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Does the mere existence of a deadly epidemic entitle a contractor to monetary relief when it experiences cost increases stemming from that epidemic? Not without Government direction, ruled the Federal Circuit in affirming a decision of the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals (“CBCA”) in Pernix Serka JV.
The facts of Pernix Serka are striking: a contractor repeatedly requests guidance for dealing with a major health crisis, the Government refuses to provide guidance, and the contractor is unable to recoup the additional costs it incurs in order to proceed with performance because the Government provided no guidance.
This timely ruling sheds light on strategies contractors should consider for recouping costs stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. We provide a roadmap below for navigating these issues in light of Pernix Serka JV.
The 2014 Ebola Crisis
Pernix Serka was in the midst of performing a contract in Sierra Leone when a deadly Ebola outbreak struck the country in 2014. Pernix Serka diligently sought guidance from the Contracting Officer on its State Department (“DOS”) contract, but the Government refused to weigh in on whether it should temporarily shut down its work on the contract. Ultimately, Pernix Serka decided to temporarily withdraw its personnel, which the Government then characterized as Pernix Serka’s “unilateral” decision. When Pernix Serka sought advice on whether and when to resume work, the Government went so far as to say that “DOS will not provide any instructions or directions” regarding whether and when to return to the work site. The contractor ultimately decided to resume performance, but incurred additional costs when it decided to contract for medical facilities and services on the project site.
We are thrilled to share that Stephanie Harden—a long-time and integral member of our practice group—has been elected to the partnership. For those who haven’t had the chance to connect or work with Stephanie—which we highly recommend!—we wanted to share the highlights of our virtual chat with Stephanie (edited for the blog) to help everyone get to know her better.
First of all, congratulations on your promotion! This is obviously the culmination of many years practicing in the field—but how did you first get interested in government contracts law?
Thank you! I’m very excited about this milestone and helping our clients succeed in my new role.
I spent one of my law school summers at GAO’s Office of General Counsel, where I was first exposed to bid protest litigation. I loved the fast-paced nature of bid protests and was interested in learning more about the field. After law school, I clerked for Judge Victor Wolski on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, where I learned about a host of government contracts issues and really solidified my interest in government contracts law. Being able to observe and learn from the Judge and the advocates practicing before the Court (both from the Justice Department and private bar) gave me a strong foundation for success.
A top-of-mind issue for contractors right now is whether Section 3610 of the CARES Act will expire on September 30, as it is currently set to do. As discussed here and here, Section 3610 authorizes reimbursement of certain contractors who are unable to access their work sites and unable to telework during the pandemic—a critical stopgap designed to keep contractor workforces in a “ready state.”
On September 22, the House of Representatives passed a Continuing Resolution that would fund the government through December 11, 2020, and included in the Continuing Resolution an extension of Section 3610 through that same date. Whether the Senate will approve the Continuing Resolution remains to be seen, but we are cautiously optimistic that Section 3610 will be extended in light of the House’s support.
Of course, as we previously discussed here, there are other potential bases of recovery for contractors beyond Section 3610. However, each basis comes with its own set of limitations, and, thus, the sweeping relief provided through Section 3610 remains critically important. Section 3610, in turn, comes with its own limitations—including that there is no dedicated funding behind it, it is discretionary, it only provides relief for a subset of costs stemming from the pandemic, and, even if extended, it will remain a temporary measure.
We will continue to monitor this important topic and provide updates as they occur.
In a September 1, 2020, ruling, the Federal Circuit addressed the reasonableness of subcontractor costs stemming from a government-caused delay under KBR’s LOGCAP contract in Iraq. This decision is important for contractors across all industries given the expected flood of COVID-19-related claims involving government-caused delays and/or idle time. The decision provides new guidance on what contractors must show to demonstrate the reasonableness of subcontractor costs.
The case involved a KBR subcontract to First Kuwaiti Co. of Kuwait (“First Kuwaiti”) to transport trailers into Iraq. The dissent (Judge Newman) explains the operational significance of expeditiously delivering these trailers: soldiers were sleeping in “abandoned schools, . . . tents, vehicles, the ground, or any other place soldiers could put a sleeping bag.” The Army tasked KBR with delivering more than 18,000 trailers to multiple locations in Iraq by Christmas 2003, a deadline which was important for both morale and tactical reasons. KBR, in turn, subcontracted to First Kuwaiti. Continue reading “KBR Subcontractor’s “Delay” Costs Rejected as Unreasonable by Federal Circuit, No Remand to Cure Defects”
The financial relief offered to contractors under Section 3610 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”) is limited to contractors who: 1) cannot perform work at their approved sites due to site closures, and 2) cannot telework. For contractors that do not meet these two conditions, the traditional Request for Equitable Adjustment (“REA”) and claims processes are still available and may permit recovery of some cost increases due to COVID-19.
Below we provide a brief refresher of key considerations for contractors considering COVID-related REAs or claims. Of course, the particular facts and terms of each contract will ultimately determine whether cost increases are recoverable.
What Types of Costs May Be Recovered?
Costs stemming from COVID-19 may be recoverable under several Federal Acquisition Regulation (“FAR”) clauses:
The Changes Clause (g., FAR 52.243-1): A wide array of costs may fall under the Changes clause, such as costs stemming from government direction to alter or stagger work hours, provide additional personnel, use more costly procedures, use procedures requiring additional training for personnel, provide personal protective equipment, or perform additional cleanings. A recent Department of Defense Memorandum is instructive as to how such costs are likely to be viewed, advising that contracting officers should consider whether such costs are “reasonable to protect the health and safety of contract employees as part of the performance of the contract.”
The Stop Work Order Clause (FAR 52.242-15): Costs stemming from the government’s direction to stop work will generally be recoverable under this clause. As discussed in our previous blog post, this may include the cost of “idle time” where employees are unable to access work sites, potentially providing some relief to contractors who are not covered by Section 3610 of the CARES Act. Arguably, this clause should cover situations in which employees cannot work due to government-required quarantine procedures or government-caused delays, even if the work site is technically open—though this remains an open issue.
The Government Delay of Work Clause (FAR 52.242-17): Where the government causes a delay, the costs stemming from such a delay, such as increased material costs, may be recoverable under this clause.
Notably, while the Excusable Delays clause (e.g., FAR 52.249-14) excuses a contractor’s failure to perform for reasons including “epidemics” and “quarantine restrictions,” this clause does not provide financial relief, but rather, provides a basis for excusing what might otherwise give rise to a termination for default.
What Is the Difference between an Equitable Adjustment and a Claim?
A claim is a formal written demand subject to the detailed procedures set forth in the Contract Disputes Act (“CDA”). Once a claim is made, the Contracting Officer must issue a final decision within 60 days (or, for claims over $100,000, provide a firm date by which a final decision will be issued), which may be appealed to the Boards of Contract Appeals or the Court of Federal Claims. Claims must include a “sum certain”—i.e., the amount of damages being claimed—and claims of $100,000 or more must be certified by the contractor as current and accurate.
An REA is generally considered less adversarial than a claim and is not subject to a formal disputes process. There is no set timeline for resolution of an REA; however, if an REA is not resolved satisfactorily, it can be converted into a claim.
In the context of COVID-related costs, there are advantages and disadvantages of both options. The less formal REA process provides agencies more leeway as they work to coordinate internally on how to address costs relating to COVID-19, which may ultimately be to the benefit of contractors. However, the claims process puts the government “on the clock” and, thus, may result in a faster response. Note that contractors are entitled to interest that accrues while a claim is pending, but not while an REA is pending. As for legal costs, they are allowable when incurred to support an REA, but are unallowable when incurred in support of a claim.
Whether a contractor ultimately submits a request for equitable adjustment or claim, it must notify its Contracting Officer of the delay, disruption, or right to an adjustment, with different deadlines depending upon which clause applies. For example:
FAR 52.242-15 (Stop Work Order Clause) requires contractors to assert their right to an adjustment within 30 days after the end of the period of work stoppage;
FAR 52.242-17 (Government Delay of Work) requires contractors to notify the Contracting Officer within 20 days of the act or failure to act giving rise to the delay; the contractor must also assert the amount of the claim in writing as soon as practicable after the termination of the delay or interruption, but not later than the day of final payment under the contract; and,
FAR 52.243-1 (Changes) requires the contractor to assert its right to an adjustment within 30 days from the date of receipt of a written change order. There is an exception “if the Contracting Officer decides that the facts justify it,” where the request is made before final payment of the contract.
Claims are also subject to a six-year statute of limitations.
Coronavirus COVID-19 is rapidly disrupting the performance of federal government contracts across all sectors, leaving contractors and subcontractors with more questions than answers on how to structure their operations. In the following Q&A, we address some of the top issues contractors are currently facing.
The Government has closed my work site, precluding my employees from performing their work. If I continue to pay the employees, can I recover those costs?
If your employees cannot perform their work because the work site is closed (and telework is not an option due to the nature of the work), this may be construed as an actual or constructive stop work order. As with a government shutdown, contractors facing this scenario may be entitled to an equitable adjustment to account for idle employee time because they are expected to be ready to perform as soon as the Government reopens facilities.
A March 20 Memorandum from Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management Margaret Weichert (“Weichert Memorandum”) confirms that equitable adjustments may be appropriate if the requested costs are reasonable. Specifically, the Weichert Memorandum advises that such requests “should be considered on a case-by-case basis” and that agencies may consider such factors as “whether it is beneficial to keep skilled professionals or key personnel in a mobile ready state for activities the agency deems critical to national security or other high priorities (e.g., national security professionals, skilled scientists).” Continue reading “COVID-19 Disruptions and Work Stoppages: A Q&A for Federal Contractors”
As government contractors know well, a robust compliance program can be critical—both in preventing, detecting, and resolving compliance problems and in working with agencies and/or the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to resolve compliance issues when they arise. Though DOJ has previously issued guidance on how it evaluates corporate compliance programs, on April 30, 2019, it greatly expanded upon its earlier guidance with a lengthy new guidance document. The document is notable for its emphasis not just on the design of compliance programs, but also on their effectiveness in practice. The document is a useful benchmark for contractors to evaluate their compliance programs, as well as to demonstrate their affirmative responsibility to agencies when facing agency-level investigations.
The guidance document focuses on three central questions:
Is the corporation’s compliance program well designed?
Is the corporation’s compliance program implemented effectively?
Does the compliance program actually work in practice?
The following outline provides a summary of the various factors DOJ discusses in connection with each of these questions—and more information on each topic can be found here.
The Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) bombshell statement last month that it would seek dismissal of the Gilead False Claims Act (“FCA”) suit—a qui tam suit alleging misrepresentations and concealments regarding active ingredient sources and quality for HIV medications—surprised many in the government contracts community. Though DOJ had signaled earlier last year in the so-called “Granston memo” that it may seek dismissal of certain FCA cases, the fact that DOJ sought to do so while a case was on appeal to the Supreme Court—and without consulting relators—was unexpected. Continue reading “Breaking Camp(ie): Supreme Court Sends Gilead FCA Case Back for Likely Dismissal, Postponing Escobar’s Return”
Hurricane Harvey’s damage to Texas and other areas is virtually unprecedented and is already estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars. And Hurricane Irma, hurtling towards Florida, could likewise cause catastrophic damage. Though every disaster presents unique recovery challenges, a common theme in disaster relief efforts is the key role of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (“FEMA”) and a federal law known as the Stafford Act. Contractors eager to assist with relief and rebuilding efforts should pay close attention to the legal landscape underpinning the public funding behind disaster relief efforts, particularly given the scrutiny these efforts will receive in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Continue reading “Disaster Relief Contracting: How to Avoid the Pitfalls”