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Why Do Federal Enclaves Matter?

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Way back in 1787, when the framers were drafting the Constitution, they included a provision about the application of state laws to federal enclaves. The provision wasn't a big deal like the taxing power, the Necessary and Proper Clause, or the Commerce Clause, but it occasionally pops up in the news.

This week, it popped up in a Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals retaliation claim.

In case you slept through forgot the relevant section in Con Law, a federal enclave is established when a state cedes jurisdiction over land within its borders to the federal government and Congress accepts that cession.

Federal enclave doctrine operates as a choice of law doctrine that dictates which law applies to causes of action arising on these lands. State law that is adopted after the creation of a federal enclave generally does not apply on the enclave. (Sidebar: That why restaurants located on federal land within California can still serve foie gras, despite the state’s new foie gras ban.)

This week, the Tenth Circuit ruled that the federal enclave doctrine precludes a military base employee from bringing a retaliation claim against his employer based on state law.

Jimmie Allison was a civilian employee of Boeing Laser Technical Services, a federal contractor located on Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. Kirtland is a federal enclave. (New Mexico ceded the land to the federal government in 1952 and 1954.)

Boeing terminated Allison in 2007. Allison filed a retaliation claim in state court, alleging that Boeing discharged him in retaliation for reporting corporate fraud to the Air Force. His claims were all based on state law theories of wrongful discharge, breach of implied contract, breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing, retaliatory discharge, prima facie tort, and defamation.

Boeing removed the case to federal court and moved for summary judgment, asserting that Allison’s causes of action (except for defamation) were not available for conduct under the federal enclave doctrine.

The district court granted partial summary judgment in favor of Boeing on all of Allison’s employment claims because the causes of action were not recognized by New Mexico courts prior to 1954. The defamation claim was dismissed, and the district court entered final judgment in favor of Boeing.

Allison appealed, arguing that the federal enclave doctrine does not displace state common law adopted after the cession of Kirtland in 1954. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument, noting, “when the United States acquires with the ‘consent’ of the state legislature land within the borders of that State … the jurisdiction of the federal government becomes ‘exclusive.’”

Jimmie Allison’s state law claims were based on legal theories created by common law after 1954, so they were barred unless federal statutory law explicitly allowed them to go forward. Because no federal statute authorized the state employment and tort claims that Allison asserted against Boeing, Allison’s suit was barred by the federal enclave doctrine.

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