Recently the NTSB remanded a case back to the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) for a hearing on an independent charge of violating FAR 91.13(a) (careless and reckless). In the case, Administrator v. Hollabaugh, the FAA suspended the airman’s airline transport pilot certificate for alleged violations of FARs 135.263(a) and 135.267(d) (flight and duty time regulations), as well as FAR 91.13(a) which the FAA alleged was a residual violation based upon the other violations. Based upon the airman’s admission of all allegations except the careless and reckless charge, the FAA moved for summary judgment on all counts.
In response to the FAA’s motion, the airman argued that the residual FAR 91.13(a) charge was inappropriate since violations of FARs 135.263(a) and 135.267(d) were not operational violations. The FAA then filed an “errata” to its motion which stated that reference to the FAR 91.13(a) violation as a residual charge was an error “because the factual allegations in the [c]omplaint effectively charge [r]espondent with an independent charge of carelessness under … § 91.13(a). The ALJ accepted the errata and then granted the FAA’s motion on all counts.
On appeal to the full Board, the airman again argued that “granting summary judgment on the § 91.13(a) charge was inappropriate because § 91.13(a) only applies to operational violations” and since neither FAR 135.263(a) nor FAR 135.267(d) is an operational violation, his admissions concerning those violations did not prove that he also violated FAR 91.13(a). Recognizing that the Board had not faced this issue before, it initially reiterated that the FAA needs “to plead explicitly in the complaint whether a charge under § 91.13(a) is residual or independent.”
However, accepting that the charge against the airman was an independent charge, the Board then determined that the FAA had failed to produce facts supporting an independent violation of FAR 91.13(a) and, as a result, summary judgment was inappropriate. The Board observed that the FAA’s “correction” to allege an independent violation did not operate to the prejudice of the airman because the independent charge then required “a higher threshold of evidence than a residual charge.” Consequently, since the FAA had not provided proof, the Board remanded the case to the ALJ to hold a hearing solely on the independent FAR 91.13(a) charge.
Nice to see the FAA’s untimely attempt to fix its pleading error backfire in favor of the airman. At least now the FAA will have to prove the independent violation of FAR 91.13(a) rather than simply tacking it on, although I don’t know that the hearing will result in a different outcome since it will still be in front of Judge Geraghty. However, hopefully the FAA will at least take note of the Board’s admonition and draft careless and reckless allegations more accurately in the future.