OSHA $1Million Award Against AirTran Airways Highlights Retaliation Risks


A million dollar plus backpay award announced by the Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) reminds U.S. employer of the growing importance of taking steps to manage whistleblower and other retaliation claims when dealing with employees who have reported possible safety, discrimination or other activities protected under Federal or state whistleblower or other anti-retaliation laws.

On January 17, 2012, OSHA issued an order requiring  AirTran Airways AirTran Airways, a subsidiary of Dallas, Texas-based Southwest Airlines Co., to reinstate and pay more than $1 million in backpay plis interest and compensatory damages to a former pilot who charged AriTran fired him in retaliation for his reporting numerous mechanical concerns.

According to OSHA, the reinstatement and backpay award follows an investigation by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program in which OSHA found reasonable cause to believe that the termination of the pilot, whose name is withheld as part of OSHA’s policy, was an act of retaliation in violation of the whistleblower provision of the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, known as AIR21.

According to OSHA, the pilot’s complaint alleged that the airline removed him from flight status on Aug. 23, 2007, pending an investigative hearing regarding a sudden spike in the pilot’s mechanical malfunction reports, or PIREPS. The airline held an internal investigative hearing on Sept. 6, 2007, that lasted 17 minutes. Seven days later, the airline terminated the pilot’s employment, claiming that he did not satisfactorily answer a question regarding the spike in reports. OSHA found that the pilot did not refuse to answer any questions during the hearing, answers to questions were appropriate, and the action taken by the airline was retaliatory.

Either party to the case can file an appeal with the Labor Department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges, but such an appeal does not stay the preliminary reinstatement order.

AirTran Airways is a subsidiary of AirTran Holdings Inc. with headquarters in Orlando. On May 2, 2011, Southwest Airlines completed the acquisition of AirTran Holdings Inc. and now operates AirTran Airways as a wholly-owned subsidiary.

OSHA enforces the whistleblower provision of AIR21, as well as 20 other statutes protecting employees who report violations of various securities, trucking, workplace health and safety, nuclear, pipeline, environmental, rail, maritime, health care, consumer product and food safety laws.  Employees who believe that they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct may file a complaint with the secretary of labor for an investigation by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program.

These whistleblower and anti-retaliation provisions are just a small fraction of the growing list of federal and state laws that provide whistleblower or other anti-retaliation protections to employees and others for reporting known or suspected violations or engaging in other activities protected by the applicable law.  Other examples include federal employment discrimination, securities, tax, customs, immigration, labor, family or military leave, employee benefits, privacy, antitrust, and a wide range of other laws.  Because the prior reporting of information or other exercise or attempted exercise of protected rights often can create presumptions which employers may be required to rebut to avoid whistleblower or other liability under many of these laws, employees increasingly make claims or point to prior reports or activities as a means of challenging or disputing termination or other undesired employer actions. 

To better position themselves to prevent or defend against these types of claims, employers need to be prepared both to demonstrate the appropriateness of their employment and discipline actions, as well as to rebut claims of retaliation.  As part of these efforts, employers among other things should:

Carefully document and administer employee hiring, promotion, discipline and other practices to document their administration in accordance with applicable law based on valid performance based business justifications;

Clearly communicate and educate management and other employees about the employer’s policies against retaliation and procedures for reporting suspected problems;

Review employee terminations and other actions for patterns or other evidence of correlation to prior protected activities by employees that might evidence potential discrimination or other retaliation;

Establish and communicate clear procedures for reporting potential legal or policy violations that might for the basis of retaliation or whistleblower claims;

Conduct prompt, well-documented investigations of all reports of potential compliance or safety concerns, as well as retaliation claims;

Give clear, well-documented instructions to managers and others involved in investigations or other compliance efforts against retaliation or other misconduct;

Establish and administer monitoring and oversight processes and procedures for possible retaliation or other misconduct against protected parties; and

Provide exit interview and other opportunities for employees to share possible retaliation or other concerns with responsible management trained to properly investigate and redress these concerns. 

For Help or More Information

If you need help with these or other human resources, internal controls or risk management matters, please contact the author of this article, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Board Certified in Labor & employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization,management attorney, author and consultant  Ms. Stamer is nationally and internationally recognized for more than 24 years of work helping private and governmental organizations and their management; employee benefit plans and their sponsors, administrators, fiduciaries; employee leasing, recruiting, staffing and other professional employment organizations; schools and other governmental agencies and others design, administer and defend innovative compliance, risk management, workforce, compensation, employee benefit, privacy, procurement and other management policies and practices. Her experience includes extensive work helping employers carry out, audit, manage and defend worker classification,union-management relations, wage and hour, discrimination and other labor and employment laws, procurement, conflict of interest, discrimination management, privacy and data security, internal investigation and discipline and other workforce and internal controls policies, procedures and actions. 
Widely published on workforce risk management and compliance concerns, the immediate past-Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee and current Co-Chair of its Welfare Plan Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Section Employee Benefits Committee,  a Council Representative of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, Government Affairs Committee Legislative Chair for the Dallas Human Resources Management Association, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer works, publishes and speaks extensively on management, compliance, re-engineering, investigations, human resources and workforce, employee benefits, compensation, internal controls and risk management, federal sentencing guideline and other enforcement resolution actions and related matters.  She also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on these and other human resources concerns and regularly speaks and conducts training on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other national and local publications. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.

Other Resources

If you found this update of interest, you also may be interested in reviewing some of the other updates and publications authored by Ms. Stamer available including:

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, compensation, data security and privacy, health care, insurance, and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and other key operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources available at www.solutionslawpress.com

THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS.  ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.

©2011 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press. All other rights reserved.

 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: