Whistleblower Wins Settlement in Lawsuit against Southwest Airlines

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A Southwest Airlines mechanic who alleges that he was disciplined for finding and reporting cracks in the fuselage of a Boeing 737-700 has won a settlement. According to Forbes, Southwest has agreed to pay the mechanic $35,000 in legal fees and remove the disciplinary action from his file.

Forbes reports that the case was filed under the whistleblower protection of the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, or AIR-21 statute. Under this statute, airline workers are entitled to an appeal process if they are fired or disciplined for reporting safety issues.

On January 8th, a Department of Labor Administrative Judge dismissed Southwest’s motion for summary judgment. Meanwhile, the mechanic’s motion for summary judgment was partly granted. The whistleblower’s allegations were summarized by the Judge as follows, according to Forbes: “On the evening of July 2, 2014, the [mechanic] was assigned by [Southwest] to perform a [maintenance] check on a Southwest Boeing 737-700 aircraft, N208WN. This maintenance check is part of Southwest’s Maintenance Procedural Manual (MPM). This check requires a mechanic to follow a task card which details the tasks to be accomplished.” While performing the maintenance check, the mechanic saw two cracks on the aircraft’s fuselage and documented them. The aircraft was removed from service for repair as a result of this report.

After reporting the cracks, the mechanic’s supervisors called him into a meeting to “discuss the issue of working outside the scope of his assigned task.” Afterwards, he received a “Letter of Instruction” stating that he had acted outside the scope of the work in his task card. The letter warned that further disciplinary actions could follow if any more violations occurred. In the lawsuit, the mechanic alleged that the Southwest letter “was calculated to, or had the effect of, intimidating [him] and dissuading him and other Southwest [mechanics] from reporting the discovery of cracks, abnormalities or defects out of fear of being disciplined.”

Southwest argues that the mechanic went beyond the scope of his duties, and that the letter was not issued for reporting a safety problem. The airline also argued that the letter did not count as disciplinary action and that the mechanic could not seek protections under the whistleblower statute. The administrative judge disagreed with Southwest and sided with the mechanic. The judge ruled that the mechanic’s actions are protected under AIR-21 and that Southwest knew of it.