A U.S. Department of Labor judge ruled that Delta Air Lines discriminated against a pilot who raised safety concerns by calling into question her psychiatric health.
Pilot Karlene Petitt filed an Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaint against the airline in 2016.
Petitt said that, after she submitted a report to managers about safety issues, Delta grounded her and referred her for a psychiatric examination by a company doctor who then diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. She was later determined to not suffer from bipolar disorder and, nearly two years after being put on paid leave, returned to flying for Delta.
The case attracted attention when former Delta executive Steve Dickson, who oversaw pilots, was nominated to head of the Federal Aviation Administration last year. Dickson was confirmed by the U.S. Senate July 2019 to serve a five-year term as FAA administrator.
Petitt's case was heard last year by the Department of Labor's Office of Administrative Law Judges, which is the agency's arm that rules on whistleblower complaints, labor violations, discrimination and other issues.
Administrative law judge Scott Morris wrote in his Dec. 21 decision that the tribunal "finds less than credible Captain Dickson's deposition testimony ... as it found many of his responses evasive." Dickson said he could not recall any specific details about a conversation regarding Petitt and said that decisions were made by a subordinate.
Petitt has been a pilot for more than 40 years and has a doctorate in aviation safety. She raised issues to Delta about pilot fatigue, pilot training and its safety management system.
Morris wrote that Petitt was "unlawfully discriminated against in the form of a career defining Section 15 mental health evaluation" and that she successfully argued that it was discriminatory retaliation.
The decision noted that "any allegation of a mental health deficiency for a professional pilot can be fatal to their career." It also said that "to formally question a pilot's mental fitness stigmatizes that pilot in the eyes of the close-knit aviation community, regardless of the ultimate outcome." Petitt is harmed by "medical records that will forever be in her FAA medical file," the decision said.
The company doctor who examined Petitt also faced a complaint over his evaluation of another Delta pilot. He agreed to be placed on permanent inactive status by the state of Illinois earlier this year.
Morris wrote in his ruling that the mental health evaluation process is valuable when properly used to protect the public. But "it is improper" for Delta "to weaponize this process for the purposes of obtaining blind compliance by its pilots due to fear" that their careers could be ruined.
Delta said it plans to appeal the decision and denied that anyone at the airline retaliated against Petitt for raising safety concerns.
"We took her safety concerns seriously and carefully investigated them," the airline said in a statement. Delta added it "has zero tolerance for retaliation in any form, especially regarding safety concerns."
Petitt, represented by attorney Lee Seham, sought compensatory damages of $30 million and other pay.
The Labor Department tribunal said it does not have the authority to issue punitive damages, but ordered Delta to pay $500,000 in compensatory damages for the harm to Petitt's reputation, embarrassment and emotional hardship and loss of future opportunities for promotion.
It also ordered Delta to send an electronic copy of the decision to all of its pilots and managers in flight operations.