A settlement has been reached in a whistleblower lawsuit against Southwest Airlines alleging that a mechanic was subject to disciplinary action for finding and reporting cracks in the fuselage of a Boeing 737-700 aircraft, Forbes reports. The airline agreed to remove the disciplinary action from the mechanic’s file and pay $35,000 in legal fees to resolve the case.
The settlement occurred after a Department of Labor Administrative Judge dismissed Southwest’s motion for summary judgment on January 8th. The judge partly granted the mechanic’s motion for summary judgment, and summarized the allegations as follows: “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.” During this maintenance check, the mechanic notice two cracks on the fuselage and documented them, resulting in the plane being removed from service for repair.
According to Forbes, the mechanic was called into a meeting with his supervisors to “discuss the issue of working outside the scope of his assigned task.” He was also issued a “Letter of Instruction”. The letter stated that he had acted outside the scope of the work in his task card and warned that more violations could lead to further disciplinary action. 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.” the whistleblower lawsuit alleged.
The mechanic’s lawsuit was filed under the whistleblower protection of the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, or AIR-21 statute. This statute ensures that airline workers have an appeal process if they are fired or disciplined for reporting safety issues.
Southwest claimed that the letter was issued because the mechanic went beyond the scope of his duties, and not because he reported a safety problem. The airline also contended 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, ruling that the mechanic’s actions are protected under AIR-21 and that Southwest knew of it.