All Aviation Articles By Greg Reigel

Compliance With The Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program Can Protect An Air Carrier Employee's Certificate



© June, 2010 All rights reserved.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated an NTSB decision in which the Board refused to allow the employee of an air carrier to assert compliance with the Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program ("VDRP") as an affirmative defense to an FAA order of suspension. As a result, employees of air carriers and other applicable certificate holders, including mechanics, will have the opportunity to prove compliance with the VDRP to avoid civil penalties or other sanctions in an enforcement action.

The VDRP

Under FAA Advisory Circular AC 00-58A, Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program, the VDRP provides a waiver of enforcement action to certificate holders, including those holding certificates issued under FAR Parts 21, 119, 121, 125, 129, 133, 135, 137, 141, 142, 145, 147, Production Approval Holders ("PAH") and for program managers of qualified fractional ownership programs operating under Part 91K, when the certificate holder meets the requirements of the VDRP. Generally, the certificate holder must detect a violation before the FAA, promptly disclose the violation to the FAA after discovery, and then take prompt corrective action to ensure that the same or similar violation does not recur.

The VDRP also applies to individual airmen and agents of the certificate holder if the following occurs:
  1. The apparent violation involves a deficiency of the certificate holder’s practices or procedures that causes the certificate holder to be in violation of a covered violation of an FAA regulation;

  2. The airman or other agent of the certificate holder, while acting on behalf of the certificate holder, inadvertently violates the FAA’s regulations as a direct result of a deficiency of the certificate holder that causes the certificate holder to be in violation of the regulations. (The VDRP does not apply to the airman or other agent when his or her apparent violation is the result of actions unrelated to the certificate holder’s deficiency);

  3. The airman or other agent immediately makes the report of his or her apparent violation to the certificate holder; and

  4. The certificate holder immediately notifies the FAA of both the airman or other agent’s apparent violation and the apparent deficiency in its practice or procedures.

The Case

In Moshea v. NTSB, an air carrier with whom the airman was employed voluntary disclosed the airman's failure to make certain required maintenance logbook entries pursuant to the VDRP and the FAA concluded that the air carrier and a number of its employees would receive no penalty. However, the FAA subsequently issued an order suspending the airman's airline transport pilot certificate for 60 days based upon alleged violations of FARs 91.7(a) (aircraft must be in airworthy condition for operation), 135.65(b) (requiring pilot to enter any mechanical irregularities into aircraft logs), and 91.13(a) (careless and reckless).

The NTSB Denies The Airman's VDRP Affirmative Defense

The airman appealed the suspension to the NTSB. At the hearing before the administrative law judge ("ALJ") the airman attempted to raise an affirmative defense based on his compliance with the VDRP. However, the ALJ refused to allow the airman to admit evidence bearing on his compliance with the program. The ALJ concluded that the NTSB lacked the jurisdiction to review the discretion as to how the FAA implements the VDRP (i.e. who the FAA lets off the hook and who the FAA decides to go after). As a result, the ALJ upheld the airman's suspension (although the ALJ did reduce it from 60 to 50 days).

The airman appealed the ALJ's decision to the full Board. However, the Board agreed with the ALJ. The Board ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to entertain the airman's affirmative defense and it affirmed his suspension. The airman then appealed the Board's decision to the United States Court of Appeals-D.C. Circuit.

The Court of Appeals Reverses The NTSB

On appeal, the airman argued that he should have been able to offer evidence to support his affirmative defense that he complied with the VDRP as an employee of the air carrier certificate holder. However, the FAA and the NTSB argued that the VDRP was unavailable to the airman because it purportedly "does not relate to the sanctions to be imposed," as required by 49 U.S.C. § 44709(d)(3), even though the VDRP provides that no sanctions will be imposed in cases of voluntary disclosure.

The Court rejected what the Court characterized as the FAA's/NTSB's attempt to "evade" the VDRP. The Court stated that when the VDRP says no sanction will be imposed in a case of voluntary disclosure it is "quite obviously 'related to sanctions'" and, as a result, the Board's analysis was unreasonable and contrary to the statute. The Court also found that the NTSB's decision was inconsistent with its handling of a prior case, Administrator v. Liotta, in which the Board allowed an employee of an air carrier to assert an affirmative defense based on the VDRP. According to the Court, this failure to follow precedent without an explanation was arbitrary and capricious and provided an independent basis for vacating the NTSB's decision.

The Court concluded that the NTSB did have jurisdiction to decide whether the FAA's suspension of the airman's certificate was in compliance with the VDRP. It then vacated the NTSB's decision and remanded the case to allow the airman to offer evidence of compliance in support of his affirmative defense.

Conclusions

It is nice to see the Court requiring both the FAA and NTSB to comply with their policies and rules. Keep in mind that this decision applies to all airmen employed by certificate holders, including mechanics. Mechanics and the certificate holders with whom they are employed should take advantage of the VDRP. If the FAA pursues enforcement action against an individual mechanic when the mechanic and his or her employer have complied with the VDRP, the mechanic should be able to assert compliance with the VDRP as an affirmative defense to defeat the FAA's claims.

Of course, mechanics should file their individual ASRS/NASA Forms in addition to compliance with the VDRP. That way, if the FAA/NTSB determines that the mechanic or its employer did not comply with the VDRP, the mechanic may still be able to avoid sanction if he or she has filed the ASRS/NASA form and meets the requirements of that program. You can download the mechanic ASRS/NASA form or file it online here.

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.

FAA Enforcement Case Update

This month I thought I would provide you with another update regarding some of the recent NTSB cases involving FAA enforcement actions. They are instructive because they not only show you the FAA's and NTSB's positions regarding some of these issues, but they also provide some examples of problem areas a prudent airman should avoid.

NTSB Dismisses FAA Appeal For Untimely Filing Of Appeal Brief

In a recent NTSB case in which an administrative law judge awarded attorney's fees and costs to an airman under the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"), the Board dismissed the FAA's appeal of the EAJA award for failure to timely file an appeal brief. In Application of Hayes, the FAA timely filed its notice of appeal. However, the FAA did not then file an appeal brief by the deadline required by 14 C.F.R. 821.48(a). Although the FAA's appeal brief was dated the last day allowed by the rule and the certificate of service stated the brief was served by overnight mail on that date, the Federal Express tracking data indicated a pickup date of three days after the deadline for filing the brief.

Based upon the untimely filing, the airman subsequently filed a motion with the Board to have the FAA's appeal dismissed. The FAA did not respond to the motion within the time allowed, but did later file a notice of withdrawal. The Board ruled that the FAA's failure to show good cause for its untimely appeal brief, or to request, before the appeal brief was due, leave to file the appeal brief out of time, required dismissal of its appeal. As a result, the Board deemed the FAA's withdrawal of its appeal as moot.

Nice to know that, at least with respect to timing requirements for filing of appeals, the Board will treat the FAA the same as airmen.

ATP Receives 90-Day Suspension For Failure To Find Suitable Landing Site For Hot Air Balloon

In Administrator v. Chemello, the airline transport pilot landed a hot air balloon in a high school parking lot in the morning shortly before the start of classes. Of course, the balloon attracted a lot of attention from the teachers, students, local law enforcement and, not surprisingly, the FAA. The FAA investigated the incident and subsequently issued an order suspending the airman's ATP certificate for 90 days for alleged violation of FARs 91.119(b) (prohibiting operation of an aircraft over congested area below an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft) and 91.13(a) (careless and reckless). The airman appealed the suspension to the NTSB.

After an evidentiary hearing, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") affirmed the suspension. Relying upon his determination of the witnesses' credibility, the ALJ held that the school parking lot was a "congested area" at the time of the landing and that no emergency was present that would have prevented the airman from landing the balloon in a different, suitable location. The airman appealed the ALJ's decision to the full Board arguing that the ALJ's credibility determinations were contrary to the evidence.

The Board initially observed that an airman's "selection of a suitable landing site for a balloon is dependent upon the balloon's proximity to power lines, buildings, and trees, and the availability of alternative landing sites." It also noted that, in addition to generally deferring to an ALJ's credibility determinations, the Board will specifically defer to an ALJ's "credibility determinations with regard to whether a respondent believes that he or she must land a balloon in a certain area due to wind conditions." The Board concluded that the airman had not presented any evidence to compel it to disregard the ALJ's credibility determinations. As a result, the Board affirmed the ALJ's decision.

Tough to get a decision reversed when it is based upon the ALJ's credibility determinations. Unfortunately, this is typically the situation when a case involves a factual dispute, as opposed to a case involving a determination of whether undisputed facts support a violation. The key is to convince the ALJ at the hearing. But that, too, is easier said than done.

NTSB Affords Airman With Second Hearing After 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' Rebuke

After getting its proverbial wrist slapped by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the NTSB has afforded an airman a second hearing. In Administrator v. Klaber, the FAA charged the airman with violations of FARs 135.293(a)2 and (b) (requiring written/oral test and competency check within preceding 12 months), 135.299(a) (requiring line check within preceding 12 months), and, of course, the ever present residual violation of FAR 91.13(a) (the ever present careless and reckless). The FAA ordered a 90 day suspension of the airman's airline transport certificate as a sanction for the alleged violations. The airman appealed the order to the NTSB and, after a hearing, the administrative law judge ("ALJ") affirmed the FAA's order, but reduced the suspension from 90 to 85 days. The airman then appealed to the full NTSB.

On appeal to the full board, the airman argued that the ALJ made a mistake when he prevented the airman from cross-examining an inspector, the FAA's primary witness, regarding a number of issues including the definition "for compensation or hire", the inspector's understanding of flight maintenance logs, the inspector's internal deliberations concerning his investigation into the airman's conduct, and the inspector's experience. The Board rejected the airman's appeal, finding that the ALJ had not abused his discretion nor did any alleged errors result in prejudice to the airman.

The Board specifically found that neither the inspector's understanding of "compensation or hire," nor his general perception of flight maintenance logs, were directly relevant to the evidence that he reviewed concerning the airman's alleged violations. It also concluded that the inspector's opinions during the course of his investigation or his discussions with other investigators were not relevant to the issue of whether the airman violated the regulations as charged by the FAA. As a result, the Board affirmed the ALJ's decision.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the Board. In its unpublished decision, Ferguson v. FAA, the Court determined that the Board had abused its discretion in upholding the ALJ's decision and that abuse of discretion was prejudicial to the airman. The Court initially observed that "[t]he Rules of Practice in Air Safety Proceedings provide that each party has the right to 'conduct such cross examination as may be required for a full and true disclosure of the facts." However, because the inspector "was the FAA's lone witness as to the revenue-generating nature of the disputed flights," the Court determined that the ALJ erred in not allowing cross-examination of the inspector on the many aspects of his testimony regarding that central issue. The Court stated that the ALJ's "reliance on [the inspector's] testimony, particularly as to the contents of the flight logs, makes clear that the error was prejudicial." The Court vacated the Board's decision and sent the case back to the Board for further action.

Although clearly not happy with the Court's decision, the Board complied with the decision, stating "[d]espite our well-established precedent with regard to our law judges' evidentiary rulings, and the reasoning that forms the basis for our deference to such rulings, we recognize that the Ninth Circuit believes that the law judge should have allowed respondent's counsel to question [the inspector] more fully in this case. As such, we are compelled to remand this case to the law judge so that he may oversee an additional hearing at which respondent's counsel may again cross-examine" the inspector."

It is unfortunate that the airman had to appeal all the way to the 9th Circuit in order to get his full day in court. However, you have to wonder whether the additional information that will be obtained through a full cross examination at the new hearing will change the ALJ's mind or provide a sufficient basis for appeal if he doesn't. We'll just have to see how it plays out.

Conclusion

As airmen, we should always be learning. We can learn from current NTSB cases. The obvious lesson is to not do what these airmen did. These cases also reveal what an airman may be able to expect from both the FAA and the NTSB in these situations. Forewarned is forearmed.

Drug Testing Refusal Cases: Worthy of Appeal?

If you work in a safety-sensitive position for an employer subject to Department of Transportation drug and alcohol testing requirements (e.g. Part 121 and 135 carriers, as well as maintenance providers who maintain aircraft on behalf of those carriers, or operators who conduct non-stop sightseeing flights for compensation or hire under FAR 91.147), you have likely been asked at some point during your employment to submit to a drug or alcohol test. You are also probably aware of the severe consequences imposed upon a safety-sensitive employee for failure to submit to a test when requested (termination of employment, revocation of the employee's airman certificates, to name a few).

However, what happens when the employee believes he or she is complying with a request but the employer regards the employee's conduct as a refusal? Well, when the FAA initiates a revocation action, the employee will, unfortunately, have to defend his or her rights. But an airman/employee in that situation isn't without hope, as we see in a recent National Transportation Safety Board ("NTSB") case.

The Case

In Administrator v. Rojas, the NTSB affirmed an administrative law judge's ("ALJ") dismissal of an emergency order revoking all of an airman's certificates for allegedly refusing to submit to a drug test. The FAA's revocation order alleged that the airman, a pilot for Pinnacle Airlines, refused to submit to a drug test in violation of FAR Part 121, App. I (previously defining refusal to submit to a drug test, but now replaced by 49 C.F.R. Part 40), FAR 67.107(b)2 (a refusal to submit to a drug or alcohol test is considered "substance abuse", a disqualifying medical condition) and 49 C.F.R. § 40.191(a)(1) (defining "refusal" to submit to a drug test). As a result, the FAA issued an emergency order revoking all of the airman's certificates. The airman then appealed the FAA's order to the NTSB for a hearing before an ALJ.

The Hearing Before The ALJ

At the hearing, the FAA presented evidence in support of its allegations that the airman had been selected for a random drug test, was notified of the drug test and then refused to submit to the drug test. The airman presented evidence that the airline employee who allegedly notified him of the drug test never received training relating to drug-testing and, in fact, after notifying the airman of his selection for testing then told the airman that he did not need to submit to the test until a later time.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the ALJ determined that the airman's evidence was more credible. He specifically found that although the airman did not take the drug test, he did not lack the qualifications to hold an ATP or first-class medical certificate as alleged by the FAA. Further, he credited witness testimony that the airline employee withdrew her request for a drug test, and did not notify the airman that she would consider his statement concerning the lack of sufficient time to complete the test to be a refusal. Of course, the FAA then appealed the ALJ's decision to the full Board.

The Appeal To The NTSB

On appeal, the FAA argued that the ALJ's decision was contrary to the weight of the evidence, and that his conclusions of law were wrong. The FAA took the position that the airman's intentions were irrelevant. According to the FAA, when presented with a request to submit to a drug test, you either take or you don't. Since the evidence presented by the FAA showed that the airman did not take the test, the FAA argued that the airman refused the test.

The Board initially observed that much of the ALJ's decision was based upon his credibility determinations and that "resolution of a credibility determination, unless made in an arbitrary or capricious manner or unless clearly erroneous, is within the exclusive province of the law judge." It went on to note that it could not withhold deference to an ALJ's credibility findings simply because other evidence in the record could have been given greater weight by the ALJ.

Next, the Board stated that "cases concerning refusals to submit to drug tests involve fact-specific inquiries." It then held that, based upon the evidence credited by the ALJ, it could not find that the airman's conduct constituted a refusal. The Board further concluded that the ALJ's credibility determinations were not arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to the weight of the evidence, despite the FAA's attempts to re-argue facts that the ALJ had clearly discounted.

Conclusion

This case highlights the merit of appealing a revocation order based upon an alleged refusal to submit to drug-testing. Given the appropriate facts, as were present in this case, it is possible to have the FAA's order dismissed, if the airman can persuade the ALJ that he or she did not refuse to submit to the drug test. Unfortunately, this isn't always possible. However, if the airman is successful, this case demonstrates that the Board should defer to the ALJ's decision if/when the FAA appeals.

For more information regarding aviation law, safety and security, e-mail Greg at greigel@aerolegalservices.com or visit his website at www.aerolegalservices.com.

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