Maersk Sued for Wrongful Termination Related to Midshipman-X Case

Maersk wrongful termination lawsuit
Former chief engineer aboard the Alliance Fairfax alleges Maersk wrongful terminated him to end investigations into the Midshipman-X case (US Navy file photo)

Published May 18, 2023 5:41 PM by The Maritime Executive

Maersk Line and the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association have until the end of the month to respond to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New York stemming from the infamous “Midshipman X” case involving an alleged sexual assault on a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy midshipman while serving sea duty on a Maersk Line operated ship. The former chief engineer of the vessel is suing for at least $300,000 in damages alleging he was wrongfully terminated by Maersk with his union failing in its duty to pursue the engineer’s grievance complaint.

In the suit, Chief Engineer Filomeno Gaylan says he has been a member of the union since 1996 and working for Maersk Line since 2007. He was promoted to the rank of Chief Engineer in 2010 and since 2015 was serving as the permanent chief engineer of the Alliance Fairfax, the Ro-Ro vessel on which the midshipman was sailing in the summer and fall of 2019.

In 2011, the female cadet engineer, who later identified herself as Hope Hicks, published an anonymous account of her experiences aboard the vessel alleging that she was sexually assaulted by the first engineer aboard the ship. Her account shook up the USMMA, prompting a suspension of the Sea Year program while Maersk launched a broad investigation. It also launched a wider discussion of the work environment and harassment seafarers experience. The shipping line later settled out-of-court lawsuits brought by Hicks and another midshipman who said she was harassed during her time aboard the same vessel.

Maersk suspended Gaylan in 2021 shortly after the allegations were published online by Midshipman X. He was interviewed by Maersk and U.S. Coast Guard investigators who were looking into the allegations. He also provided testimony in the pre-trial actions for the lawsuit against Maersk brought by Hicks.

In the suit, the former chief engineer alleges that his wrongful termination was in fact a “pre-text firing” by Maersk in an attempt to avoid a governmental investigation into the shipping line’s sexual harassment policies and lack of enforcement. The suit contends that Maersk was seeking to avoid a fine from the U.S. Coast Guard similar to the $10,000 paid in 2020 related to similar incidents on the Maersk Idaho.

Maersk in response to The Maritime Executive acknowledges that Chief Engineer Filomeno Gaylan was the senior engineer aboard the Alliance Fairfax highlighting that he was the direct supervisor of the First Assistant Engineer. Maersk notes that Hope Hicks (Midshipman-X) in her lawsuit said she was afraid to report her assault to Gaylan because the top four officers were “like best friends.”

“Despite Maersk Line, Limited’s strict policy of no alcohol onboard, Gaylan was present in the First Assistant Engineer’s stateroom when alcohol was being consumed by all the vessel’s licensed engineers, along with both U.S. Merchant Marine Academy cadets, which is a violation of company policy,” Maersk said in its response. “Gaylan was terminated from Maersk Line, Limited for this incident. Both for the use of alcohol onboard - a clear violation of Maersk Line, Limited policy - as well as failure to stop alcohol abuse by others in his presence and under his supervision, as well as failure to report the alcohol use to Maersk Line, Limited.”

Gaylan recounts hearing loud voices and smelling cigar smoke on the night of the alleged rape and says he went to the first engineer’s office where he found the first and second engineer talking “trading sea stories.” He contends the cadet and third engineer entered the office bringing what appeared to be bottles of alcohol, but that he did not see anyone drinking, or anyone intoxicated. Further, he contends he was not drinking alcohol at the time because of medication he was taking. Because of the noise and inappropriate actions he witnessed, Gaylan says he ordered the gathering to end and everyone to go to their cabins. Gaylan says he was not aware of anything further until Hick went public almost two years later with her allegations.

Maersk after suspending Gaylan and investigating notified him in a letter dated February 7, 2022, that he was terminated for cause for having violated the company’s alcohol policy. In the letter, they write, “Your violation of the alcohol policy could have materially contributed to having the vessel rendered unseaworthy.” Gaylan was also made ineligible for any future employment with Maersk as a result of the termination for cause.

The suit alleges that Maersk failed to provide a specific justifiable basis for terminating him for cause. Gaylan under the union’s contract filed a grievance complaint in June 2022 which he alleges MEBA has failed in its obligation to pursue and which Maersk has declined to participate in. Further, he alleges “bad faith (mis)representations” by Maersk alleging the shipping company or its representatives had said it would consider the grievance.

Gaylan is suing for lost wages, lost benefits, emotional and physical distress, and expenses. The suit estimates the damages to be no less than $300,000. The complaint was amended in April 2023, and as such Maersk Line and MEBA filed for an extension setting their date to reply to May 26.

The two midshipman cases continue to have repercussions on the industry. In addition to Gaylan's suit, two officers voluntarily surrendered their licenses and a third case is currently being heard by U.S. Coast Guard investigators. Maersk also said it reviewed its policies while MARAD also reviewed the Sea Year program. Maersk highlights that it also turned over the results of its internal investigation to the U.S. Coast Guard.