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Ameti ex rel. United States v. Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

June 19, 2017

PELLUMB AMETI, ex rel. UNITED STATES, Plaintiff,
v.
SIKORSKY AIRCRAFT CORP., UNITED TECHNOLOGIES CORP., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION ON MOTION TO DISMISS AMENDED FALSE CLAIMS ACT COMPLAINT [DKT. 53]

          Hon. Vanessa L. Bryant United States District Judge.

         Before the Court is Defendant Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation's (“Sikorsky”) Motion to Dismiss the Amended False Claims Act (“FCA”) Complaint. Discovery has been stayed pending the outcome of this motion. Plaintiff Pellumb Ameti (“Ameti” or “Plaintiff”) was fired by his employer, Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation (“Sikorsky”) in February 2014. Upon his termination, he filed two cases that have since been consolidated: (1) an FCA action and its related retaliation claims; and (2) an employment discrimination and unfair practices action. Defendant seeks to dismiss only the FCA action, which alleges violations of the FCA, 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1)(A)-(C); retaliation in violation of 31 U.S.C. § 3730(h); and retaliation for exercising free speech in violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-51q. For the following reasons, the Court DISMISSES these claims.

         BACKGROUND

         I. Procedural Posture

         Ameti filed this FCA action and its related claims on August 22, 2014. See [Dkt. 1 (Compl.)]. On March 28, 2016, the United States notified the Court of its decision not to intervene in this action. See [Dkt. 14 (Notice of Declination to Intervene)]. On June 20, 2016, the Court consolidated this action with Ameti v. Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., case no. 15-cv-235 (VLB) (D. Conn.), which raises allegations of employment discrimination and unfair employment practices.[1]

         A month later, Sikorsky filed a Motion to Dismiss as well as a Motion to Stay Discovery pending resolution of the Motion to Dismiss. See [Dkts. 39 (Mot. Dismiss), 40 (Mot. Stay)]. On September 15, 2016, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2), which eliminated any reference to Defendant United Technologies Corporation (“UTC”). See [Dkt. 51 (Am. Compl.)].[2]Defendant Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation (“Sikorsky”) then filed the instant Motion to Dismiss on September 29, 2016. See [Dkt. 53-1 (Am. Mot. Dismiss)]. The Court referred the pending Motion to Stay to Magistrate Judge Robert A. Richardson, who granted the motion on November 28, 2016. See Dkt. 61 (Order to Stay)]. The Court now addresses the Motion to Dismiss the Amended False Claims Act Complaint.

         II. Facts

         Sikorsky is a leading defense contractor that designs and manufactures helicopters for use by all five branches of the United States armed forces, military services, and commercial operators in 40 nations. [Dkt. 51 ¶¶ 8-9]. In 2008, Ameti was hired as a Staff Engineer in the Blades Engineering Department at Sikorsky's Stratford, CT plant. Id. ¶ 10. He was transferred in November 2008 to the 53K group to work on the 53K main blade composite spar project overseen by Frank Caputo, 53K Group Lead. Id. ¶¶ 18-21. The project was completed in 2010. Id. ¶ 22. Thereafter Ameti was assigned to other projects behind schedule within the 53K group. Id. ¶ 23.

         Around March 2012, Caputo became Design Group Lead and Richard Lay took over Caputo's position as 53K Group Leader. Id. ¶¶ 24-25. Ameti requested a transfer to a different group within Sikorsky, because he believed Caputo engaged in unfair and harassing behavior towards him in the past, and Lay transferred him from the design engineering group to the manufacturing engineering group led by Corey Jones, Manufacturing Engineering Group Lead. Id. ¶¶26-27. Kneil Northrop, Integrated Product Team (“ITP”) Lead, became his immediate supervisor. Id. ¶ 28.

         A. Plaintiff's Allegations of Defective Root End Fairing Parts

         Root end fairings are fiberglass details bonded onto the leading edge of helicopter blades to protect the blades' electrical connections from water intrusion. Id. ¶¶ 31-32. As the Contractor, Sikorsky subcontracted with GKN Aerospace, Inc. (“GKN”), whereby Sikorsky supplied tooling and designs to GKN and GKN in turn produced the root end fairings. Id. ¶ 34. While working as a manufacturing engineer, Ameti came to believe the root end fairings produced by GKN were defective “(i) because they did not meet drawing requirements; (ii) their laminate quality was poor; and (iii) there were multiple defects and an incorrect trim line.” Id. ¶ 35.

         In the Amended Complaint, Ameti provides instances dating from May 2013 to January 2014 in which he notified others about his belief that the root end fairings were defective. See Id. ¶¶ 36-40. For example, throughout this time period Ameti (1) emailed “multiple high-ranking Sikorsky employees” about “discuss[ing] a way to improve the defective GKN parts;” (2) he “informed” various Sikorsky managers, including his own, about particular defects pertaining to the fairings; and (3) he “informed” GKN of the same. Id. ¶¶ 36-37, 41-42. GKN agreed the fairings it supplied to Sikorsky was substandard, but stated the reason was because Sikorsky itself supplied old and substandard tooling to GKN. Id. ¶ 41. GKN recommended to Ameti that Sikorsky stop purchasing the defective parts and purchase fairings from another supplier. Id. ¶ 42. In response to Ameti's investigation, GKN requested $4, 000 to improve its tooling but never received the funds from Sikorsky. Id. ¶ 46. Purchasing Manager, Maria Spencer, explained to Ameti that Sikorsky had a multi-year contract with GKN and its parts cost significantly less than other suppliers. Id. ¶ 45.

         In addition to Ameti's allegations that Sikorsky supplied GKN “poor tooling, ” he avers the engineering drawings were “not up to date.” Id. ¶ 47. Ameti filed several “turn-backs”-“written description[s] of a procedure failure”-in response to the outdated drawings. Id. ¶¶ 51-52. On January 24, 2014, Tim Conti, a design engineer who had been assigned to correct drawing errors and release them to the manufacturing floor, spoke to Ameti and “implied that by filing a turn-back against his group, Plaintiff put his job in danger.” Id. ¶¶ 48, 55. Jones, “while knowing of the defects about the fairings and [Ameti's] complaints about the defects, emailed a request that Ameti release defective parts from GKN that were set aside as defective so the parts could be used in production. Id. ¶ 58.

         Ameti alleges that Sikorsky used GKN defective parts and certified the blades met drawing requirements “while knowing that these parts were not meeting drawing requirements and as such were defective.” Id. ¶ 61. “Sikorsky falsely certified that the blades met drawing requirements and passed all quality inspections, both in-process and final inspection.” Id. ¶ 65. “Upon information and belief, Sikorsky is still using the defective fairings on its blades.” Id. ¶ 66. These defective blades were manufactured on Sikorsky helicopters, which were then sold to all five branches of the United States military. Id. ¶ 67.

         B. Plaintiff's Allegations of Core Crush Issues

         In “mid-2013” Ameti and “other members of his group” also noticed the blades were being damaged by what is known as a “core crush.” Id. ¶ 74. A core crush occurs when older tooling causes the blade to be improperly designed with respect to impact damage protection, and the blade is then crushed either during manufacturing when secondary parts are added or during the transportation between manufacturing units. Id. ¶ 76. Solumina is a Sikorsky system that can provide a list of damaged blades where a core crush is the defect. Id. ¶ 68. The query can provide the blade serial number and discrepancy report number, upon which it can then be determined which employee wrote the process plan and performed the repairs and which inspector approved the repairs. Id. From January 27, 2012, until February 6, 2014, approximately 39 discrepancy reports were filed in Solumina. Id. ¶ 73.

         Ameti noticed the core crush defects and submitted multiple “turn-backs” describing the core crush issue. See Id. ¶¶ 80, 82-83. Ameti alleges that, rather than following process plans to properly repair damaged blades, “lead men” were “cutting corners to reduce time and lower the cost of repairs” by using “scrap skin” to bond the patch over the crushed core and thereby conceal it. Id. ¶ 84.

         Sikorsky's Quality Assurance Department falsely certified that the blades met drawing requirements to satisfy the daily shipping requirements for the blades and to pass inspections. Id. ¶ 86. Sikorsky failed to follow proper procedure and cosmetically bonded over the crushed core. Id. ¶ 89. Sikorsky improperly repaired numerous blades for Black Hawk and Navy Hawk helicopters, which it sold to all five branches of the United States military. Id. ¶ 90. Sikorsky then billed the Government for the total job while using scrap skin as a patch and not following the bond control drawings. Id. ¶ 92. Ameti raised his concern with his supervisor and conducted a self-initiated “internal investigation” in January 2014, determining approximately 15 core crushes occurred per month; he sent this information to his supervisor, CC'ing others, on February 18, 2014. Id. ¶ 97.

         After concluding his investigation, Ameti wrote a Report that stated the defects “were directly linked (1) to a specific tool on the Sikorsky manufacturing floor or (2) transportation dollies used by Sikorsky.” Id. ¶ 102. Ameti circulated the Report to multiple managers including his own. See Id. ¶ 101-02. He then contacted outside tooling experts to obtain price quotes for different methods and conducted a cost-benefit analysis, concluding Sikorsky should invest in different tooling, “which would increase Sikorsky's profits in the future.” Id. ¶ 105. Upon circulating this analysis to his supervisor, Ameti was told that “his group didn't have the financial support for new tools” but that he should enter the information in the Sikorsky's Cost Management System, designed as a cost cutting initiative. Id. ¶ 106.

         On February 27, 2014, Ameti was escorted to Human Resources and unexpectedly terminated the next day. Id. ¶¶ 11, 116. Ameti alleges he was wrongfully terminated for reporting defective products. Id. ¶118. He further contends, “Sikorsky is obligated to provide safe, reliable, and quality tested products which perform to their specifications to the Government.” Id. ¶ 120. “By delivering and receiving payment for Black Hawk and Navy Hawk helicopters with defective parts, Sikorsky is impliedly certifying compliance with the terms of its contract with the Government for the products and implying that the product met Government standards and were safe and reliable.” Id. ¶ 121. Ameti believes he “attempted to prevent Sikorsky from continuing to submit false claims to the government by reporting its fraudulent misconduct to his superiors but Sikorsky took no steps to stop or remedy the fraud.” Id. ¶ 122.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         I. Moti ...


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