Former Alaska Airlines pilot says he lost his job over false #MeToo claims

A former Alaska Airlines pilot is firing back at an ex-colleague who accused him of rape, saying he lost his job because of her “false #MeToo claims.”

In a lawsuit, Paul Engelien admits to consuming alcohol in a Minneapolis hotel lounge with first officer Betty Piña during a June 2017 layover.

But he denies Piña’s claims, previously reported by CNN, that he drugged and sexually assaulted her that night.

Piña made national headlines this year when she went public with the allegations in a lawsuit against Alaska Airlines. Piña did not name Engelien as a defendant in the lawsuit, but she alleged that the airline was liable for Engelien’s actions as his employer.

Now, Engelien is suing Piña and Alaska Airlines over fallout from her account.

Piña stands by her account

Engelien’s lawsuit accuses Piña of making up the allegations to avoid disciplinary action for drinking within 10 hours of duty, which is against airline policy. He claims the airline wrongly terminated him after conducting a “negligent, flawed” investigation with the help of a private investigator, which he says was designed to ensure his termination.

Piña’s attorney, Patty A. Eakes, denied that she made up the account. In an email, Eakes said Piña is “confident” that the case will be seen for what she sees it as: an attack on her for speaking out.

“Unfortunately, lawsuits like Mr. Engelien’s chill speech and make it harder for victims to come forward,” Eakes said.

Alaska Airlines declined to comment on the lawsuit or the circumstances of Engelien’s departure, citing a policy against discussing personnel issues. Marcella Reed, the private investigator the airline hired for the investigation, did not return requests for comment.

Engelien’s lawsuit seeks monetary damages from Piña based on allegations of defamation, privacy invasion and emotional distress. It accuses Alaska Airlines and the private investigator of conspiring with Alaska employees to ignore evidence in his favor, leading to his termination.

He is also filing a separate complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accusing Alaska Airlines of retaliation and discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act after he admitted he was an alcoholic and went through a treatment program, his lawyer said.

Drinks in hotel lounge lead to rape claims

Piña’s lawsuit, filed in February 2018, said Engelien’s conduct epitomizes “the necessity and purpose of the #MeToo movement.” But a lawyer for Engelien accused Piña of taking advantage of #MeToo to bolster false allegations.

“Captain Engelien and his counsel believe that all disputes between parties deserve due process; and society, in this electronic world, will still be best served if we avoid a rush to judgment for or against accusers or the accused,” Howard T. Dulmage said.

Both Engelien’s and Piña’s lawsuits stem from a June 5, 2017, layover in Minneapolis, when Engelien and Piña met in a hotel lounge for food and drinks. They socialized with crew members from another airline until 8 p.m., about 23 minutes before the 10-hour cut-off time for reporting to work, Engelien’s lawsuit says.

According to both lawsuits, their memories become fuzzy after leaving the lounge. They both said they woke up in Engelien’s hotel room. Piña said they were in the same bed, but Engelien said they were in separate ones. And where Piña says she woke up without pants or underwear after being raped, Engelien said nothing happened between them.

Alcohol investigation takes a turn

Engelien’s lawsuit says he was awoken by a missed call from his flight operations duty officer. When the duty officer called him back, he told Engelien that a flight attendant reported seeing him in the hallway with alcohol and was not comfortable flying with him, according to the lawsuit.

Engelien admitted to drinking earlier in the night. Because the time on his cell phone had not updated to Minneapolis’ time zone, the lawsuit claims, he mistakenly told the duty officer that he stopped drinking later than he actually did, after the 10-hour cutoff point.

His duty officer pulled him off the flight and placed him on sick leave. Piña was also pulled from the flight and the two returned to Seattle, Alaska’s headquarters, on June 7 to meet with union representatives, according to the lawsuit.

Three weeks later, the lawsuit claims, Piña told an Alaska representative in a private meeting that she had “questions” about what happened in Minneapolis. At that point, the lawsuit claims, “Alaska’s investigation shifted from both pilots’ alcohol use to solely a #MeToo investigation directed against Engelien.”

Alaska Airlines hired Reed, the private investigator, the following week to assist in a workplace investigation, the lawsuit says. In September, Engelien entered an alcohol treatment program for pilots based on Alaska’s assurances that he would not be terminated upon completion. According to the lawsuit, Engelien complied with the requirements of the program, but he was kept on leave while Reed investigated the matter.

Meanwhile, Engelien told the investigator that he mistakenly reported the wrong time of his last drink, but the investigator did not verify his claims, according to the lawsuit. He took and passed a polygraph examination related to the incident, the suit states.

Then in March, a month after Piña filed her lawsuit, Reed released what Engelien called a “pretextual” investigation report finding that he lied about drinking and violated the 10-hour rule — but Piña did not.

Alaska issued its final decision to terminate Engelien in May based on Reed’s report. Since then, he has struggled to find a job based on the bad publicity, and his teenage daughter has received calls from reporters about the case, the lawsuit says.

Engelien also believes that he lost his job for admitting to his alcoholism and undergoing treatment, according to the lawsuit, despite Alaska’s assurances that they supported the decision.

Engelien’s lawyer said his intention is not to diminish #MeToo or call into question its necessity. The ongoing drama has just as much do with Alaska’s improper handling of the situation as it does with Piña’s claims, Dulmage said.