Delta Air Lines and its top executives, including the present FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, retaliated against a pilot when it sent her for psychiatric evaluation after she complained of safety issues at the airline, a judge has ruled.
Judge Scott Morris ruled that Delta “engaged in an adverse employment action with discriminatory intent,” when it sent Karlene Petitt to Dr. David Altman, a company-appointed doctor who determined she was bipolar. Had that been true, it would have been a career-ending diagnosis. But Petitt, 58, was not bipolar, as two other doctors later determined. Nevertheless, the ordeal kept her out of the cockpit for nearly two years and delivered a non-stop emotional battering.
Many female pilots were horrified that Dr. Altman described Petitt’s ability to attend school, help with her husband’s business and care for her three young children, as signs of mania.
(Earlier this year Dr. Altman surrendered to Illinois authorities, his license to practice medicine, due in part to his handling of Petitt’s case. Read more here.)
Petitt’s whistleblower suit was an attempt to restore what had been for 40 years a sterling reputation as an aviatrix and get some acknowledgment from Delta that she had been misused.
She may be successful at the former, but despite what the judge found to be an overwhelming amount of evidence, including that Delta used its contract psychiatrist as a tool to achieve a management objective, Delta has never apologized to Petitt.
“Someone owes this woman an apology,” said Lee Seham, Petitt’s lawyer. “but there’s no contrition. It’s not only morally wrong, it’s unsafe.”
Seham’s safety concerns are not lawyer hyperbole. Because Petitt, whose PhD dissertation was on aviation safety culture, claimed she was pushed by Delta into this medical, legal and professional rabbit hole in an attempt to silence her because she brought safety violations to her bosses, including Dickson, who President Trump made administrator last year.
But when Dickson was still Delta’s senior vice president for flight operations and Petitt told him and others about her concerns, Petitt said Dickson dismissed her with the quip, “If there was a better way, we’d already be doing it.”
In his ruling, Judge Morris accused Delta of “weaponizing” its right to order pilots to undergo psychiatric examination, suggesting Delta used it to obtain “blind compliance by its pilots”. The likely outcome Morris suggests is that other pilots will fear speaking out knowing Delta could similarly ruin their careers.
At Delta, spokesman Morgan Durrant said, “All Delta people are encouraged and empowered to report potential concerns,” adding that the airline has “zero tolerance for retaliation in any form, especially regarding safety concerns.” Durrant hinted that the airline may appeal the decision.
While the ruling should make for some happy holidays for the now vindicated Petitt, Delta should not be surprised to find the coal Judge Morris has deposited in its stocking. Eighteen months ago, Judge Morris issued a warning that the two sides ought to sit down and come to some understanding. But it was clear he was directing the advice to Delta.
You must decide if “you want all this laundry out there,” Judge Morris told the parties on the last day of the trial, adding that Petitt had to run a “gauntlet” to get her job back and it wasn’t pretty. Delta stuck by its position and now faces a half-million-dollar award to Petitt.
But perhaps the larger cost to Delta is reputational. For in his ruling, Judge Morris ordered the airline to send to every pilot at Delta and every manager in flight operations a copy of the decision in which he found that what Petitt said about Delta was true.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.
Thanks for reporting on this, Christine. A lot of pilots at Delta are silently cheering this news because they know Delta has been retaliating for years if we bring up suggestions or safety concerns. The slogan that Dickson purports might has well been their mantra: “If there was a better way, we’d already be doing it.” It is an inside joke. Kudos to Karlene for continuing down this expensive road towards justice.
…might as well have been their mantra: “If there was a better way, we’d already be doing it.”
Dr. Altman has been an absolute treasure to aviation professionals with mental health and addiction issues.
It’s a shame an unstable person had to destroy such a valuable individual. Even more of a shame someone with a personality disorder can continue to operate an aircraft for a US airline.
Reminds me of the old days when Delta got spanked for hiring military pilots almost exclusively. It was determined that the lack of diverse pilot backgrounds led to a “group-think” mentality that led them to think they had all the answers, and input/opinions from non-members of the “military club” were dismissed. Result: smoking craters and lawsuits.
The basic product of an airline is to furnish safe passage from point A to point B. Only pilots with training are licensed to perform those duties. There is a history of conflict between the goals of the pilots to conduct his/her duty and that of the companies that are concerned about profit. Unions have been instrumental in performed the job of protecting pilots from aggressive managers that put profits above safety. Unfortunately, unions have become ineffective against management practices that use biased professionals to implement policies that are a detrimental to the basic goal of safe passage from A to B. It is in the best interests of both the pilots and the companies to develop structures within their organizations to deal with safety issues. Ultimately, it benefits pilots, passengers, bond holders, and share holders of their respective company. Public lawsuits and media coverage do not benefit the companies and cause serious stress on the participants.
When the company tries to cover up safety issues, tries to ruin pilots that bring them up, and even ignores a judges warning about doing so, public lawsuits and media coverage are an absolute necessity. Some of you commenters seem to be part of the problem – defending big daddy Delta even when a Judge has ruled against them, and a shrink has lost their license. The optic here is horrible.
I know the case intimately as Karlene contacted me several years ago after my success against my employer.
‘David’ seems to be incapable of reading either the judgement or the background to Dr Altman. I suspect ‘David’ might well be one of those management types. Karlene’s case features in volume 2 in the series Pulling Wings From Butterflies. t exposes exactly why her and my case happened. Will make for a very unpleasant reading for ‘our David’ I suspect.
There is no way you can read all 116 pages of the judgment and not KNOW that justice was served to Delta. Delta paid Dr. Altman $73,000 for the crazy things he said. Let that sink in. He called being highly capable of handling a career, family duties and children all at once sick. Read what he said and you’ll see. It’s not called grandiose when men think they have the skills required to be CEO so why would they say that about a woman? (These were the stupid things used to trump up the false accusations of mania.) I can’t list all the insane things they said, such as inferring crying is a sign of mental illness and yet not wanting to pay damages since she never cried in the 5 years of attacks by her employer! These people did a despicable thing and didn’t get away with it because of the courage of one person. I don’t believe for one minute that she made the *horrific* mistake of crying during an interrogation. I read the judgment out of curiosity and concluded these men abused their power and hurt Delta, which is really sad. Delta should fire them and cut their losses now.
Nailed it Christine
There’s probably a very good reason “David” does not use his last name. Perhaps it is actually David Altman, or perhaps one of his cronies.
This “David” clearly espouses the same techniques as those of Altman, labeling Pettit as an unstable person having a “personality disorder” (because she dared to call out a notorious testiliar) . Your readers might be interested in seeing this article regarding parallels in the medical licensure arena, or googling “Misuse and Abuse of Psychiatry” http://bit.ly/MisuseAbusePsychinMRTC
Well said, Captain Simkins.
It’s unfathomable that someone would say anything positive for someone like Altman, let alone professing their admiration for an individual whose medical license was cancelled by the State based on blackmailing his – as Altman puts it – ‘examinees’.
Anyone who read the entire 116-page Ruling – let alone reading every line of transcript from the depositions and the trial – can clearly discern that Ms. Petitt was subjected to unfair treatment by the company and its personnel including this hack, Altman.
David suddenly becomes an expert in diagnosing Personality Disorder. Perhaps he should look up the facts regarding which [so called] expert is barred from working as a Psychiatrist, and which medical experts are still working in their field and have their medical licenses, and integrity, intact!