Pilot Who Sought Help for Depression Sues Employer

 - September 19, 2011, 10:20 AM
Michael Hirsch diverted his ExpressJet ERJ 145 from Milwaukee to a nearby regional airport soon before the airline grounded him, allegedly for a psychological condition. (Photo: ExpressJet)

A Houston-based pilot working for U.S. regional airline ExpressJet has filed a lawsuit against his company and its parent, Atlanta-based Atlantic Southeast Airlines, claiming retaliation against him for refusing to fly during severe weather conditions. In the filing, the pilot, Michael Hirsch, alleges ExpressJet used his pursuit of treatment for depression through an employee assistance program during a divorce years before as reasoning for grounding him.

According Hirsch’s legal team, ExpressJet cited a psychological condition for the grounding after the pilot refused to jeopardize passenger and crew safety on a February 2009 flight from Houston to Milwaukee. Scott Lemond, one of the principal partners of Houston-based Lemond & Lemond, told AIN that rather than holding for 45 minutes over Milwaukee General Mitchell International Airport while it had closed for snow removal, Hirsch decided to divert to Dane County Regional Airport because the Embraer ERJ 145 he piloted had run low on fuel. Lemond said that extreme snow and ice conditions forced the closure of the airport on several occasions that day.

ExpressJet subsequently grounded Hirsch in March that year, citing his decision to divert from Milwaukee, an earlier event in Mexico City during which he requested a change in runway for takeoff due to thunderstorms in the area and “an unusual request for…supervised flying” in the summer of 2008.

Hirsch denies the allegation, and contends that he merely requested that he train with a particular captain.

ExpressJet reinstated Hirsch this year and he now works as a trainer out of Houston. Hirsch seeks “at least” $480,000 for punitive damages, back pay and six other items including attorney fees. SkyWest acquired ExpressJet and made it a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Atlantic Southeast in November of last year, well after the alleged pattern of discrimination occurred. ASA and ExpressJet expect to formally merge later this year, once the FAA issues a single operating certificate.

The defendants’ lawyer, Sarah Wimberley of the Atlanta-based Ford & Harrison law firm, told AIN that she couldn’t comment on the case, not least because Hirsch still works for ExpressJet. “But I can tell you, at both carriers, safety and the safe operation of their aircraft, [and] safe carriage of their passengers is always top priority,” she said. “I’ve worked with both of these carriers for many years, even leading up to the merger…They also both have had long-standing policies against the type of discrimination that Mr. Hirsch alleges.”