Southwest Airlines pays $35,000 to settle mechanic’s ‘whistleblower’ case
By Terry Maxon
February 2, 2015
Southwest Airlines and a Southwest mechanic have settled a “whistleblower” case in which the mechanic said the airline threatened to punish him for reporting fuselage cracks that grounded a Southwest airplane.
Southwest on Jan. 16 agreed to pay $35,000 in attorney’s fees and expenses for mechanic Charles Hall, who discovered the cracks as he was doing a maintenance inspection on a Boeing 737-700 last July.
The carrier also promised not to punish Hall or anyone who had backed him up in the dispute.
According to documents in the case, Hall was assigned to do a “maintenance visit 1” inspection on the airplane on the evening of July 2.
“During his inspection, [Hall] discovered two cracks on the aircraft’s fuselage and documented them,” stated a Jan. 8 order denying Southwest’s efforts to get a summary judgment in its favor. “Discovery of these cracks resulted in the aircraft being removed from service to be repaired.”
On July 5, Hall “was directed to attend a meeting to discuss the issue of working outside the scope of his assigned task,” the order said.
The “letter of instruction” that Southwest sent Hall said: “Please be aware that any further violations of MPM [maintenance procedural manual] may result in further disciplinary action.”
Hall on July 22 then filed a whistleblower complaint under federal law that protects people who report aviation safety issues.
Hall in mid-August was sent a second “letter of instruction,” dated July 9, with no mention of disciplinary actions.
After the U.S. Department of Labor ruled against his whistleblower complaint Aug. 27, Hall appealed to an administrative law judge on Aug. 29. That judge, Scott R. Morris, on Jan. 8 ruled against Southwest’s request for summary judgment that would throw out the complaint.
“Mr. Hall asserted that the letter had the effect of intimidating him and dissuading him and other Southwest Airlines mechanics from reporting the discovery of cracks, abnormalities, or defects out of fear of reprisal discipline. Southwest Airlines provided little, if any, evidence at this stage of the proceeding to rebut these allegations,” Morris said in his order.
In Morris’ order, he said Hall – in finding and reporting the crack – clearly engaged in protected activity, and Southwest clearly knew that Hall was engaged in protected activity.
Morris noted that Hall discovered the cracks as he was checking the hydraulic system, part of the maintenance procedure.
Hall was following Southwest’s “maintenance program procedures when he completed non-routine cards, identifying certain abnormalities with the aircraft that he believed rendered the aircraft unairworthy,” Morris wrote. “These abnormalities were verified by other mechanics.”
Southwest in its defense said Hall got the letter of instruction because he went outside the scope of his job duties, not because he reported a safety issue, according to the Morris order. It also said it was important for mechanics to do their assigned tasks. It further said that Hall suffered no punishment as a result of the incident and the subsequent letters and meeting.
In a statement Monday, Southwest reiterated its position as outlined in Morris’ order. Said Southwest:
“Southwest issued a Letter of Instruction (LOI) to an Employee who was performing duties outside of his work scope. An LOI is not considered disciplinary action and is not retained in a personnel file. Southwest explained the purpose of an LOI to the Department of Labor and updated the LOI so that the intent was clear. As such, the original complaint was dismissed by the Department of Labor. In the dismissal, the DOL investigator stated: ‘Consequently, this complaint is dismissed because Complainant did not suffer an unfavorable personnel action relative to his compensation, terms, benefits, and privileges of employment.’ The Employee appealed the DOL’s dismissal. In an effort to resolve the matter, both parties settled which resulted in Southwest covering a portion of the Employee’s attorney fees."