WASHINGTON (CN) - Aviation regulators may have acted rashly when they pulled a pilot's licenses over unreported, decade-old disorderly conduct charges, the D.C. Circuit ruled.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration revoked licenses certifying Michael George Manin as an airline transport pilot, flight instructor, flight engineer and first-class airman medical in 2008 - more than 12 years after he failed to report minor misdemeanor convictions against him in a Barberton, Ohio, court.
The 2008 censure was not the first rebuke Manin faced over similar charges.
In 1992, Manin was convicted for falsifying a passport application, and he failed to report the conviction on a medical application. The FAA found out in 1994 and revoked his airline transport pilot certificate and his medical certificate. When Manin disclosed the conviction on his next application in 1995, those licenses were reinstated.
First-class airman medical certificates must be renewed periodically - every year for pilots under the age of 40 and every six months for pilots older than that.
On subsequent applications, Manin confirmed that he had a nontraffic conviction, adding that he had previously reported the offense and had no updates to report.
But aside from the reported 1992 offense, Manin had failed to disclose that, in 1995 and 1997, he was convicted of disorderly conduct.
The FAA did not discover those convictions until late 2007, at which time it revoked his licenses, and the transportation safety board upheld the censure.
On appeal before the D.C. Circuit, the three-judge federal appeals panel agreed with Manin that the agencies may be prejudiced under the laches doctrine for their late reaction.
Manin had argued that he did not intentionally lie on the medical applications because he did not think he had to report the 1995 and 1997 convictions. He argued that he mistook the convictions for summary infractions rather than misdemeanors.
Chief Judge David Sentelle wrote for the court that the transportation board failed to consider Manin's argument.
The ruling also notes that more attention should have been given to how the 12-year lapse in the agencies' crackdown may have "prejudiced [Manin's] defense, because witnesses and relevant files were no longer available and his own memory of the events in question had faded."
The embattled pilot attempted to invoke the board's stale complaint rule, which provides for the dismissal of an action stating allegations that occurred more than six months prior to advising the respondent of the reasons.
The argument didn't stick, Sentelle noted that the board's "case law establishes that the laches defense may be available even when stale complaint rule is inapplicable."
Sentelle quoted from the board's 2005 decision in Administrator v. Wells, which states: "notwithstanding the fact that a complaint may survive dismissal under the stale complaint rule, it might still be subject to attack if an airman could establish actual prejudice in his defense which is attributable to the administrator's delay."
"In stating the contrary and failing to offer any explanation for its departure from its own precedent, the NTSB acted arbitrarily and capriciously," Sentelle wrote. "When an agency departs from its prior precedent without explanation, as the NTSB did here, its judgment cannot be upheld."
While the board may still rule to uphold the license revocation on remand, they must do so after considering all the evidence and court precedent, the ruling adds.
"The NTSB departed from its own precedent twice, without explanation," Sentelle wrote. "Accordingly, we vacate the board's decision and remand for further proceedings consistent with board precedent and the precedent of this court."
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