All posts tagged 'litigation'

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.

 

Sleep Apnea and Flying - A Summary of the Situation

In a recent FAA newsletter, Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Frederick Tilton reported the FAA "will be releasing shortly" a policy requiring that pilots with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or greater, and a neck size of 17 inches or greater, undergo screening for sleep apnea prior to receiving a medical certificate. Tilton’s newsletter commentary adds that, over time, additional pilots would be required to submit to OSA screening, as the agency lowers the BMI threshold.

Here’s a link to the newsletter:

AOPA and EAA reacted to the announced policy with strongly worded letters "demanding" that it be suspended. They argued that the policy addresses a problem that exceeds the Federal Flight Surgeon’s mandate, could add a financial burden to the pilot community, and hasn’t been proven to exist. AOPA Thursday expressed its support for the House’s legislation and added some choice words. AOPA president Mark Baker said, "The policy change is arbitrary and capricious and doesn’t make sense given the data." AOPA says that a review of ten years of general aviation accident data "found no cases in which sleep apnea was a causal or contributing factor."

Less than a week ago, U.S. House of Representatives aviation subcommittee chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-2 NJ) introduced H.R. 3578 – legislation that would compel the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) "to ensure that any new or revised requirement providing for the screening, testing, or treatment of an airman or an air traffic controller for a sleep disorder is adopted pursuant to a rulemaking proceeding, and for other purposes." "We thank Representative LoBiondo and other House lawmakers for recognizing that a policy of this magnitude must be vetted through the established rulemaking process, which has proven to be effective so many times in the past," NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen said. "It is imperative that any new burden on aviators, in this case pilots, be thoroughly analyzed in consultation with stakeholders." LoBiondo’s measure has been referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Where do you stand on this? If you suffer from sleep apnea, does it impact your performance as a pilot?

UPDATE 12-5-13: The NBAA welcomes the House Committee passage of H.R. 3578 here.

UPDATE 12-9-13: Advanced Aircrew Academy has an excellent blog posting regarding obtaining the special issuance of an FAA Medical with sleep apnea here.

UPDATE 12-10-13: The Civil Aviation Medical Association (CAMA), the professional organization for Aviation Medical Examiners who provide medical certification exams to the nation's pilots, has joined the consensus against the FAA's new sleep apnea policy announced last month. More information on the EAA's website here.

UPDATE 12-11-13: Reps. Todd Rokita (R-IN) and Sam Graves (R-MO) introduced a bill in the U.S. House today that seeks to abolish the third-class medical certificate for many pilots who fly recreationally. The General Aviation Pilot Protection Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Reps. Bill Flores (R-TX), Mike Pompeo (R-KS), Collin Peterson (D-MN), and Richard Hanna (R-NY), would require pilots who fly recreationally to hold a valid driver's license in lieu of a third-class medical certificate and operate under specific limitations.

UPDATE 12-13-13: During a Dec. 12 webinar presentation to discuss the agency's controversial new OSA-screening proposal with industry stakeholders, Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Frederick Tilton appeared determined to push ahead with the requirements. "If Congress passes a law [forcing industry consultation], we’ll be compliant with it," Tilton said during the webinar. "Until they do so, we will move forward with this." For more on this new development, plus the NBAA's reaction, she their press release here.

UPDATE 12-20-13: The FAA will delay implementation of its new sleep apnea policy planned for next month in order to gather additional input from the aviation and medical community. For more information, as well as the EAA's reaction, click here.

UPDATE 3-6-14: The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) joined a coalition of aviation groups this week in calling for swift passage of U.S. Senate legislation aimed at bringing transparency to any decision by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to implement mandatory testing of pilots and air traffic controllers for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) before receiving a medical certificate.

"As aviation community stakeholders, we are writing to express our support for S.1941, commonsense bipartisan legislation to address the sweeping [FAA] proposal to change the policy on sleep apnea for pilots and air traffic controllers without the benefit of a rulemaking process," reads the March 4 letter to senators. "Further, we wish to express our collective hope that passing this important bill in a timely fashion will be a priority for the U.S. Senate in the coming weeks." Read the coalition's letter in its entirety here.

What Are An Airman's Options After The FAA Denies A Medical Application Based Upon A Disqualifying Condition?

When an airman is denied a medical based upon an admitted disqualifying condition, an appeal will, in almost all cases, be unsuccessful. In that situation, the airman has the burden of proving that the airman is qualified to hold a medical certificate. That's a tough thing to accomplish if the airman has already admitted that he or she has a disqualifying condition.

If an airman is denied based upon a disqualifying condition, but the airman believes he or she is otherwise qualified, the airman should request that the FAA grant a special issuance medical certificate. A special issuance is a medical certificate that has limitations and/or conditions with which the airman must comply in order for the certificate to be valid. The conditions/limitations will often include regular testing or evaluation, test results within acceptable ranges, no changes in medication etc.

If the FAA refuses to grant an airman's request for a special issuance, the airman may appeal that denial to the NTSB. However, since the Board defers to the FAA's discretion in denying a special issuance, the only way to be successful is to show that the FAA's denial is arbitrary or capricious. For example, if a denied airman can prove that the FAA has granted a special issuance in circumstances that are very similar to or identical with those of the airman, then an ALJ may be convinced that the FAA's denial in the airman's case is arbitrary or capricious. As a practical matter, however, this can be a very difficult task.

If you have a medical condition that may disqualify you from obtaining a medical certificate, get help before you apply for your medical certificate. Talk to an aviation attorney or the medical certification professionals at AOPA or NBAA. By taking a pro-active approach and getting help, you will be able to "pick your battles" wisely to maximize your chances of successfully obtaining a medical certificate.

4th Circuit Court Of Appeals Affirms NTSB's "Congested Area" Determination


In my article, Identification Of A "Congested Area" Under FAR § 91.119: Hindsight Is 20/20, I discussed an NTSB decision, Administrator v. Folk, in which the primary issue was whether the airmen's low-level flights occurred over a "congested area" as referenced in FAR § 91.119. In a recent unpublished decision, Folk v. Sturgell, the United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit has affirmed the NTSB's determination that the area in question was in fact a "congested area."

The Case

In the Folk case, the FAA alleged that the airmen had both engaged in agricultural aircraft operations in violation of 14 C.F.R. §§ 137.51(b)(1) through (3)2 ( agricultural operations over congested areas); 91.119 (minimum safe altitudes); and 91.13(a) (careless and reckless). One of the main disputes in the case was whether the area over which the airmen had flown was a "congested area." At the hearing, the FAA argued that its case-by-case analysis of the facts and circumstances supported the conclusion that the area was indeed a "congested area." One of the airmen's arguments in response to the FAA's position was that the logical extension of the FAA's position that congested area determinations are made on a case-by-case basis is that nobody can know whether or not an area is congested until after their case has been decided.

During the hearing, the FAA inspector who investigated the allegations regarding the airmen testified that "if an operator conducts an application in an area the FAA might later determine to be a congested area, the operator ignores that potentiality at his or her peril." The inspector went on to say that he had warned the airmen that the area around their farm could be considered a congested area. When the airmen requested a definition of "congested area," the inspector told them there was no definition, and referred the airmen to FAA guidance, including an inspectors’ handbook. After studying the regulations and, apparently, finding no examples in the handbook that applied to their operations, the airmen then decided the area around their farm was not congested.

Unfortunately for the airmen, the ALJ agreed with the FAA. He concluded that the area over which the airmen had flown contained upwards of 30 homes, buildings, and structures and, as a result, was a "congested area." The ALJ also rejected a number of other defenses raised by the airmen and held that the airmen violated the regulations as alleged.

On appeal, the airmen renewed their argument that the area over which they had flown was not a "congested area." Initially, the Board observed that the FAA "has not pronounced a precise definition that includes the factors of the density of the population in an area; whether there is surface traffic in the vicinity; or the numbers and proximity of residences, buildings, or structures." It went on to note that "it is clear that the intent of the regulations is to protect persons and property on the ground and to fairly apply the rules to operators of aircraft, and, in the case of Part 137, to operators of agricultural aircraft." The Board then affirmed the ALJ's determination that the area over which the airmen had operated was a "congested area."

The Fourth Circuit's Decision

In their appeal of the NTSB's decision to the Fourth Circuit, the airmen argued that "the term 'congested area' violates the vagueness doctrine under the Due Process Clause (an argument the airmen were not able to make to the NTSB because the Board lacks jurisdiction to consider constitutional challenges), and that substantial evidence does not support the determination that they flew over a congested area."

With respect to the due process argument, the Court initially noted that a "statute is impermissibly vague if it either (1) fails to provide people of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to understand what conduct it prohibits or (2) authorizes or even encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement." The Court then held that the airmen failed to show that they lacked a reasonable opportunity to understand what conduct FAR 137.51 prohibits. Rather, the Court found that the inspector's warnings put the airmen on notice that the area could be considered congested and the airmen could have resolved any doubt by filing a congested area plan and waited for the inspector's response.

Additionally, the Court determined that the airmen had not shown that FAR 137.51 "authorizes or even encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement," or that the enforcement action against them was arbitrary. As a result, the Court concluded that FAR 137.51 was not unconstitutionally vague under the Due Process Clause.

Next, the Court reviewed the record to determine whether substantial evidence supported the NTSB's determination that the area was congested. The Court observed that approximately thirty houses are located in the general vicinity of the area and that the airmen's flights passed over corner sections of that area. Based upon that review, the Court concluded "that the area over which [the airmen] flew could reasonably be considered congested based on substantial evidence in the record."

Conclusion

Unfortunately, the Court's decision doesn't shed much light on the "congested area" issue nor does it provide any meaningful clarification. Because this type of case is decided on a "case by case" basis, I think the Court's decision relied heavily on the ALJ's and NTSB's factual findings. As a result, we still do not have a clear definition of what constitutes a "congested area."

The due process argument was an interesting defense. If the airmen hadn't been warned by the inspector or if the airmen had submitted a congested area plan but received not response from the FAA, perhaps then the Court may have been more sympathetic. On a positive note, it appears this argument could still be successful given the right set of facts.

In the meantime, make sure you are familiar with area over which you fly if you want to push the limits of 91.119 and remember that the FAA, NTSB and the Court will judge your flight using 20/20 hindsight.

The information contained in this article is intended for your education and benefit and should not be relied upon as advice to help you with your specific issue. Each case is unique and must be analyzed by an attorney licensed to practice in your area with respect to the particular facts and applicable current law before any advice can be given. Posting a comment to this article does not create an attorney-client relationship and advice will not be given until an attorney-client relationship has been established.

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