Each pilot who has a medical certificate has completed Form 8500-8 once. Form 8500-8 is the form we all fill out when requesting medical clearances. Among other things, Form 8500-8 asks us to disclose whether we have ever been diagnosed with a variety of medical conditions. Providing false information on these forms is a crime and carries serious consequences, a California airman recently learned.
In the case of United States v. Beyer upheld the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal appeals court for the western United States, convicting an airman of making false statements on Form 8500-8. The facts are clear. In 2016, the Department of Veterans Affairs awarded the aviator medical disability benefits and assigned him a significant disability rating for “major depressive disorder.” After receiving these benefits, the Airman incorrectly completed Form 8500-8 on two separate occasions, December 2, 2016 and May 24, 2018. He gave the same answers both days. On both occasions, he denied ever being diagnosed with depression and told the FAA that he received disability benefits only for knee and back-related problems, omitting that the VA assigned him a disability rating based on depression.
After discovering the misrepresentations, the United States charged the aviator with four counts of false testimony under 18 USC § 1001. On two of those counts, the United States alleged that the aviator falsely stated that he never had a mental disorder of any kind, thereby opening Question 18m Form 8500-8 answered incorrectly. In two other counts, the United States alleged that the airman intended, in answering Question 18y, “to falsify, conceal, and cover up a material fact by tricks, schemes, and means.” Question 18y asks whether the claimant received disability medical benefits. The aviator stated it did, but led the FAA to believe the benefits were related to knee and back pain and not a diagnosis of depression.
The court found the airman guilty on all four counts. The court sentenced him to a year’s probation on each count, with the sentences running concurrently.
The aviator appealed to the Ninth Circuit. He mainly argued that his beliefs regarding the answer to question 18y in his 2016 and 2018 applications could not stand. He argued that the convictions should be reversed since he is not legally required to disclose to the FAA every single basis for his VA medical disability.
The Ninth Circle disagreed. The court held that the Airman was required to disclose in question 18m whether he had been diagnosed with depression and that he incorrectly answered “no” to that question. Question 18y asked whether the aviator had received medical disability benefits. While the aviator answered “yes” to that question, he failed to tell the whole truth about that answer; The aviator had two bases for receiving benefits, but announced only one. The intentionally incomplete answer was the “trick” necessary to support a Section 1001 conviction. As the court noted, a full and complete answer to question 18y would have “revealed his incorrect answer to 18m that he had never been diagnosed with depression.” The court stated that it was “obviously material” to the FAA whether at an aviator was diagnosed with depression and cited the 2015 Germanwings incident as a tragic reason why the FAA is interested in aviator mental health.
The Ninth Circuit also upheld the disqualification of a witness who wanted to testify that the Airman had been wrongly diagnosed with depression. The Ninth Circuit ruled that testimony was irrelevant. It explained that the Form 8500-8 asked whether the applicant had ever been diagnosed with depression, not whether the applicant was properly diagnosed. In short, whether the airman or his doctors agreed with the diagnoses was immaterial. Regardless of the accuracy of the diagnosis, it was still a diagnosis and the airman had a duty to disclose it.
Beyer highlights two important points for aviators. First, it serves as an important reminder of the consequences of misrepresentation when applying for a medical certificate. Second, it also proves the FAA’s practice of matching VA disability benefits with their Airmen to uncover situations where an Airman may not have been honest on their 8500-8 form.