Ramaprakash v. F.A.A.

Decision Date21 October 2003
Docket NumberNo. 02-1283.,02-1283.
Citation346 F.3d 1121
PartiesTilak S. RAMAPRAKASH, Petitioner. v. FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION and National Transportation Safety Board, Respondents.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit

Mark T. McDermott argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Peter J. Wiernicki.

Kathleen A. Yodice was on the brief for amicus curiae Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

James A. Barry, Attorney, Federal Aviation Administration, argued the cause for respondents. With him on the briefs was Peter J. Lynch, Assistant Chief Counsel.

Before: ROGERS and ROBERTS, Circuit Judges, and SILBERMAN, Senior Circuit Judge.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge ROBERTS.

ROBERTS, Circuit Judge:

Learned Hand once remarked that agencies tend to "fall into grooves, ... and when they get into grooves, then God save you to get them out."1 Judge Hand never met the National Transportation Safety Board. In this case, we grant the petition for review because the Board has failed adequately to explain its departures from its own precedent in no fewer than three significant respects.


Petitioner Tilak Ramaprakash was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in Doraville, Georgia, in December 1996, and was convicted of that offense on February 25, 1997. As a licensed pilot, he was subject to Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) § 61.15 (codified at 14 C.F.R. § 61.15 (2003)), which requires pilots to provide the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with a written report of any "motor vehicle action" within sixty days. Id. § 61.15(e). The regulation defines "motor vehicle action" to include a "conviction... for the violation of any Federal or State statute relating to the operation of a motor vehicle while intoxicated by alcohol or a drug, while impaired by alcohol or a drug, or while under the influence of alcohol or a drug." Id. § 61.15(c)(1).

Ramaprakash admits that he did not file the required report. His violation of FAR § 61.15(e) occurred on April 26, 1997, when the sixty-day period for filing the report ended. Twelve months later, on April 22, 1998, the FAA formally initiated administrative proceedings to suspend his pilot's certificate by issuing a Notice of Proposed Certificate Action (NOPCA). The NOPCA proposed to suspend his certificate for thirty days in accordance with FAR § 61.15(f)(2), which provides that a violation of § 61.15(e) is grounds for "[s]uspension or revocation of any certificate" issued under FAR Part 61. In February 1999, the FAA ordered that Ramaprakash's license be suspended for thirty days. He appealed to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB or Board).

Before the NTSB, Ramaprakash conceded that he had committed a FAR violation, but moved for dismissal of the FAA's action against him in light of the Board's "stale complaint rule"Rule 33 of the NTSB's Rules of Practice in Air Safety Proceedings, codified at 49 C.F.R. § 821.33 (2002). That rule provides, in pertinent part:

Where the complaint states allegations of offenses which occurred more than 6 months prior to the [FAA] Administrator's advising respondent as to reasons for proposed [certificate] action..., respondent may move to dismiss such allegations pursuant to the following provisions:

(a) In those cases where a complaint does not allege lack of qualification of the certificate holder:

(1) The Administrator shall be required to show by answer filed within 15 days of service of the motion that good cause existed for the delay, or that the imposition of a sanction is warranted in the public interest, notwithstanding the delay or the reasons therefor.

(2) If the Administrator does not establish good cause for the delay or for imposition of a sanction notwithstanding the delay, the law judge shall dismiss the stale allegations and proceed to adjudicate only the remaining portion, if any, of the complaint.2

It was undisputed that the FAA had failed to meet Rule 33's six-month deadline: the NOPCA was issued nearly one year after Ramaprakash's FAR violation. The question before the NTSB was whether "good cause existed for the delay."

Answering that question requires some understanding of how the FAA monitors compliance with the FAR reporting requirement. One way it does so is by compiling and periodically sending to the National Driver Register (NDR) lists of individuals who seek to obtain or renew their medical certifications. The NDR then matches the names against its own records, which contain information on individuals whose drivers' licenses have been denied, revoked, suspended, or canceled for cause, or who have been convicted of serious driving offenses. See 49 U.S.C. § 30304(a). The information in the NDR is not detailed enough to show whether the offense involved is one for which a report must be filed under FAR § 61.15; when the FAA receives a computer tape from the NDR with a list of the names that have matched an NDR record, an FAA investigator must then check the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS) database for details of each airman's motor vehicle incident. If the NLETS data show that the incident was a reportable offense, the FAA investigator then searches the agency's records to determine whether the airman filed the required report.

A detailed affidavit from FAA official Mark Sweeney described the course of the FAA's investigation of Ramaprakash's violation. On May 16, 1997, the FAA received from the NDR a computer tape indicating a motor vehicle incident in Georgia involving Ramaprakash. The tape was routed to an FAA investigator in May 1997, but apparently no action was taken until September 1997, when the investigator was transferred to a new FAA assignment. A second investigator took possession of the tape, but this investigator too was reassigned in October 1997, and the tape was passed on to a third investigator. After working through a backlog of prior tapes, this investigator turned to the tape that included Ramaprakash's record and conducted the NLETS query on February 4, 1998. The NLETS database revealed that the incident disclosed on the NDR was in fact a DUI conviction, and by February 10, 1998, the investigator had searched FAA records and learned that Ramaprakash had failed to report it. See Sweeney Aff. at 2-3, JA 101-02.

The Board, by a 3-2 vote, concluded that the FAA had shown good cause for the delay in issuing the NOPCA. The Board stated that under Rule 33, "the Administrator must show that good cause existed for the delay in discovering the offense and that, upon discovery, she investigated the matter with due diligence." Administrator v. Ramaprakash, NTSB Order No. EA-4947 (February 7, 2002), at 5, available at 2002 WL 226617 (Order Denying Appeal). The NTSB further found that the FAA "did not have an indication of a possible section 61.15(e) violation until [the] NLETS query indicated that the NDR listing was in reference to a reportable alcohol-related motor vehicle action," and that the FAA had been sufficiently diligent in proceeding to issue the NOPCA after receiving the NLETS information. Id. at 6. The Board then observed that there was no evidence that the delay had affected Ramaprakash's ability to defend against the FAA complaint, and concluded that the FAA was entitled to some — but not unlimited — leeway in prioritizing its enforcement efforts. Id. at 7, 8. In dissent, Member Goglia (joined by Member Hammerschmidt) rejected the majority's contention that Rule 33 allowed a balancing of the FAA's interest in prioritizing enforcement against pilots' need for timely prosecution: "There either `is' a stale complaint rule, or there `is not.'" Id. at 9.

Ramaprakash sought reconsideration, but the Board refused to reconsider its decision. In its brief order, the Board stated:

As we explained in our original decision, we decline to extend the stale complaint rule under these circumstances, i.e., where the "delay" is non-prejudicial to respondent's ability to defend against the charges ... and accrued, essentially, because the Administrator chose to delegate her resources in a manner that would not immediately, but eventually, detect airmen's non-compliance with a mandatory reporting requirement that respondent admits to not adhering to.

Administrator v. Ramaprakash, NTSB Order No. EA-4984 (July 16, 2002), at 1, available at 2002 WL 1586404 (Order Denying Reconsideration). Member Goglia, again joined by Member Hammerschmidt, dissented. Id. at 2-6. This petition for review followed.


Under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), a court may set aside agency action found to be "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A). Our review under the APA is highly deferential, but agency action is arbitrary and capricious if it departs from agency precedent without explanation. Agencies are free to change course as their expertise and experience may suggest or require, but when they do so they must provide a "reasoned analysis indicating that prior policies and standards are being deliberately changed, not casually ignored." Greater Boston Television Corp. v. FCC, 444 F.2d 841, 852 (D.C.Cir. 1970); see also Philadelphia Gas Works v. FERC, 989 F.2d 1246, 1250-51 (D.C.Cir. 1993). An agency's failure to come to grips with conflicting precedent constitutes "an inexcusable departure from the essential requirement of reasoned decision making." Columbia Broad. Sys. v. FCC, 454 F.2d 1018, 1027 (D.C.Cir.1971).

In the orders challenged here, the Board deviated from its precedent in three respects. The first is in the NTSB's answer to the question whether FAA delays should be more readily excused if the alleged FAR violation is relatively serious. In Administrator v. U.S. Jet, Inc., 7 NTSB 246, 1990 WL 339004 (1990)a case...

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