All posts tagged 'FAA Enforcement' - Page 2

Waiver of Emergency Procedures in an NTSB Appeal Will Not Cure a Missed Deadline

Since the FAA began implementing its new compliance philosophy last year, fewer case are being appealed to the NTSB.  However, it appears that the cases that are being appealed the most are emergency orders of either suspension or revocation.  As you may recall from past articles, when a certificate holder appeals an emergency order to the NTSB, emergency procedures apply to the case which require that a hearing be held within 30 days after the appeal is filed.  Other deadlines are also much shorter under the emergency procedures than they are under the procedures for a non-emergency appeal.  The purpose for the accelerated hearing and deadlines is to ensure that a certificate holder whose certificate has been suspended or revoked on an emergency basis (i.e. the order is effective immediately) receives a hearing and decision as soon as possible to minimize the impact of the suspension or revocation if the NTSB administrative law judge ("ALJ") ultimately reverses the FAA's order.

But in some situations, this expedited timeline can also be a problem for a certificate holder who may need more time to properly prepare for a hearing.  So, it is also possible to waive the emergency procedures in an appeal of an emergency order.  Whether the emergency procedures should be waived is a decision that will depend upon the circumstances of each case.  But the certificate holder must be sure to comply with the deadlines applicable to the case, whether under the emergency or non-emergency procedures.  Failure to comply can result in harsh consequences.  If a certificate holder is going to waive the emergency procedures, the waiver should occur before any applicable deadline has passed.  A recent decision by the NTSB illustrates the unfortunate consequences of an untimely waiver.

In Administrator v. Jimenez; the airman appealed an emergency order revoking his commercial pilot certificate.  The airman appealed the order to the NTSB, but failed to file his answer to the FAA's complaint within the five days required by the Board's emergency procedures.  As a result, the FAA subsequently filed a motion to deem the facts admitted and requesting summary judgment.  One day after the FAA filed its motion, the airman waived the emergency procedures and filed his answer which would have still been timely under the proceedures applicable to a non-emergency case.  In the absence of good cause for the late filing, the ALJ granted the FAA's motion based upon the airman's failure to timely file his answer.  The airman then appealed the ALJ's decision to the full Board.

On appeal, the airman argued that his answer was timely under the non-emergency procedures that were applicable to the case once the airman had waived the emergency procedures.  However, the Board rejected the airman's argument.  While the Board observed that Section 821.52(d) permits an airman to waive the the accelerated time limits applicable to emergency cases, it then referred to the rule's limitation that “such a waiver shall not serve to lengthen any period of time for doing an act prescribed by this subpart which expired before the date on which the waiver was made.”  Thus, the Board held that the express language of the rule precluded the airman's argument that the 20-day deadline, which would apply in a non-emergency case, was applicable because the airman did not waive the the emergency procedures until after the time to file his answer expired.

The rules for emergency and non-emergency cases can sometimes be confusing.  And, unfortunately, the consequences of failing to comply with the rules can be significant.  This case is yet another example of why it makes sense to have an experienced aviation attorney assist you with appeal of an FAA order of suspension or revocation. If you find yourself in this situation, make sure you get the help you need.

Drone Operators Beware: Drone Operations Are Subject To FAA Enforcement

So, you just purchased a fancy new drone (“unmanned aircraft system” or “UAS”) and you have been flying it around. About a week later, you receive a phone call from an FAA inspector in which the inspector tells you that you have been operating your drone in violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations (“FARs”). And now you are wondering what’s going on and what can you expect?

As you may be aware, the FAA considers both UAS and model aircraft subject to regulation (although two civil lawsuits are pending disputing the FAA’s position, at least as it relates to “model aircraft”). And with that regulation also comes the responsibility for compliance and enforcement of the FARs applicable to UAS and their operation.

With the proliferation of UAS operations within the United States, the FAA is concerned about the safety risk posed by UAS operations that may be contrary to the FARs. To address these concerns, the FAA has stated that it “will use its resources to educate UAS operators about regulatory compliance and, when appropriate, use administrative and legal enforcement action to gain compliance.”

How Does a UAS Operator Violate the Regulations?

What does this mean for UAS operators? It means the operator of a UAS is now subject to the FAA’s compliance and enforcement procedures in the event that the UAS operator violates applicable FARs or other statutory requirements when the operator is operating its UAS. For example, if the UAS is being operated for hobby or recreational purposes and the operation “endangers the safety of the National Airspace”, the FAA may cite the operator for violation of operational FARs such as §§ 91.13-91.15, 91.113, 91.126-135, 91.137-145, and 14 C.F.R. Part 73.

If the UAS is operated for commercial purposes (e.g. other than for hobby and recreational purposes) and the operator does not have FAA authorization for the operation in the form of a Certificate of Authorization (“COA”), an exemption or an airworthiness certificate and civil aircraft COA, then the FAA could cite the operator for lack of the appropriate authorizations such as pilot and aircraft certification as well as any applicable operational FARs. Or if the UAS operator does have a COA or exemption but operates contrary to the operational requirements associated with the authorizations then the operator could be cited for violating those requirements.

How Will the FAA Respond to Violations?

In order to determine what type of action the FAA will take to respond to violations by a UAS operator, the FAA will analyze

  • Whether the violation was a first-time and inadvertent violation;

  • Whether the violation involves repeated or intentional violations; and

  • Whether the safety risk resulting from the operation in terms of actual or potential endangerment to the National Airspace was low/medium/high.

If the UAS operator’s violation is a first-time, inadvertent violation and education or counseling by the FAA will ensure future compliance, then the case will be resolved as a “compliance action” using education or informal counseling. When a situation involves a first-time, inadvertent violation by a UAS operator that poses a low actual or potential risk to safety but the FAA determines compliance cannot be gained through education, then the FAA will pursue administrative action using a warning notice or letter of correction with possible remedial training. And if the FAA determines that a UAS operator’s violation poses a medium or high actual or potential risk to safety, then the FAA will pursue legal enforcement action through a certificate or civil penalty action.

So, when will a UAS operator’s conduct subject the operator to legal enforcement action? One example would be when a UAS operator’s conduct has a medium or high risk of endangering the operation of another aircraft or endangering persons or property on the ground. Another example would be when the UAS operator’s conduct involves repeated or intentional violations.

What Type of Sanction Will the FAA Impose?

Once the FAA decides that legal enforcement action is necessary or appropriate, it must next determine what sanction it should impose for the violation. The sanction will vary depending upon whether the operator is an individual or an entity and, if an entity, what size of entity. FAA Order 2150.3B, Appendix B (the sanction guidance table) identifies a range of sanctions.

If a UAS operator’s violation poses a medium actual or potential risk to safety then the FAA may seek to impose a civil penalty in the minimum to moderate range. Alternatively, a violation by a UAS operator that poses a high actual or potential risk to safety would likely result in assessment of a civil penalty in the maximum range. And, not surprisingly, if a UAS operator repeatedly or intentional violates the regulations then the FAA would impose a civil penalty in the applicable maximum range.

UAS operators who also hold airman certificates (e.g. a pilot, mechanic or other certificate) are at even greater risk. The FAA has stated “[f]or a deliberate, egregious violation by a certificate holder, regardless of whether the certificate holder is exercising the privileges of the certificate in connection with the violations associated with a UAS operation, certificate action, may be appropriate. Such certificate action may be in addition to a civil penalty.” So, not only could an airman operating a UAS be subject to a civil penalty, but his or her airman certificate could also be at risk if the FAA thinks the airman’s UAS violation was serious enough.

Conclusion

For the operator of the shiny new UAS I mentioned above, my advice is to proceed with caution. How the operator was operating the UAS as well as what the operator tells the FAA will have a significant impact upon how the FAA views the case and what action it feels is necessary to deal with any regulatory violations. Knowing what to expect can help UAS operators be prepared to respond to the FAA appropriately.

FAA Updates Its Compliance Philosophy: A Move in the Right Direction?

The FAA has issued Order 8000.373 effective June 26, 2015 to explain its current compliance philosophy. That is, as the FAA explains it, its "strategic safety oversight approach to meet the challenges of today's rapidly changing aerospace system." What does that mean? Well, as the regulator of the aviation and aerospace communities, the FAA is charged with establishing regulatory standards to ensure that operations in the National Airspace System are conducted safely. And as we all know, compliance with those regulatory standards is mandatory.

However, not only does the FAA expect us to comply with the regulations, but it also believes that we have "a duty to develop and use processes and procedures that will prevent deviation from regulatory standards." Thus, we are required to conduct ourselves in a way that not only complies with the regulations, but that will also ensure that deviations are prevented. Sounds great, until something (e.g. a deviation) happens. Then what? In the past, the result was typically unpleasant. But that may be changing.

According to the FAA's new philosophy, "[W]hen deviations from regulatory standards do occur, the FAA's goal is to use the most effective means to return an individual or entity that holds an FAA certificate, approval, authorization, permit or license to full compliance and to prevent recurrence." This appears to be a shift from the FAA's past compliance philosophy. At least from my perspective, in the past the FAA's response to violations has leaned heavily toward enforcement and punitive action (e.g. certificate suspensions and revocations). And that approach never made sense to me.

If we truly want to encourage compliance and ensure that a certificate holder is safe, why would we want that certificate holder to be sitting on the ramp and out of the system for 30-180 days or longer with a suspended certificate? Wouldn't it make more sense to educate certificate holders and do what may be necessary to get them back into compliance and in a position where future compliance is more likely?

The FAA's current policy appears to be a step in this direction, at least on paper. The Order explains that

The FAA recognizes that some deviations arise from factors such as flawed procedures, simple mistakes, lack of understanding, or diminished skills. The Agency believes that deviations of this nature can most effectively be corrected through root cause analysis and training, education or other appropriate improvements to procedures or training programs for regulated entities, which are documented and verified to ensure effectiveness.

Sounds to me like the FAA is talking about letters of correction with remedial training. I think that's a good thing. The Order also notes that "[M]atters involving competence or qualification of certificate, license or permit holders will be addressed with appropriate remedial measures, which might include retraining or enforcement." Here again, the concept of retraining rather than enforcement (which was typically revocation in cases involving alleged incompetence or lack of qualification) appears to more appropriately address the situation in a more positive and productive manner. Maybe not in all cases, but hopefully more cases than in the past.

Of course, this doesn't mean that certificate and civil penalty actions will go away. If a certificate holder fails or refuses to take steps to remediate deviations or is involved in repeated deviations then enforcement may result. That makes sense. Additionally, in those situations where a certificate holder's conduct was intentional or reckless, the FAA indicates that it will pursue "strong enforcement." Also not a surprise.

Although this appears to be a positive shift in the FAA's philosophy/national policy, the rubber really hits the runway with the inspectors at the FSDO level. Will this policy shift actually trickle down? I hope so. But only time will tell.

 

Equal Access To Justice Act: When Are Fees "Incurred"?

As you may recall from previous articles, if the FAA pursues an enforcement or civil penalty action and then loses, the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”) allows a certificate holder or target of the civil penalty action to seek reimbursement from the FAA for the attorney’s fees and expenses incurred by the certificate holder or target of the civil penalty action to defend against the claims asserted by the FAA. The EAJA is found at 5 U.S.C. 504 and is implemented in 49 CFR 826.

According to 49 CFR 826.1,

The Equal Access to Justice Act, 5 U.S.C. 504 (the Act), provides for the award of attorney fees and other expenses to eligible individuals and entities who are parties to certain administrative proceedings (adversary adjudications) before the National Transportation Safety Board (Board). An eligible party may receive an award when it prevails over the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), unless the Government agency's position in the proceeding was substantially justified or special circumstances make an award unjust.

In order to award EAJA fees to a certificate holder or target of a civil penalty action who is requesting reimbursement of fees (the “Applicant”), one of the issues an administrative law judge ("ALJ") must decide is whether the fees were actually “incurred” by the Applicant. In a situation where the Applicant has paid an attorney for representation throughout the enforcement process out of the Applicant’s own pocket, this is easy. Conversely, when an Applicant’s employer or union pays the fees then the Applicant did not incur the fees for purposes of EAJA. However, if the employer advances the fees and the Applicant is obligated to repay those fees regardless of the outcome of the action, then the Applicant would also be considered to have incurred the fees.

Also, it may be possible for an Applicant to incur fees by retaining an attorney on a contingent fee basis under which the attorney would only receive payment in the event of an EAJA recovery. However, this type of arrangement must be documented at the time the attorney is retained in order for it to qualify under EAJA. In general, documentation of the payment of, or obligation for, the fees is critical to recovery under EAJA.

But what if an applicant doesn't have documentation to show an agreement to pay or be responsible for payment to the attorney who represented the Applicant before the Board? Well, a recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia addressed this very issue.

In Roberts v. National Transportation Safety Board the Court was asked to review a decision by the Board affirming an ALJ's rejection of Mr. Roberts' EAJA application on the basis that Mr. Roberts had not actually "incurred" attorney's fees. The ALJ found that Mr. Roberts' attorney also represented his employer and, in the absence of any written agreement between Mr. Roberts and either his employer or the attorneys to the contrary, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Roberts' employer had paid the attorneys. As a result, the ALJ held that Mr. Roberts had not personally incurred the attorney's fees as required by EAJA. The Board then affirmed the ALJ's decision, even though it reversed the ALJ's earlier finding that the employer had agreed to pay for Mr. Roberts' attorney's fees.

On appeal to the Court of Appeals, Mr. Roberts argued that the Board's determination that he had not personally incurred the fees was arbitrary and capricious. The Court agreed and found that the Board's refusal to consider that Mr. Roberts may have been obligated to pay attorney's fees under a quantum meruit theory (also called an implied contract theory) was arbitrary and capricious. The Court observed that Alabama law (the state law applicable to any relationship Mr. Roberts had with his attorney) implies a promise to pay compensation for services rendered to another that are knowingly accepted even in the absence of a valid written contract. The Court went on to observe that the Board's conclusion that Mr. Roberts had not proven that he was responsible for attorney's fees because the attorney's invoices didn't clearly say so defied logic. And the Court determined the Board's reliance upon the absence of an express contract as dispositive was in error.

However, although the Court held that Mr. Roberts had incurred attorney's fees, it noted that all of the fees and expenses claimed by Mr. Roberts may not necessarily be eligible for reimbursement. The Court remanded the case back to the NTSB for it to consider which submitted fees and expenses were supported by sufficient documentation and whether any reduction in award is appropriate.

Conclusion

This decision will certainly help anyone applying for an EAJA award after having to defend themselves against an unjustified certificate or civil penalty action. However, properly documenting both the obligation to pay fees, as well as the amount of the fees is still recommended. But at least the Court's decision provides the opportunity for an applicant to claim fees have been incurred even in the absence of a written agreement. And that's a "win" in my book.

Administrative Actions: The FAA's "Slap on the Wrist"

In past articles we have talked about FAA legal enforcement actions in which the FAA has suspended or revoked a mechanic's certificate or the certificate of an air carrier or repair station, or has assessed a civil penalty against the certificate holder.  In those situations, the FAA believed the regulatory violations committed by the certificate holders warranted the "pound of flesh" the FAA extracted with suspension or revocation of the offending party's certificate(s) or the assessed civil penalty.

But what happens when the FAA believes that compliance can best be obtained through some other action short of a legal enforcement action?   (Yes, it does happen.)  In those situations, the FAA has the option of addressing the certificate holder's alleged violations with a "slap on the wrist" through an administrative action.

When Does The FAA Use Administrative Action?

The decision of whether to use administrative action is usually made by the FAA inspector investigating the alleged violation, or his or her local office.  An FAA inspector may pursue an administrative action when the following criteria are satisfied:

1.         Where legal enforcement action is not required by law and administrative action would serve as an adequate deterrent to future violations;

2.         The violation does not indicate that the certificate holder lacks qualification to hold a certificate;

3.         The violation was inadvertent and was not the result of intentional conduct;

4.         The violation was not a substantial disregard for safety or security and the circumstances of the violation are not aggravated;

5.         The alleged violator has a constructive, compliance oriented attitude; and

6.         The alleged violation does not indicate a trend of noncompliance with, or a disregard for, the FAA’s regulations

Administrative Actions: The FAA's

By way of example, administrative action has been considered warranted in situations where a mechanic failed to make an appropriate approval for return to service maintenance record entry in an aircraft's logs after maintenance was performed or failed to accurately track airworthiness directive compliance in an aircraft's logs.  However, keep in mind that each situation is different.

And although FAA Order 2150.3B indicates that administrative action shouldn't be taken "solely as a matter of convenience or when evidence to support a finding of a violation is lacking, or in cases that are stale", in many cases I personally believe that is exactly what happens.  Thus, depending upon the facts and the FAA's analysis of the above six criteria, the FAA may not consider administrative action appropriate for all incidences of these examples of violations.

If the FAA determines that legal enforcement action is not necessary in a particular case, 14 C.F.R. § 13.11 provides the FAA with the authority to issue a warning letter or letter of correction.

The Warning Letter

The warning letter will identify the conduct at issue and the regulation(s) that the conduct allegedly violates.  The warning letter will usually state that the FAA expects the alleged violator's future compliance with the regulations.  It may also offer the opportunity for the certificate holder to submit additional information in explanation or mitigation for inclusion in the file, in the event that you hadn't already provided information in response to the letter of investigation which preceded the warning letter.

Although the warning letter is not a formal finding of violation, it stays in the certificate holder's file at the FAA for a period of two years and is then expunged from the file.  In the event of a future investigation or enforcement action prior to being expunged, the FAA will consider the warning letter when it decides how to proceed in that later case.

The Letter of Correction

The letter of correction is similar to a warning letter.  However, in addition to reciting the conduct and regulations that were allegedly violated, the letter of correction also contains an agreement under which the certificate holder agrees to take certain corrective action to address the alleged violation.  The corrective action may require the certificate holder to participate in remedial training or counseling with the FAA inspector, adopt policies or procedures to address deficiencies identified by the FAA, verify compliance with respect to matters that were not at issue in the investigation or take any other actions agreed to by the certificate holder and the FAA.

If the certificate holder fails to complete the agreed upon corrective action within the time period specified in the letter, the FAA could then proceed with legal enforcement action based upon the alleged violations.  Once completed, the letter of correction is included in the certificate holder's file at the FAA and will stay in the file for a period of two years until it is expunged.

As with the warning letter, the letter of correction is not a formal finding of violation.  However, in the event of a future investigation or enforcement action, the FAA will also take the letter of correction into consideration when it decides how to proceed in that later case.

Before agreeing to a letter of correction, it is important that the certificate holder understand the corrective action required and the criteria that will be used for determining whether action has been satisfactorily completed.  This will hopefully prevent a situation in which the certificate holder and the FAA disagree upon whether the certificate holder has completed the corrective action as required.

Conclusion

The slap on the wrist of an administrative action is definitely more acceptable to a certificate holder than having to defend against a certificate or civil penalty action, or having a finding of violation in the certificate holder's record.  Administrative action also makes more sense from an aviation safety perspective.  After all, are certificate holders actually going to be safer after a suspension or assessment of a civil penalty?  Probably not.

Unfortunately, up until recently it seemed like the majority of investigations resulted in the FAA pursuing enforcement action rather than resolving those cases through administrative action.  However, now, with the fiscal restraints imposed by sequester, it seems the FAA's use of administrative actions may increasing.  And that's good news, both for certificate holders and for aviation safety.

 

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