When the FAA assesses a civil penalty for regulatory violations, it is required to take into account both aggravating and mitigating circumstances when it calculates the penalty. Typically the FAA focuses on aggravating circumstances to support assessment of a higher civil penalty. On the other hand, respondents argue that mitigating circumstances are present that justify a lower civil penalty. But if the case ends up going to hearing, it then becomes the administrative law judge's ("ALJ") responsibility to decide (1) whether any aggravating or mitigating circumstances are present, and (2) how/whether those circumstances may impact the civil penalty assessed by the FAA.
As an initial matter, the FAA has the burden of justifying the amount of the civil penalty. The ALJ must then look at the totality of the circumstances surrounding the violation to determine whether the civil penalty is sufficient to serve as a deterrent to both the respondent and the industry as a whole. As guidance, the ALJ may consider the following factors the FAA is supposed to consider per FAA Order 2150.3C FAA Compliance and Enforcement Program:
The nature of the violation;
Whether the violation was inadvertent or not deliberate. This is typically a mitigating factor, and the absence of inadvertence isn't automatically an aggravating factor;
If the respondent is a certificate holder, the certificate holder's level of experience;
The attitude or "compliance disposition" of the respondent;
The degree of hazard posed by the violation;
Any action taken by an employer or other authority;
The respondent's use of a certificate;
The respondent's violation history, if any. This is only an aggravating factor. A violation-free history is expected and is not a mitigating factor;
The respondent's financial ability to absorb a sanction;
Consistency of sanction;
Whether the respondent reported the violation voluntarily; and
What, if any, corrective action the respondent may have taken as a result of the violation.
If you are facing a proposed civil penalty or appealing an assessed civil penalty, you should definitely determine whether any of the circumstances of your situation support any of these mitigating factors and then argue those facts to the FAA or ALJ to try and reduce the civil penalty. You can find read a good example of how this works in a recent case - In re Star Helicopters.
On the other hand, if any of your circumstances could be characterized as aggravating factors, you will also want to identify those facts, because you know the FAA will. You can then determine how best to argue against and minimize the impact those aggravating circumstances may have on the civil penalty.
As some of you may know, the Department of Justice recently issued a Press Release announcing that it had indicted four pilots for lying on their medical applications. In each case, the airman failed to disclose that he was receiving Veterans Administration ("VA") benefits for a medical condition that would likely have either disqualified the airman from receiving a medical certificate, or would have certainly subjected the airman to additional scrutiny and/or testing requirements by the FAA's Office of Aerospace Medicine.
The airmen were "caught" when the FAA cross-checked its database of airmen holding medical certificates with the VA's disability benefits database. This is reminiscent of the FAA's 2002 Operation Safe Pilot in which it performed a similar cross-check, but with the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") disability database. Operation Safe Pilot resulted in prosecution of forty pilots who were receiving SSA disability benefits for conditions that would have either disqualified the airmen from receiving a medical or would have triggered further inquiry by the FAA.
After Operation Safe Pilot, the FAA revised the application for medical certificate to include language that specifically authorizes it to conduct this type of cross-check with SSA and VA. When an airman signs the medical application, he or she is agreeing that the FAA can perform this type of search.
Since the DOJ Press Release was issued, I have received multiple calls from airmen who believe they may be in a similar situation, but have not yet been "discovered" or received any notice from the FAA. In each call the airman is, perhaps justifiably, concerned regarding his or her liability exposure for criminal prosecution. Fortunately, options, albeit not great options, are available provided the airman is not yet in the FAA's cross-hairs.
Depending upon the circumstances, airmen have at least two options for dealing with the situation:
An airman can contact the FAA via letter and disclose the previously omitted information regarding both the medical condition and the receipt of disability benefits. It is also helpful to provide an explanation for the non-disclosure, to the extent that the airman has a reasonable explanation for failing to disclose the information. This may persuade the FAA that the failure to disclose was not intentional, but merely a misunderstanding etc.; or
The airman can apply for a new medical certificate and disclose the medical condition and receipt of benefits on the application. Then when the airman goes to his or her aviation medical examiner ("AME") for the medical examination the airman can explain the situation to the AME.
In either instance, the airman will want to have all of his or her VA medical/disability records available to provide to the FAA. However, an airman should keep in mind that any information he or she provides to the FAA could be used against the airman in a criminal prosecution. So it is important for the airman to be very careful about what he or she says to the FAA or AME.
Although pursuing one of these two options does not guarantee that the FAA will not prosecute the airman, coming clean and correcting the record before the airman is "caught" may convince the FAA that prosecution is unnecessary. However, even if an airman is not prosecuted, it is quite likely that the FAA will follow its standard playbook and revoke all of the airman's certificates as a sanction for falsifying the airman's medical application(s).
If you find yourself in this situation, please call and I will be happy to help you through the process.
A recent NTSB decision highlights the imperative of appealing an emergency order of revocation in a timely manner, and the continuing, near-insurmountable hurdle of trying to prove "good cause" if the appeal deadline is missed. In Administrator v. Muriuki the FAA issued an emergency order revoking the airman's medical certificate. Per 49 C.F.R. § 821.53(a) the airman had 10 days within which to appeal the order. The airman did not file his appeal until 4 days after it was due. However, it is possible for the Board to accept a late-filed appeal if the airman is able to show "good cause" for delay in filing. Unfortunately, the Board rejected the airman's "good cause" argument and rejected the late-filed appeal.
What is noteworthy about this case isn't the fact that the Board is strict about timing requirements for filing appeals. That isn't new. But what is important about this case is how the Board continues to reject legitimate "good cause" arguments asserted by airmen.
In this case, the FAA issued a notice of proposed certificate action ("Notice") in December 2017 with respect to the airman's medical certificate. The emergency order revoking the airman's medical certificate was not issued until April 13, 2018. During the time period from December 2017 through mid-April 2018 the airman was traveling away from his home but had made arrangements for someone to check his mail. However, the person who was supposed to be checking the airman's mail never checked the mail when the FAA issued the emergency order and so the airman was not aware that the order was issued.
Rather, on April 20, 2018 the airman went in to apply for a new medical certificate and was told by the aviation medical examiner ("AME") that he could not issue a medical and the airman should contact the FAA directly for more information. The airman called the the FAA on April 20, April 23, and April 24, and, finally, on April 25, 2018 someone from the FAA told the airman that the FAA had sent him something in the mail, although the individual apparently did not tell the airman exactly what had been sent.
So, the airman then contacted the person who was supposed to be checking his mail who then confirmed to the airman that the emergency order was sent to the airman. The airman retained an attorney that day and, after the attorney contacts the FAA attorney the following day to obtain a copy of the order, the attorney filed an appeal on behalf of the airman on April 27, 2018 - a mere 4 days after it was otherwise due.
In analyzing the case the Board observed that "good cause" is defined by two criteria: (1) factors outside of respondent's control prevented him from knowing or acting upon the emergency order, and (2) once he was aware, he acted diligently to initiate his appeal. Based upon the facts, the Board believed that the airman's arrangements for having his mail checked were inadequate because the airman did not explain how often his mail was being checked and admitted that during the week when the emergency order was issued the mail was not checked at all.
It was also unhappy with the fact that the airman followed the AME's instructions and attempted to contact the FAA to find out what was going on, rather than going back and checking his mail. According to the Board, the airman also could have contacted the FAA investigator handling the case and he should have done more to assure that the mail was checked and he was notified if/when something from the FAA was received. Thus, it concluded that it was not convinced circumstances beyond the airman’s control prevented him from knowing about the emergency order.
And even if that weren't the case, the Board went on to find that the airman's actions after the AME refused to issue him a medical did not show diligence. The Board faulted the airman for only trying to call the FAA and waiting 5 days before going back to have his mail checked. (Of course this ignores the fact that it took the airman 5 days to get an answer out of the FAA, and an incomplete answer at that).
At the end of the day, this case makes clear, yet again, that you can expect the Board to be almost completely unforgiving if you file an appeal late. Although you may request that the Board accept the late-appeal based upon "good cause", please realize that the burden of proving "good cause" is nearly insurmountable.
So, if you are the subject of an FAA investigation, make sure you check your mail every day. If you can't, have someone you trust check it for you. And if you receive something from the FAA, don't ignore it. Open it immediately. The time for you to defend and protect your rights may already be ticking. And if you do receive an order, emergency or otherwise, from the FAA, do not delay in taking action. It is much better to argue the merits of an FAA decision rather than whether you met the timing requirements for an appeal of the FAA's decision.
It isn't uncommon for someone to be unhappy with an FAA decision. Fortunately, our laws provide a mechanism for appealing or objecting to certain final orders or decisions issued by the FAA. Specifically, 49 U.S.C. § 46110(a) provides that a person with a substantial interest in the FAA's order/decision "may apply for review of the order by filing a petition for review in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit or in the court of appeals of the United States for the circuit in which the person resides or has its principal place of business." The petition must be filed not later than sixty (60) days after the order is issued unless reasonable grounds exist for filing later than the 60th day.
However, in order for an FAA order to be subject to review by a court, the order must be "final." What does it mean to be "final"? Well, the courts have held that two requirements must be met: (1) the FAA's action must evidence the completion of the agency's decisionmaking process, rather than simply tentative or subject to further consideration; and (2) the FAA's action must determine certain rights or obligations, or result in legal consequences. Courts also consider whether the decision or order is at a stage where judicial review would interfere with or disrupt the FAA's administrative/decisionmaking process.
So, for example, if the FAA issues a letter merely restating a previously adopted interpretation of a regulation, that would not be considered a a "final" decision. However, if the FAA issued a new interpretation or clarified an existing interpretation, in either of those instances it is quite possible that the FAA's action would be considered a "final" decision subject to appeal.
Additionally, if the FAA issues a letter or notice in which it indicates that a party's practices may potentially violate the law, that letter or notice may not necessarily be the completion of the agency's decisionmaking process such that it determines a party's legal rights or obligations. For example, neither a letter of investigation nor a notice of proposed certificate action is considered final agency action because the FAA hasn't yet determined whether it will actually pursue enforcement action and issue a final order subject to appeal.
As a result, if you are concerned about something the FAA says or does, before you run to the courthouse to file a petition asking a Judge to tell the FAA it is wrong, make sure the FAA's action is actually a "final" action subject to judicial review. Otherwise, you could end up wasting time and money only to have the Judge tell you that the Court doesn't have the authority to even consider your arguments.
As many of us know, revocation has been the FAA’s choice of sanction in medical application falsification cases for a very long time. This was especially true prior to enactment of the Pilots Bill of Rights I (the “PBR-1”), when the National Transportation Safety Board (the “Board”) was “bound by” the FAA’s choice of sanction. In all of the case law prior to PBR-1, the Board relied upon this language and deferred to the FAA’s imposition of revocation in falsification cases.
In 2012 the PBR-1 removed the “bound by” language from the regulations. Since that time, the Board has followed the traditional doctrine of judicial deference set forth in Martin v. OSHRC and subsequent cases when determining whether to defer to the FAA’s imposition of revocation in falsification cases. However, the deference the Board must accord to the FAA in sanction review is not unfettered, and it does not eliminate or replace the due process requirement for the Board’s evaluation. In each case the Board must consider aggravating and mitigating factors and compare factually similar cases to determine whether the FAA’s choice of sanction is appropriate.
In practice, administrative law judges have discussed the need to analyze and weigh the facts and circumstances of each case when they apply the principles of judicial deference to determine if the sanction selected by the FAA is appropriate. In each of those cases, the Board on appeal also considered the merits of the FAA’s sanction choice, even though in both instances it was within the recommendations of the FAA’s Sanction Guidance Table. And yet in each case the sanction of revocation was affirmed.
Although the FAA will often state that it "carefully followed the sanction guidelines when it proposed revoking all airman certificates held by the respondent", this is self-serving at best. 14 C.F.R. § 67.403(b)(1) provides for suspending OR revoking airman and medical certificates. However, contrary to Section 67.403(b)(1), FAA Order 2150.3B, Appendix B-4-b(1) (the FAA's Sanction Guidance Table) states that revocation of all of an airman’s certificates is the only available sanction.
And although the FAA may deny it, a review of the Board’s past and present docket, as well as Board precedent, clearly shows the FAA very rarely seeks any sanction other than revocation of all airman certificates in cases where it alleges falsification. So, to say the FAA "carefully followed the sanction guidelines" implies analysis and consideration that the FAA’s own guidance does not permit.
Also, the FAA almost always claims its chosen sanction is appropriate because the alleged falsification shows the airman lacks qualification to hold any airman certificate or airman medical certificate. Yet after one year from the date of the order of revocation the airman will typically be allowed to reapply for airman certificates, and provided the airman is otherwise qualified, the prior revocation will not prohibit the airman from being issued airman certificates.
And in the meantime, the airman can apply for and be issued a new medical certificate provided he or she is able to demonstrate that he or she is qualified to hold a medical certificate under 14 C.F.R. Part 67. The fact that the regulations and the FAA permit application for and issuance of both airman and medical certificates after the FAA concludes that an airman is not qualified to hold those certificates, as a matter of course, belies both the accuracy and the legitimacy of the FAA’s conclusion.
It is hard to understand how revocation of all of an airman’s certificates, rather than suspension, is anything other than a punitive sanction that the FAA automatically assesses without thought or consideration to the factual circumstances of each case. Further, the FAA’s often-heard claim that it "has limited its decision to what is prescribed by the sanction guidelines" is an admission that it has disregarded the clear language of the regulation permitting revocation OR suspension. The FAA's singular selection of sanction to the exclusion of what is otherwise provided in the regulation is, both on its face and in application, arbitrary and capricious, and should not be entitled to deference.
But, in spite of the above, both the Board and the courts continue to defer to the FAA’s imposition of revocation in falsification cases and to rely upon pre-PBR-1 precedent to support those decisions. It isn’t clear to me why the Board and the courts may rely upon those cases as precedent when they were decided based upon the requirement that the Board was “bound by” the FAA’s choice of sanction, and that requirement is no longer present. Unfortunately, in falsification cases where the FAA’s continued "knee-jerk" reaction is to revoke all of an airman’s certificates, the words of The Talking Head’s seem apropos: “same as it ever was.”