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How Does The FAA Calculate A Civil Penalty?

by Greg Reigel 28. February 2017 08:16
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Every so often the Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA") will issue a press release about its proposed assessment of a civil penalty action against an air carrier, maintenance facility or some other business. In some instances the penalties proposed by the FAA may be millions of dollars. And while the FAA’s press release may cite to some of the violations the carrier or facility allegedly committed, the FAA never explains exactly how it arrived at the amount of the civil penalty it proposes to assess.

To provide a little background, when the FAA believes a certificate holder (whether an airman, air carrier, repair station or otherwise) has violated a regulation, it may pursue legal enforcement action against the alleged violator. The action can be against the party's certificate, also known as a "certificate action." In this situation the FAA seeks to suspend or revoke the party's certificate. Alternatively, the FAA could seek to impose a civil penalty or fine against the alleged violator, also known as a "civil penalty action."

Civil penalty actions are typically used against companies or entities, as opposed to individuals, that hold FAA certificates. The FAA may also pursue civil penalty actions against companies or individuals who do not hold FAA certificates (e.g. companies or individuals who violate hazmat regulations or individuals who violate passenger regulations such as interfering with a flight crewmember).

Sometimes, the FAA will bring a civil penalty action to avoid the six month limitation of the NTSB's stale complaint rule in a certificate action, and benefit from the longer two year limitation applicable to civil penalty actions. For example, if the FAA fails to initiate a certificate action within six months of discovering an alleged violation, it will resort to a civil penalty action which allows the FAA two years within which to initiate the action.

In order to determine the appropriate amount of the civil penalty for a given regulatory violation, the FAA uses the Sanction Guidance Table in FAA Order 2150.3B, Appendix B. If the amount of the proposed civil penalty is less than $50,000, then the FAA handles the action. However, if the proposed civil penalty is more than $50,000, then the United States Attorney's office handles prosecution of the action.

The Sanction Guidance Table provides a range of penalties based upon the type and size of the violator, the type of alleged violation and the number of alleged violations. The sanction guidance indicates a minimum and maximum range civil penalty for each instance of a violation of various regulations. And while the Sanction Guidance Table’s sanction ranges generally account for different types of violations, as well as the nature, extent and gravity of each general type of violation, a sanction isn’t calculated through a “strict mathematical formula”, but rather is determined based upon a judgment “of where a case lies along a spectrum of gravity.”

To calculate a civil penalty sanction, the FAA first determines the type and size of the violator and also whether the violator is a Small Business Concern. Next, the FAA starts with the middle of the range for the particular act or omission that caused the violation. It then specifically looks at a variety of factors that may be considered aggravating factors, which would result in increase in sanction, or mitigating factors which would decrease the sanction. These factors include:

  1. the nature of the violation;

  2. whether the violation was inadvertent and not deliberate;

  3. the certificate holder’s level of experience;

  4. the attitude of the violator (Note: The FAA does not consider a good compliance attitude, by itself, a basis for reducing a sanction. Fortunately, the FAA also does not consider a violator’s failure to respond to a letter of investigation, representation by counsel or contesting of a violation a poor compliance attitude);

  5. the degree of hazard;

  6. whether an employer or other authority has taken any action (i.e. if the employer took disciplinary action or criminal prosecution was involved);

  7. use of a certificate;

  8. violation history (i.e. a history of prior violations. Since compliance is expected, a violation-free history is not considered a mitigating factor);

  9. decisional law;

  10. the violator’s ability to absorb the sanction (i.e. whether the violator is able to pay a civil penalty and the effect the civil penalty will have on the violator’s ability to continue in business);

  11. consistency of sanction;

  12. whether the violation was reported voluntarily (this takes into consideration whether the violator reported the violation through a program such as the Aviation Safety Reporting Program, the Voluntary Disclosure Reporting Program or the Aviation Safety Action Program); and

  13. corrective action (e.g. corrective action that exceeds the minimum regulatory or statutory requirements. Corrective action taken after the violator becomes aware of the deficiency and before the FAA learns of the violation warrants greater mitigation than if the action is taken after the FAA takes enforcement action).

In some cases, where the degree of the violator’s fault is minimal, the potential hazard is very low, and no aggravating circumstances are present, the FAA may select a civil penalty amount that is below the range specified in the Sanction Guidance Table. Conversely, the FAA may select a civil penalty above the range if the violator’s fault was significant, the violation involved significant safety risks, the violator failed to take corrective action over an extended period of time, the violator has a poor compliance attitude or history, or the FAA feels it needs to make an example of the violator (or, as the FAA puts it, “to provide an economic disincentive or regulatory noncompliance”).

What happens if the case involves multiple violations (e.g. multiple violations of a single regulation, a single violation of multiple regulations, or multiple violations of multiple regulations)? Fortunately, the FAA doesn’t just determine the amount for each violation and then add them up. Rather, the FAA is required to consider the totality of the circumstances relating to the multiple violations, paying special attention to the seriousness of the potential hazard caused by the violations as well as the degree of the violator’s fault for the multiple violations.

At the end of the day, the Sanction Guidance Table is just that, guidance. And while the FAA, and its inspectors and attorneys, are required to follow the guidance, the FAA still has prosecutorial discretion. That is, the FAA ultimately has the discretion and authority to determine not only whether to pursue a civil penalty action, but also the type and amount of the sanction. But at least the Sanction Guidance Table provides some insight as to how the FAA may have arrived at a proposed sanction and what aggravating or mitigating circumstances it may, or should, have considered.

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Greg Reigel



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