The Best Defense You’ve Never Heard Of – The Federal Enclave Doctrine Restricts Wrongful Termination Remedies


The relatively obscure Federal Enclave Doctrine is potentially a powerful arrow in the quiver of defense counsel, where the tortious act complained of occurred on federal land.  In the context of employment-related claims, the doctrine may operate to limit an allegedly aggrieved claimant to federal (ADA) remedies to the exclusion of state law (FEHA) remedies – and allow litigation in federal court – a forum more favorable to the defendant.

A federal enclave is created when the federal government purchases land within a state, with the state’s consent, for federal use.  Paul v. United States, 371 U.S. 245, 264–265 (1963).  Federal power over such enclaves emanates from Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the United States Constitution, which gives Congress the power “[t]o exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever” over the District of Columbia and “to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings.”

Where a federal enclave is found to exist, the federal government exercises legislative jurisdiction over this property.  Kelly v. Lockheed Martin Services Group, 25 F. Supp. 2d 1, 3 (D. Puerto Rico 1998).  The basic principle at work is that of sovereignty.  Therefore, the laws applicable in a federal enclave include federal law and only those state laws which were in effect when the state ceded power to the federal government and which are not inconsistent with federal law.  Taylor v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 78 Cal. App. 4th 472, 481 (2000).  The corollary is that, claims based on state laws not in effect at the time of cession are barred by the federal enclave doctrine.  Id.

In the context of employment claims, courts have held that state law claims are barred by the federal enclave doctrine where (1) there is a federal enclave, and (2) the state law claims “arose on” the enclave.  Taylor v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 78 Cal. App. 4th 472, 479-80 (2000).

In determining whether a claim arises on a federal enclave, courts look at whether the federal enclave was the “predominant job situs” and more generally whether the plaintiff is an employee of a contractor operating on an enclave.  Taylor v. Lockheed Martin, supra, 78 Cal. App. 4th, at 477, 481.  Conversely, courts hold that isolated administrative action, including the termination decision and the notice of termination or discipline, occurring offsite does not change the nature of the underlying work.  Id.; Stiefel, supra, 497 F. Supp. at 1148; Powell v. Tessada & Assoc., Inc., supra, 2005 WL 578103, at *2.  Although this inquiry depends on the facts of the individual cases, examples of judicially declared federal enclaves in California include Moffett Federal Airfield (See Pacific Coast Dairy v. Dept. of Agriculture of Cal. (1943) 318 U.S. 285, 298), NASA Ames Research Center (Powell v. Tessada & Assoc., Inc. (N.D. Cal. 2005) 2005 WL 578103); the Presidio (CITE); Camp Pendleton (Stiefel v. Bechtel Corp., 497 F. Supp. 2d 1138, 1148-49 (S.D. Cal. 2007).

Where there is a finding that a federal enclave exists, the inquiry shifts to whether the enclave operates to bar plaintiff’s state law claims.  Courts applying California law recognize the broad scope of the federal enclave doctrine as applied to employment claims.  See, e.g., Powell v. Tessada & Associates, Inc. (N.D. Cal. 2005) 2005 WL 578103, at *2 (unpublished) (federal enclave doctrine barred plaintiff’s FEHA claims against federal contractor related to janitorial services at NASA Ames Research Center even though termination decision was made at the defendant’s corporate office in Virginia since “the decision reflects defendant’s employment practices on the enclave.”); Stiefel v. Bechtel Corp. 497 F. Supp. 2d 1138, 1147-48 (S.D. Cal. 2007) (federal enclave doctrine barred state law claims brought by employee of federal contractor who alleged disability discrimination and retaliation despite fact he received notice of adverse employment decision off the enclave while at home); Taylor v. Lockheed Martin Corp., supra, 78 Cal. App. 4th at 479-80 (for purposes of FEHA, “the plaintiff’s place of employment [is] the significant factor in determining where the plaintiff’s employment claims arose under the federal enclave doctrine.”); Lockhart v. MVM, Inc., supra, 175 Cal. App. 4th at 1459-60 (2009) (same).

In Taylor, the court found that the plaintiff’s FEHA and wrongful termination claims arose on the enclave where (1) the plaintiff was assigned to work in a building on the enclave, (2) the decision to discipline plaintiff occurred on the enclave, and (3) the implementation of the discipline was to occur on the enclave.  78 Cal. App. 4th at 480.  The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that his claim arose off the enclave because he was on paid suspension off the enclave at the time he was terminated, reasoning that “the fortuity of paid suspension before his termination does not mean that he ever worked for [defendant] outside the enclave or that his employment claims arose elsewhere.”  Id. at 481.  The court concluded that “[a]s an employee of a contractor operating on the enclave, [plaintiff’s] claims are governed by the enclave’s law, rather than the state law.”  Id.

The court in Lockhart reached a similar result.  The plaintiff sued her former employer alleging causes of action for disability discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination.  175 Cal. App. 4th at 1454.  The employer moved for summary judgment on grounds that the plaintiff was an employee of a federal contractor operating on a federal enclave.  Id.  The plaintiff opposed summary judgment on grounds that the pertinent events occurred off the enclave; namely, the decision to terminate the plaintiff was made and implemented off the enclave at the employer’s corporate office in Virginia and the employee received notice off the enclave while at her house.  Id. at 1458.  The court nonetheless concluded that the claims arose on the enclave and were therefore barred because plaintiff’s work took place on the enclave.  Id. at 1459-60.

In the context of defending employment related claims, if one’s client’s work site is on federal property, due diligence requires a determination of whether the federal enclave doctrine applies, and at what point in time it became applicable.  By way of example, the land upon which Moffett Federal Airfield was built was deeded to the federal government in 1931, at which time California had no statutory employment law, negligent infliction of emotional distress was not a recognized common law remedy, and thus a disgruntled former employee’s remedies after termination were limited to breach of an employment contract.  Of course, absent contractual restriction on termination for good cause, employment was purely “at will.”

While there are similar principles and causes of action between FEHA and the ADA, the latter federal statutory scheme is, in many significant particulars, far more favorable to the employer-defendant.  Additionally, federal judges are not known to brook nonsense (from either side) in the discovery arena, and a defendant’s chances of obtaining a favorable result on a motion for summary judgment or summary adjudication are substantially better in federal court.  Without question, in most circumstances, an employer-defendant is far better off under federal law, and litigating in federal court.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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