The physician who came close to ending a Delta pilot’s 30-plus year flying career by diagnosing her with bipolar disorder has permanently surrendered his license to practice medicine in Illinois. Dr. David Altman was working for Delta in 2016 when he was assigned to determine if Karlene Petitt, 58, was fit to fly. Two other doctors said the diagnosis was erroneous. But the forced exam and Petitt’s near 2-year grounding associated with it is the subject of her whistleblower lawsuit against Delta. She claims her employer punished her for challenging the airline’s safety practices. A ruling in the case is pending.
Even before Petitt had heard of Dr. Altman, another Delta pilot involved in his own, unrelated dispute with Delta, filed a complaint against Altman with the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. He was also ordered by Delta to submit to an exam by Dr. Altman. When Michael Protack balked at returning for more analysis with the doctor, Altman sent him a threatening letter, suggesting his lack of cooperation could result in a diagnosis that would put an end to Protack’s professional piloting career.
Protack and Petitt’s allegations against Dr. Altman, were combined, according to an email sent to Petitt by Jessica Pantoja from the Illinois regulator and led to the settlement that saw Altman give up his medical license. He is unlikely to be able to practice in any other state, according to his attorney, Scott Hammer, who said Altman is not interested in doing so.
“The case we had was defensible and we had top experts who were going to testify on his behalf. We were optimistic that if we tried the case we would have won,” Hammer told me, but he added that Altman “is looking to retire.”
Executives at the highest level of the airline were involved in the decision to send Petitt to Altman according to evidence in her case. In fact, the previously undisclosed role of former Delta senior vice president of flight operations, Steve Dickson, made headlines in 2019 during his Senate confirmation to lead the Federal Aviation Administration.
Dr. Altman was a key witness in Petitt’s whistleblower suit. He defended his diagnosis that Petitt was bipolar. He pointed out that during her early career, she was attending school, helping with her husband’s business and caring for her three young children, a situation which Dr. Altman found notably unusual.
“I don’t know any woman who could do that. I don’t know any woman with three under three that isn’t exhausted, let alone going to school,” Dr. Altman said explaining these were signs of mania. “So, this, to me, was — oh, I asked her — and she was nursing — I asked her and she was very upset about this — I asked: ‘Did you express the milk,’ because that’s going to take more time.”
Dr. Altman said that while Petitt acknowledged it was difficult, he said it was puzzling that she did not recognize her energy levels were not normal or “close the loop and say, ‘there’s something unusual about this.'”
Lest the Labor Department judge give credence to Dr. Altman’s testimony, Petitt’s lawyer, Lee Seham earlier this week asked Labor Department Administrative Law Judge Scott Morris to admit into the court record, the fact that Dr. Altman was a practicing doctor no longer.
As long ago as last summer, Judge Morris seemed leaning towards Petitt’s opinion that Delta had it out for her. He urged lawyers on both sides to settle the dispute rather than leave the decision to him.
“It’s not pretty,” Morris said of the case. “And I am really troubled by some of these exhibits, about how this referral came to fruition.”
One can only assume the latest twist in the story will have him shaking his head once again. Perhaps he will even note the irony that the doctor whose diagnosis seemed likely to end Karlene Petitt’s flying career has instead, brought the curtain down on his own.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.
Altman has less ethics than the guards at Auschwitz concentration camp.
I saw Dr. Altman testify in Seattle. The man was certifiable, and the fact that Delta Air Lines paid him $74,000 for Petitt’s diagnosis is indefensible. Thanks for reporting this, Christine… your articles always hold my interest and you dare to go where no one else will!
I sat reading this article with my mouth hanging open in amazement. I was a Captain at a Delta regional and ended up leaving because of the nonstop harassment. Go Karleen. Very proud of you for standing up and making it through the wringer and coming out the other side in one piece.
Remarkable points about this case:
1) the complainant (Pettit) who is an inspiration
2) the shamelessness of the respondent (and especially its corporate Counsel Puckett and his designated “hired gun”)
3) the hubris (and avarice) of said “hired gun”, Dr. David B Altman, who was chosen for this attempted hatchet job (using mental health as an pretext for retaliatory behaviour for whistleblowing) when his obvious “beat” is substance use in pilots, and despite the fact that he had previously violated norms and standards w.r.t. FAA reporting in the case of another pilot with the SAME AIRLINE.
4) the remarkable outcome that said “hired gun” lost his license to practice medicine in IL because of his unprofessional behaviour of threatening additional retaliation against the complainant if she did not submit to him in every respect, via blatant abuse of psychiatric diagnosis against a uniquely vulnerable client. Have to wonder how widespread is this scurrilous practice in HIMS.
5) the incredible diligence and conscientiousness of the DOL ALJ (Scott R Morris) in investigating and judging this case. Clearly he has seen such tactics before, and recognizes either the players, or certainly their methods
6) the decision by the complainant and her lawyer NOT to negotiate for a larger settlement in exchange for a NDA; which should result in dissemination of the details of her case so that others will be informed, warned, and protected.
Bravo on all counts!
@Michael Protak Do you know this, independent of this case? Just wondering how widespread these tactics might be in the Aviation industry.
Sounds suspiciously like tactics used in the Medical Regulatory-Therapeutic Complex.
As a clinical psychologist, i often discover that most physicians i have worked with know very little to nothing about mental health. On occasion, a psychiatrist may be better versed than most, but given their work is generally with the most severely memtally ill, their work with day to day existential threats manifesting in mental health symptoms is lacking. I strongly recommend the book “Mind Fixers” by Anne Harrington.
I will definitely say that these practices are prevalent below wing also. I am a current employee who was injured and the OSM & Delta’s Health Central “Health Aides” explained that my injury was past “ statue of limitations.” It’s currently on- going!
I am so glad that Karlene stood her ground against Delta.
What concerned me was the fact that he felt it necessary to threaten those he was assessing to make them do as he said. That would have been seen as serious misconduct.
These people were seeing him voluntarily, therefore they had the right to withdraw consent to the evaluation at anytime . They were legally allowed to leave at anytime without any consequences on the diagnosis..
Thank you, Christine Negroni for a great article. This seems to be whistleblower retaliation pure and simple. Along with the doctor forfeiting his credentials, the Delta CEO and any other responsible personnel should be appropriately and criminally charged under the whistleblower’s law.