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In one of the first holdings of its kind, a Miami federal judge dismissed a state whistleblower claim brought by a former maintenance supervisor at a Hialeah aircraft repair center, ruling that the complaint should have been filed under the federal Airline Deregulation Act. In his June 20 decision, U.S. District Judge Paul Huck ruled that the supervisor’s state whistleblower claim was pre-empted by the federal statute, which deregulated the nation’s airline industry in 1978. Under the federal act, states are prohibited from enacting or enforcing laws that affect anything related to a “price, route or service of an air carrier.” The supervisor, James Tucker, filed a whistleblower claim in Miami-Dade Circuit Court in September 2002, a month after he was fired from Hamilton Sundstrand Corp., a division of United Technologies Corp. based in Hartford, Conn. UTC is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to repair aircraft parts for commercial airlines and the military. Tucker, a supervisor in Hamilton Sundstrand’s generator repair division, claimed he was fired in retaliation for complaining to his superiors that the company was violating Federal Aviation Regulations. Tucker alleged that the Miami facility was in danger of being shut down because it did not have proper written procedures for certain repairs and was filling out paperwork on aircraft generators improperly. Because Hamilton’s whistleblower claim related to the “service of an air carrier,” Judge Huck ruled that it should have been filed under federal law. The case had been assigned to Huck after it was removed from state court on a motion filed by Hamilton Sundstrand. “The ADA’s whistleblower protection program provides the exclusive remedy for Tucker’s whistle-blower claim,” Huck wrote. Because Tucker failed to file a claim under the Airline Deregulation Act within 90 days of his termination, his complaint was time-barred because he missed the deadline, Huck ruled. “He’s out of luck,” said Hamilton Sundstrand’s attorney, Joseph Curley, a shareholder at Gunster Yoakley & Stewart in West Palm Beach. “The judge ruled that the Florida Whistleblower Act doesn’t apply when you have a job affecting or relevant to airline safety,” said Curley, who defended the case with co-counsel Gregor Schwinghammer Jr., also a shareholder at Gunster Yoakley. Tucker’s attorney, Christopher Sharp of Fort Lauderdale, did not return calls for comment. Under the federal act’s whistleblower protection program, complaints related to the airline industry must be filed with the U.S. Department of Labor for an administrative investigation. A five-member panel familiar with the industry reviews the claims, issues findings and awards damages. Appeals of the panel’s decisions are filed in federal district court. Established in 2000, the federal act’s whistleblower protection program applies to employees of air carriers or employees of a contractor or subcontractor of an air carrier. Tucker’s attorney argued that the act did not apply to his case because Tucker worked for a private maintenance facility — not an airline carrier, according to court papers. There was no evidence that Tucker’s complaints about his employer’s noncompliance with FAA record-keeping standards had a direct impact on “air service,” Sharp alleged in his brief to the court. But Judge Huck found that Tucker was an employee of a “contractor” that performed maintenance and repairs for air carriers. Therefore, Tucker’s only remedy for his claims was the federal act’s whistleblower protection program, Huck said. Huck also noted that a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Morales v. Trans World Airlines Inc. held that the “related to price, route or service of an air carrier” provision of the federal act should be broadly applied. In Morales, the high court ruled that the act also preempted state laws that were not specifically designed to affect the airline industry, such as state consumer fraud laws. Throughout the proceedings, Hamilton Sundstrand denied Tucker’s allegations that its Miami repair center was out of compliance with FAA standards. Tucker’s supervisors said he was fired because he was repeatedly abusive and aggressive with his co-workers and employees in the company’s center in Rockford, Ill. Hamilton Sundstrand’s Miami repair center was closed in December 2002 for economic reasons.

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