier or maintenance facility. If the proposed penalty is withdrawn or if the air carrier or maintenance facility beats the charges, we rarely hear anything at all.
In this article I would like to fill in that gap in time by providing you with an overview of the processes and procedures that occur from the time the FAA proposes a civil penalty until the case is resolved.
The Civil Penalty Action
When the FAA believes a certificate holder (whether an airman, air carrier, repair station or otherwise), it may pursue enforcement action against the offending party. The action can be against the party's certificate, also known as a "Certificate Action." In this situation the FAA seeks to suspend or revoke the party's certificate. Alternatively, the FAA could seek to impose a civil penalty or fine against the party, also known as a "Civil Penalty Action."
Civil Penalty Actions are typically used against companies or entities, as opposed to individuals, that hold FAA certificates. However, the FAA will often bring a civil penalty action against an individual to avoid the six month limitation of the NTSB's stale complaint rule in a certificate action, and benefit from the longer 2 year limitation applicable to civil penalty actions. Thus, if the FAA fails to initiate a certificate action within six months of discovering an alleged violation, it will resort to a civil penalty action which allows the FAA 2 years within which to initiate the action.
The FAA determines the amount of the civil penalty using the Sanction Guidance Table in FAA Order 2150.3B, Appendix B, which provides ranges for civil penalties based upon the type and size of the certificate holder, the type of alleged violation and the number of alleged violations. If the amount of the proposed civil penalty is less than $50,000, then the FAA handles the action. However, if the proposed civil penalty is more than $50,000, then the United States Attorney's office handles prosecution of the action. (For purposes of this article we will assume a case is being handled by the FAA).
A Civil Penalty Action is initiated when the FAA serves the certificate holder with a "Notice of Proposed Civil Penalty (the "Notice"). The Notice recites the relevant facts (usually discovered by the FAA during an investigation, inspection or audit), the regulations the FAA believes the certificate holder has violated and the proposed civil penalty.
Options for Responding to the Notice
The Notice is accompanied by an explanation of options for responding to the Notice. The certificate holder has the choice of the following seven options:
Pay the penalty as proposed by the FAA;
Submit written information and evidence demonstrating that a violation of the regulations was not committed or that; if it was, the facts and circumstances do not warrant the proposed civil penalty. The FAA will then consider this information in determining whether a civil penalty should be assessed and the amount of any such civil penalty;
Submit written information and records indicating that the certificate holder is financially unable to pay the proposed civil penalty, or showing that payment of the proposed penalty would put the certificate holder out of business;
Request that a civil penalty be assessed in a specific amount less than that proposed in the Notice, or that no civil penalty be assessed and provide the reasons and support for the requested reduction. The FAA will then consider this information when it determines whether the reduced amount should be assessed. If the FAA accepts the reduced amount that constitutes the certificate holder's agreement that an Order Assessing Civil Penalty in that amount may be issued and the certificate holder waives its right to a hearing regarding the civil penalty;
Request an informal conference during which the certificate holder can discuss the matter with an FAA attorney and present any information the certificate holder might otherwise have wanted to provide under options 1-4;
Request that the FAA impose a civil penalty without making findings of violations, providing reasons and any supporting documentation along with the request. If the FAA accepts the request, that constitutes the certificate holder's agreement that a Compromise Order in that amount may be issued and the certificate holder waives its rights to a hearing; or
Request a formal evidentiary hearing before a Department of Transportation administrative law judge ("ALJ") at which the ALJ will decide issues of fact and law and will determine whether, and in what amount, a civil penalty will be assessed against the certificate holder.
The certificate holder must respond to the FAA with one of the seven options within 30 days after receiving the Notice. If the certificate holder selects any option other than option 7 and the case settles, either the case will be dismissed, which doesn't happen very often, or an order for a reduced civil penalty will be issued, which happens frequently. If the latter, then the certificate holder simply pays the penalty and the case is closed. If the case does not settle, or if the certificate holder elects option 7, then a hearing is held before an ALJ.
The Evidentiary Hearing
Prior to the hearing, the FAA issues a complaint that contains the same factual and regulatory allegations contained in the Notice. The certificate holder then submits an answer specifically admitting or denying the allegations contained in the FAA's complaint.
The certificate holder and FAA may also engage in discovery before the hearing. Discovery allows each party to ask the other to identify witnesses and produce evidence that will be introduced at the hearing and also provides an opportunity to depose witnesses. Through discovery, the certificate holder should be able to ascertain all of the facts and evidence upon which the FAA will be relying when it presents its case to the ALJ.
At the hearing, the FAA has the burden of proving its allegations by a preponderance of reliable, probative and substantial evidence. The FAA will present witness testimony and evidence and the certificate holder has the opportunity to cross-examine the FAA's witnesses and to present witnesses and evidence on its own behalf. At the end of the hearing, the ALJ will issue a decision regarding whether a civil penalty is supported by the facts and law, and if it is, the appropriate amount.
If either the certificate holder or the FAA is unhappy with the ALJ's decision, that party may file a notice of appeal with the "FAA administrator." Yes, the same administrator responsible for the FAA. To make matters worse, the FAA Chief Counsel's office, which also prosecutes civil penalty cases, writes the decisions for the FAA administrator. If you are thinking this, at a minimum, appears unfair and biased, you are not alone. However, such is the system established by the current regulations.
The regulations require that the FAA administrator review the record, the briefs on appeal, and the oral argument, if any, and then issue the final decision and order of the FAA administrator on appeal. The FAA administrator may (1) affirm, modify, or reverse the initial decision of the ALJ; (2) make any necessary findings; or (3) remand the case for any proceedings that the FAA administrator determines may be necessary. If either party is unsatisfied with the FAA administrator's decision, that decision can be appealed to the United States Court of Appeals pursuant to a petition for review.
As you can see, a lot can happen after the FAA proposes a civil penalty against a certificate holder. Knowing the process and the options available, along with the assistance of an aviation attorney, can help you respond and successfully resolve an FAA civil penalty action.