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Whistleblower Law Blog

Topic: Administrative Review Board (ARB)

Department of Labor Administrative Review Board Upholds Compensatory Damages Award Based on Unrebutted Psychiatrist Testimony

On November 3, 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor Administrative Review Board ruled that a pilot was entitled to compensatory damages for retaliation by Continental Airlines for his protected refusal to fly a plane without an inspection.

The 2014 ARB decision upheld the determination made by an administrative law judge on remand from a previous ARB decision. On January 31, 2012, the ARB had affirmed the earlier ALJ decision, which found that Continental Airlines retaliated against Roger Luder. However, in its 2012 decision, the ARB held that the ALJ had improperly granted both back and front pay to Luder and remanded the case to determine the proper amount of damages.

Luder’s claims date back to 2007, when he and a co-pilot were scheduled to fly a Continental flight from Miami to Houston. Before departure, 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. Accordingly, Luder insisted that the plane be inspected prior to taking off and wrote a log entry regarding the turbulence.

As a result, Continental temporarily suspended Luder and issued him a “termination warning” letter citing “unprofessional behavior.” Luder eventually claimed to suffer from an array of ailments arising from the retaliation, and claimed those ailments caused him to fail a flight simulator test and be disqualified from flying.

Luder brought the suit under the whistleblower protection provision of the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, also known as AIR 21, and its implementing regulations, 29 C.F.R. Part 1979 (2013). The ARB has authority to issue final agency decisions under AIR 21. The November 3, 2014 decision on damages was ARB Case No. 13-009.

The 2012 ARB decision had determined that Luder’s actions constituted protected activity under AIR 21 and that Continental’s suspension of Luder constituted an adverse action. The ALJ had awarded Luder compensatory damages for posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression resulting from Continental’s retaliation for his refusal to fly an uninspected and potentially damaged plane. The ALJ relied on testimony by Luder and a psychiatrist, Dr. Shaulov. The ARB remanded to the ALJ for determination, under a preponderance of the evidence standard, that the retaliation caused the harm.

The ALJ entered a Recommended Decision and Order on Remand, determining that Luder proved that the retaliation caused his psychiatric condition that prevented him from returning to work. The ALJ found “ample support for causation . . . when the entire record, including the credible testimony of Dr. Shaulov, Dr. Jorgenson, and Luder, is considered.”

A dissenting opinion in the ARB’s recent 2014 decision argued that a judge should still examine undisputed expert testimony under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 for “sufficient facts or data that properly applied reliable principles and methods,” but stopped short of advocating a Daubert hearing.

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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The ARB Reaffirms the Speegle Standard, which Requires an Employer to Show It would have Punished a Whistleblower Absent Any Protected Activity

In previous posts on May 15 and September 3, we discussed the Department of Labor Administrative Review Board’s new Speegle test—which places a tougher burden on employers to justify any adverse actions against whistleblowers. The ARB recently reaffirmed the Speegle standard in Cain v. BNSF Railway Co.

Cain involved the following facts: Shortly after an on-the-job traffic accident in January 2010, Christopher Cain filed a report to his employer, BNSF Railway, about minor injuries he sustained. A few weeks later, Cain’s symptoms had not disappeared, and he sought medical treatment. His doctors said his injuries were much worse than originally thought, including broken ribs and fluid around his lungs. Cain filed a second report about the more severe injuries, although his supervisors discouraged him from doing so. A short time after Cain filed his second report, BNSF opened an investigation into potential wrongdoing by Cain related to the accident. BNSF ultimately found that Cain violated its reporting rule by failing to report the full extent of his injuries in his first report. Cain then filed a complaint for whistleblower retaliation under the Federal Rail Safety Act of 1982 (FRSA).

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ARB Says Whistleblowers Can Sue Unions for Retaliation Under AIR 21

Reversing a lower-level judge, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board (ARB) said that that unions can be held liable for retaliating against whistleblowers under the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR 21).

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ARB Affirms Damages for Whistleblower, Expands Protective Rule

In affirming a pilot’s reinstatement and damages award, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board (ARB) showed that its new Speegle test — which makes it tougher for employers to justify the firing of whistleblowers — will reach well beyond its initial application to the nuclear industry.

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ARB Allows Whistleblower to Challenge Arbitration of Retaliation Claim

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board (ARB) said it would hear an airline whistleblower’s appeal of a decision forcing her into arbitration with her former employer, saying the delay of arbitration might jeopardize her rights under the the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR 21) — and therefore could undermine AIR 21 itself.

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ARB Clarifies: Trucking Whistleblowers Face “Much Easier” Proof of Retaliation

In two related decisions last month, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board (ARB) noted that proving retaliation in trucking-related whistleblower cases became “much easier” in 2007 — and said that judges will no longer get a free pass on applying the old standard.

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ARB Makes It Harder to Justify Firing Nuclear Whistleblower

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board (ARB) once again extended a long-running whistleblower case, clarifying the high standard an employer must meet to avoid liability for firing an employee who expressed safety concerns in a nuclear plant.

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ARB Affirms Punitive Damages for Two Whistleblowers

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board (ARB) affirmed judgments against two transportation companies that fired employees who had reported health and safety issues — confirming in each case that the violation was grievous enough to trigger punitive damages.

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The Top Ten Whistleblower Decisions of 2013: Part 1

For whistleblowers and their advocates, 2013 was a whipsaw year: Big advances followed sharp letdowns in quick rotation — sometimes from the same source. (Ahem, Supreme Court and White House.)

Plus there was the Snowden sideshow. But since NSA leaker Edward Snowden was never a real whistleblower — he acted outside the law and fled the consequences — his headline-grabbing revelations taught us no useful legal lessons.

Instead, the true news of 2013 was choppy-but-clear progress toward more employee-friendly readings of federal whistleblower laws. After two years of success at the administrative level, retaliation victims started getting their day in ever-higher courts. The U.S. Supreme Court put a cherry on the trend by hearing arguments in Lawson v. FMR LLC, its first whistleblowing case under the crucial Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX).

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Justices Seek Middle Ground in Whistleblower Case

NOTE: A version of this post first appeared on Law360.com.  The author, R. Scott Oswald, was counsel of record on an amicus curiae brief filed in this case.

In oral arguments for the first whistleblower case they have heard under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), justices of the U.S. Supreme Court quickly locked onto the important issue: How to interpret SOX’s anti-retaliation provisions without gutting the law — or expanding it without limit.

Led by Justice Stephen Breyer, the hour-long discussion on November 12 — here’s the official transcript — paid scant attention to the most extreme formulations of both sides in Lawson v. FMR LLC. Instead the Court seemed to spend its time groping toward a middle ground that would mostly favor employees.

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