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Delta Airlines Retaliated Against Pilot Complaining of Safety Violations

A U.S. Department of Labor administrative law judge found that Delta Airlines retaliated against pilot Karlene Petitt after she raised safety issues by orchestrating a psychiatric diagnosis. Pettit has been a pilot for 40 years and earned a doctorate in Aviation Safety. In January 2016, she submitted a 43-page safety report to Delta Airlines’ Senior Vice President of Safety Jim Graham (who currently serves as head of the FAA). The report detailed issues of pilot fatigue, pilot training, pilot training records, and Delta’s failure to maintain its Safety Management Systems Program. Following the submission of her report, Graham ordered Petitt to undergo a psychiatric examination with a psychiatrist of Delta’s choosing. This psychiatrist diagnosed Petitt with “mania” and “grandiosity.” It is worth noting that this psychiatrist has had his license suspended. Delta reported the diagnosis to the FAA. However, two subsequent evaluations by non-Delta psychiatrists, including one from the Mayo Clinic, rejected this initial diagnosis. The evaluation process of her mental health took over two years.

The administrative law judge found that Delta “weaponized” its right to assess a pilot’s mental health to retaliate against Petitt for her complaint. The judge ordered Delta to publish its judgment where all pilots could see it, communicating to them the value of whistleblower protections. Petitt sought $30 million in compensatory damages but the judge was unable to award punitive damages. She received $500,000 in compensatory damages. The judge awarded a higher amount than usual because he found the emotional harm and damage to her reputation particularly harsh. Delta announced plans to appeal the decision and denied retaliating against Petitt. The company further stated that it encourages employees to report safety violations and maintains “zero tolerance for retaliation in any form.”