Judge finds Delta Air Lines liable for retaliation against female pilot whistleblower

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In a decision dated December 21, 2020, Federal Judge Scott R. Morris ruled Delta Air Lines, Inc. guilty of using a mandatory psychiatric examination as a “weapon” against Dr. Karlene Petitt, after she raised safety issues related to the airline’s flight operations.

Dr. Petitt has been a pilot for over forty years, holds a doctorate in aviation safety from Embry-Riddle and currently flies the Airbus A350. On January 28, 2016, she submitted a 43-page security report Delta Senior Vice President of Flight Steven Dickson (currently serving as the Trump administration’s FAA Administrator) and Vice President of Flying Operations Jim Graham (currently serving as CEO of Delta subsidiary Endeavor Air). The report raised issues regarding: pilot fatigue, pilot training, pilot training records and Delta lack of proper maintenance of its FAA-mandated Safety Management Systems (SMS) program. While Judge Morris characterized Dr. Petitts declared security concerns as “wise and reasonable”, he found that Captain Graham considered her “firmness in seeking clarification on her declared security issues as somehow problematic.”

Graham then ordered Dr. Petitt to submit to a psychiatric examination, a decision approved by Stephen Dickson. Encouraged by his lawyer Chris Puckett, Delta chose Dr. David B. Altman as an examiner, whom the judge characterized as “merely a tool used by Captain Graham to accomplish a management goal.” [Decision at 97]. In a consent order dated August 24, 2020, Dr. accepted Altman to be put on permanent inactive status as part of a solution to a case brought by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation to revoke or suspend his license or otherwise subject him to discipline. [Attachment B and C]. Altman received over $ 73,000 for his psychiatric report and trusted Dr. Petitt’s safety-related communication, provided by Delta, to diagnose her with “mania” and “grandiosity.” [Decision at 54-55, 57]. Altman testified that his negative diagnosis was also driven by Dr. Petitt’s ability to raise children, help her husband with her business, and attend night school, which he described as “far beyond what any woman I have ever met could do.” [Decision at 56].

Altman’s diagnosis was subsequently rejected by both the Mayo Clinic and a third “tie-breaker” psychiatrist; however, the process dragged on for 21 months, during which “her career hung in balance.” [Decision at 80]. Judge Morris awarded Dr. Petit compensatory compensation of $ 500,000 – five times the highest previously recorded price under the Whistleblower Statute – in recognition of the “serious emotional toll, [Dr. Petitt’s] well-being. ” [Decision at 80].

As Judge Morris said: “it is inappropriate for [Delta] to arm this process for the purpose of achieving blind observance of its pilots for fear of [Delta] can ruin their careers by such a cavalier use of this last resort tool. ” [Decision at 98]. Judge Morris cited findings from Dr. Steinkraus from the Mayo Clinic regarding the diagnosis Dr. Petitt:

“This has been a puzzle for our group – the evidence does not support the presence of a psychiatric diagnosis, but supports an organizational / corporate effort to remove this pilot from rolls. … Many years ago in the military, it was not uncommon for female pilots and air crews to be the target of such an effort. ”

The judge concluded: “The evidence for evidence supports Dr. Steinkraus’ view of the situation.”[[[[Id.].

Delta’s treatment of Dr. Petitt became an issue in connection with FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson’s appointment process due to his failure to disclose to the Senate Commerce Committee on his approval of Graham’s psychiatric directive or the fact that he had been the subject of a multi-hour deposit. The judge made the following remarks regarding Captain Dickson’s behavior:

“The tribunal finds less than credible Captain Dickson’s depositional testimony, as it found many of his answers elusive … His testimony was of value in understanding the leadership culture of [Delta] and its understanding (or lack thereof) of [Delta’s] the role of management in its safety management program. His emails make it clear that the respondent’s much touted ‘open door policy’ was not as open as the one portrayed. “

Asked to comment on the case stated Dr. Petitt’s lawyer, Lee Seham:

“What I find both stunning and worrying is that Delta has never apologized to Dr. Petitt – not even after Dr. Altman’s diagnosis was discredited. Worrying because those responsible for this injustice remain in positions of authority. In my view, Delta’s aircraft operations will continue to be compromised in the absence of intense introspection and accountability. Safety reporting must be cultivated and not suppressed. ”



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