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Department of Labor Administrative Review Board Decision Upholds Judgment for AIR21 Whistleblower

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On January 31, 2012, the Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board (ARB) affirmed the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in the case of Luder v. Continental Airlines which found that Continental Airlines retaliated against a pilot who blew the whistle on perceived violations of the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR 21). Additionally, the ARB held that the ALJ had improperly granted both back and front pay to former pilot Roger Luder, and remanded the case in order to determine the proper amount of damages.

In 2007, Mr. Luder and a co-pilot were scheduled to fly a Continental flight from Miami to Houston. Prior to departure, Mr. Luder’s co-pilot informed him that the plane had experienced turbulence during the previous flight that had gone unreported. Federal regulations require that planes be inspected after experiencing turbulence and, accordingly, Luder insisted that the plane be inspected prior to taking off and wrote a log entry regarding the turbulence. Subsequent to the incident, Continental temporarily suspended Luder and issued him a “termination warning” letter due to his ostensibly “unprofessional behavior.” Luder eventually claimed to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety that arose from the retaliation he endure which, in turn, caused him to fail a flight simulator test and then be disqualified from flying.

The ALJ found that Luder’s actions constituted protected activity and that the airline’s actions were ‘materially adverse’ and retaliatory under AIR 21. The ALJ ordered Continental to pay Luder front and back pay as a result of the time he missed from work due to his health problems and also awarded the pilot monetary damages for having suffered retaliation.

Continental appealed the decision to the ARB claiming that Luder’s entry of the turbulence into the logbook was not a protected activity, citing Fabre v. Werner Enters which held that an action undertaken as “an integral part of compliance with the regulations” without further steps does not constitute a protected activity. The ARB, however, rejected this claim and distinguished Luder’s action from the situation in Fabre because Luder had gone above and beyond merely noting the turbulence in the logbook by insisting that the aircraft be inspected and refusing to fly until an inspection had been performed.

In addition to affirming the sufficiency of Luder’s protected activity under AIR 21, the ARB also found that the ALJ had properly ruled that Continental’s temporary suspension of Luder constituted an adverse action under the ‘materially adverse standard’ as the suspension resulted in a loss of wages. The ARB also held that while in some instances a warning letter does not necessarily constitute an adverse action, here the warning letter to Luder constituted an adverse action because having such a letter on file rendered Luder ineligible for an internal transfer according to company policy. Finally, the ARB viewed as significant the ALJ’s finding that the warning letter threatened Luder with further disciplinary action, including termination, and as a result, Luder “would be extremely reluctant to question airline safety because engaging in similar unacceptable behavior would result in his being fired.”

This most recent decision on what constitutes an adverse action against a whistleblower under AIR 21 comes after the Menendez v. Halliburton decision in September 2011 in which the ARB adopted a broad interpretation of the anti-retaliation provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. In Menendez, the ARB noted that adverse actions “[refer] to unfavorable employment actions that are more than trivial, either as a single event or in combination with other deliberate employer actions alleged.”

The Employment Law Group® law firm has an extensive nationwide whistleblower practice  representing employees who have been victims of retaliation, including employees in the airline industry.

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