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Bald Mountain Air ordered to pay $500,000 in whistleblower case

Aaron Bolton, KBBI News

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect comments from Brian Bell’s attorney Paul Stockler.

An administrative law judge has ruled in favor of an Anchorage whistleblower who claims that Bald Mountain Air Service based in Homer fired him after he reported several safety issues to the Federal Aviation Administration. However, the airliner plans to appeal the ruling.

U.S. Department of Labor Administrative Law Judge Scott R. Morris issued the 72-page ruling on Oct. 10.

Morris found that the aviation company violated whistleblower protections after it fired Anchorage pilot Brian Bell just two days after a surprise FAA inspection in 2012. The inspection resulted in roughly $67,000 worth of fines.

Bell and another Bald Mountain employee’s complaints about the airliner’s safety and training practices spurred that inspection. Bell reported several safety violations to the FAA ranging from falsifying training records to flying with faulty or damaged equipment while customers were onboard.

“Obviously Mr. Bell and I are very pleased with the ruling. We think we won and prevailed on all the major issues,” Paul Stockler, who represents Bell, said Friday.   

Bald Mountain argued in the case that it planned to fire Bell before he spoke with FAA officials.

Last week’s ruling follows a 2016 Occupational Safety and Health Administration report finding that Bald Mountain failed to show “clear and convincing evidence” that it planned to do so.

The latest ruling does acknowledge evidence that supports Bald Mountain’s claim, but it said the timing of Bell’s firing violated his protections as a whistleblower.

Bald Mountain attorney Aaron Sperbeck said his client plans to appeal the ruling next week with the Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board.

“There are several other legal issues that Bald Mountain would like to have the administrative review board examine,” he said over the phone Thursday.

In particular, Sperbeck wants the board to review Morris’ order requiring Bald Mountain to pay Bell roughly $500,000 in back pay with interest.

Bell claims that Bald Mountain blacklisted him after he was fired in late 2012, and Morris’ ruling found that circumstantial evidence supported his claim.

However, Sperbeck and Bald Mountain say Bell did not sufficiently pursue employment in the aviation industry, though the onus will be on them to prove that it their appeal is taken up.

“The review board has the ability to decide whether or not to take the petition up. That would then require Mr. Bell to file a petition of his own in opposition,” Sperbeck said. “Then they have the ability to decide those issues, those very specific issues, within the next roughly 120 days.”

Stockler said his client is ready for a possible appeal, but he doesn’t think the review board will accept Bald Mountain’s petition because the company argued it wasn’t liable for back pay. 

“It’s hard to argue a case on both liability and damages because if you’re arguing damages, you’re sometimes conceding liability,” Stockler explained. “They contested liability, but if they want to contest damages, they should have done it at the original hearing. I think they’ve waved that claim.”

Sperbeck declined to say if Bald Mountain plans to appeal any other issues in the case such as Morris’ ruling requiring the company to expunge Bell’s personnel file of any records connected to his report to the FAA. Bald Mountain was also ordered to pay Bell $10,000 for pain and suffering and to offer him a job as a pilot.  

Bald Mountain will be required to post a list whistleblower protections at its facilities as well and provide training on those protections to employees.

Aaron Bolton has moved on to a new position in Montana; he is no longer KBBI News Director. KBBI is currently seeking a News Director, and Kathleen Gustafson is filling in for the time being.
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