Enhanced Department of Defense (“DoD”) debriefings have been heavily utilized in recent years, but there remains uncertainty, and differing interpretations, regarding the point at which an offeror receiving an enhanced debriefing is “on the clock” for purposes of obtaining an automatic stay of performance. In NIKA Techs., Inc. v. United States, No. 20-299C (Fed. Cl. Apr. 16, 2020), the Court of Federal Claims (“COFC”) recently held that, on its facts, the filing period for obtaining an automatic stay did not begin to run until after the two-day window for submitting supplemental questions has passed—even though the offeror submitted no supplemental questions. Potential protesters must understand, however, that NIKA does not provide the safe harbor that some have read in its holding, and it remains essential to understand the agency’s position regarding debriefing closure before planning to protest more than five days after the initial debriefing event.
Timelines Rules for Debriefings
To be timely, protests at the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) must be filed no later than 10 days after the basis for the protest was known or should have been known—unless the protester requests a required debriefing, in which case the protest must be filed within 10 days after the debriefing date. To obtain an automatic stay of performance under the Competition in Contracting Act (“CICA”), however, a protester cannot wait the full 10 days. The protest must be filed within five days after the “debriefing date.”
The debriefing process is slightly more complex for DoD procurements. Section 818 of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2018 established enhanced post-award debriefing rights for protesters, requiring that agencies provide disappointed bidders an opportunity to submit additional questions within two business days after receiving the post-award debriefing. The agency has five days to respond, and the debriefing period is not considered closed until the agency “delivers to a disappointed offeror the written responses” to any supplemental questions. 31 U.S.C. § 3553(d)(4)(B). Thus, to obtain an automatic stay of performance, the protest must be filed within five days after receiving the agency’s response to the supplemental questions.
Calculating Debriefing Date for Enhanced Debriefings
But what happens if an offeror submits no follow-up questions after the initial debriefing? To date, most agencies have taken the position that the debriefing is closed unless the offeror avails itself of the opportunity to submit follow-up questions, triggering the extra time for one more agency response. Thus, contracting officers often advise offerors, as in NIKA, that the agency “will consider the debriefing closed if additional questions are not received within (2) business days.” NIKA, No. 20-299C, at *1. Until recently, protesters have lacked guidance on how to properly interpret the applicable debriefing date when no additional questions are submitted, and in some cases have had to come up with supplemental questions if only for the sake of ensuring the ability to have additional time to prepare their protest and still obtain an automatic stay.
COFC Addresses Timeliness Rules for Enhanced Debriefings
In NIKA, the Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) had provided the offeror a written debriefing on March 4, 2020, and included an option for submitting additional questions within two business days. On March 7, 2020, NIKA informed the Corps that it had no further debriefing questions. NIKA then filed a post-award protest with the GAO on March 10, 2020, seeking an automatic stay of performance. The Corps denied the protester’s request for a stay, claiming the date for a timely filing would have been March 9, 2020 (i.e., five days after the March 4 debriefing date). The protester argued that the “debriefing date” included the two-day window following receipt of the March 4 debriefing letter in which the protester had an opportunity to submit questions, meaning the clock for a CICA stay did not start until March 6.
The court found in favor of the protester’s argument, holding that the debriefing process included the two-day period to submit additional questions. The court explained that, although the language in 31 U.S.C. § 3553 did not expressly define debriefing as including these two extra days, it clearly included the possibility of a debriefing process lasting more than one day. The court further interpreted the agency’s statement that it would “consider the debriefing closed if additional questions are not received within (2) business days” as a commitment to keep the debriefing open through that two-day period—regardless of whether any questions were asked. That may have been the opposite of what the agency actually intended to communicate. In the court’s view, however, the agency’s communications meant that the debriefing closed at the end of a potentially multi-day debriefing process rather than a singular date. Here, the process ended when the protester chose not to submit further questions at the end of the two-day period.
The holding in NIKA should not be viewed as a guarantee that potential protesters will always get the extra two days even if they submit no questions, however. Though the court interpreted the underlying statutes and regulations as providing the additional two-day window, it also implicitly limited its holding by pointing to the language of the agency’s letter, which suggested an open debriefing through the two-day period for questions. NIKA left open the possibility that the two-day extension might not apply if the agency’s communications stated more clearly that the debriefing was considered closed, as of that time, unless further questions were submitted. It also left unanswered whether the court’s holding would apply to an offeror that immediately notifies the agency that it will not submit additional questions, rather than waiting the full two-day period before providing such notification (as NIKA did).
While NIKA provides some insight, it is still important that potential protesters proceed with caution. In any case where an offeror plans to protest and believes the CICA clock is running from a date later than the debriefing itself, the offeror should confirm that understanding with the agency in writing. Without such assurances, and without submitted follow-up questions, an offeror must assume that the clock has started from the end of the debriefing, not the end of the two-day window.