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.
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.
When the FAA receives notice and evidence to show that a certificate holder (mechanic, repair station, air carrier, pilot etc.) may have violated one or more of the Federal Aviation Regulations ("FARs"), in most cases an FAA aviation safety inspector will send the alleged violator a letter of investigation ("LOI") advising that the FAA is investigating an alleged violation of the FARs. Whether you should respond to an LOI and, if so, how you should respond are two of the most common questions raised by recipients of an LOI.
What The LOI Tells The Recipient
The LOI typically starts out by telling the recipient that the FAA is investigating "an occurrence which involved your operation" or "an incident that occurred" or "maintenance performed on N12345 on such and such a date." In drug and alcohol abatement cases, the LOI will state "we inspected [your facility's] drug and alcohol testing programs to determine compliance with 49 CFR part 40 and 14 CFR part 120. As a result of this inspection, the following apparent violations were discovered…."
After explaining the operation or conduct involved, the LOI advises that the FAA believes the operation or conduct is "contrary to Federal Aviation Regulations." However, the LOI will not tell the recipient what specific FAR(s) the FAA believes the recipient violated. FAA inspectors are specifically advised that the regulations(s) violated should not be listed in the LOI. Since the LOI is intended to advise the recipient of the subject matter of the investigation sufficiently to allow the recipient an opportunity to respond to the facts giving rise to the investigation, the FAA does not want its inspectors citing to specific regulations prematurely.
Next, the LOI specifically states that it is informing the recipient that the matter is under investigation by the FAA and it invites the recipient to discuss the matter with the inspector, submit evidence or statements, or both. For a written statement, the LOI requests that the statement includes all pertinent facts and mitigating circumstances that the recipient believes may have a bearing on the operation or conduct that is under investigation. The LOI requests that the recipient submits any response to the LOI within 10 days of receipt of the LOI. Finally, the LOI usually states that "[i]f we do not hear from you within the specified time, our report will be processed without the benefit of your statement."
The FAA sends the LOI by regular mail and either certified mail, return-receipt requested, or registered mail to the recipient's current address of record in order to establish proof that the recipient was notified of the investigation. If the LOI is returned or undeliverable (because it is addressed incorrectly or the recipient has moved and left no forwarding address), then the FAA inspector is required to correct the address or try to obtain a new address and resend the LOI. An FAA inspector may also deliver the letter in person.
Now, if you are thinking that simply dodging the mail might make the situation go away, unfortunately that isn't the case. If the intended recipient refuses or simply does not pick up the certified letter or registered letter, but the regular mail is not returned, whether the recipient opens it or not, then the FAA presumes, as will the NTSB, that the intended recipient received the LOI. (This is consistent with FARs §§ 61.60 and 65.21 that require airmen to keep the FAA informed of their permanent mailing address by providing the FAA with a new permanent mailing address within 30 days.)
Options For Responding To An LOI
If you receive an LOI, you must determine whether you are going to respond and, if you are, what you should say in your response. Frequently certificate holders believe they have to respond, especially since the LOI seems to imply that a response is required within 10 days. However, that belief isn't correct. No response is actually required. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't respond.
From a basic courtesy standpoint, it seems appropriate to respond to a letter asking for a response. After all, no one likes to have their requests ignored. However, sending a response to an LOI that tries to explain the situation or otherwise "make it go away" very rarely ends well for the certificate holder. Oftentimes the certificate holder's response includes admissions that help the FAA and can later be used against the certificate holder.
Should you send a response to the LOI? Yes, if for no other reason than to acknowledge that you received the LOI and, of course, to show a proper compliance attitude. But, do you say anything more than that in your response? The lawyerly answer to that question is: it depends.
Sometimes it makes sense to simply acknowledge receipt of the letter, advise that you don't have anything to add, and offer to respond to any specific questions or requests the inspector may have. After all, by the time the LOI is sent the inspector has usually conducted some investigation and discovered enough evidence to determine that a violation may have occurred. So why disclose anything that could add to the case?
On the other hand, in some situations it may make sense to provide a more detailed explanation in your response to the LOI. For example, if it is a case of mistaken identity or you have evidence that clearly proves the inspector is wrong, then submitting that information in response to the LOI very well may force the inspector to close the investigation.
Whether, and how, you respond to an LOI are strategic decisions. Since you are already in the FAA's sights, consult with an aviation attorney before sending a response that tries to explain or address the allegations in the LOI. With the assistance of an aviation attorney you can prepare a response that may mitigate damage, minimize investigation, and that will avoid providing admissions or other evidence that could later be used against you. And, at a minimum, an aviation attorney can run interference between you and the FAA.
The LOI is just the beginning of the enforcement process. And although your response to an LOI may not prevent the FAA from pursuing an enforcement action, how you respond to the LOI can potentially have a significant impact on the outcome of the case. Make sure you respond wisely.
Recently the NTSB remanded a case back to the administrative law judge ("ALJ") for a hearing on an independent charge of violating FAR 91.13(a) (careless and reckless). In the case, Administrator v. Hollabaugh, the FAA suspended the airman's airline transport pilot certificate for alleged violations of FARs 135.263(a) and 135.267(d) (flight and duty time regulations), as well as FAR 91.13(a) which the FAA alleged was a residual violation based upon the other violations. Based upon the airman's admission of all allegations except the careless and reckless charge, the FAA moved for summary judgment on all counts.
In response to the FAA's motion, the airman argued that the residual FAR 91.13(a) charge was inappropriate since violations of FARs 135.263(a) and 135.267(d) were not operational violations. The FAA then filed an "errata" to its motion which stated that reference to the FAR 91.13(a) violation as a residual charge was an error "because the factual allegations in the [c]omplaint effectively charge [r]espondent with an independent charge of carelessness under FAR 91.13(a). The ALJ accepted the errata and then granted the FAA's motion on all counts.
On appeal to the full Board, the airman again argued that "granting summary judgment on the FAR 91.13(a) charge was inappropriate because FAR 91.13(a) only applies to operational violations" and since neither FAR 135.263(a) nor FAR 135.267(d) is an operational violation, his admissions concerning those violations did not prove that he also violated FAR 91.13(a). Recognizing that the Board had not faced this issue before, it initially reiterated that the FAA needs "to plead explicitly in the complaint whether a charge under FAR 91.13(a) is residual or independent."
However, accepting that the charge against the airman was an independent charge, the Board then determined that the FAA had failed to produce facts supporting an independent violation of FAR 91.13(a) and, as a result, summary judgment was inappropriate. The Board observed that the FAA's "correction" to allege an independent violation did not operate to the prejudice of the airman because the independent charge then required "a higher threshold of evidence than a residual charge." Consequently, since the FAA had not provided proof, the Board remanded the case to the ALJ to hold a hearing solely on the independent FAR 91.13(a) charge.
Nice to see the FAA's untimely attempt to fix its pleading error backfire in favor of the airman. At least now the FAA will have to prove the independent violation of FAR 91.13(a) rather than simply tacking it on, although I don't know that the hearing will result in a different outcome since it will still be in front of Judge Geraghty. However, hopefully the FAA will at least take note of the Board's admonition and draft careless and reckless allegations more accurately in the future.