No one will argue against the need to improve cybersecurity. We should limit the vulnerability of critical infrastructure and preserve the confidentiality of military technology, private company trade secrets, and individual medical records.
But there is a significant cost to upgrade IT systems in order to achieve this goal. The federal government will pay more to contractors who can meet heightened cybersecurity standards. If cybersecurity standards are too restrictive, qualified contractors will be driven away from federal contracting. At a minimum, new cybersecurity standards will mean more grounds for bid protests, which are the focus of this post.
First, the background
Executive Order No. 13636 (Feb. 12, 2013) [pdf] called for agencies to publish guidance on mitigating cybersecurity threats in federal procurement. In November 2013, DOD and GSA released a joint report recommending that compliance with an established cybersecurity protocol be a precondition to the award of information and communication technology (“ICT”) contracts. See Improving Cybersecurity and Resilience through Acquisition, Final Report of the Department of Defense and General Services Administration (Nov. 2013) [pdf].
The National Institute for Standards and Technology (“NIST”) released its voluntary framework for improving cybersecurity for critical infrastructure in February 2014. See Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity, Version 1.0 (Feb. 12, 2014) [pdf]. The NIST Framework is a tool for organizations seeking to measure and improve their cybersecurity programs against an ideal. The Framework encourages organizations to improve their cybersecurity programs “when such a change would reduce cybersecurity risk and be cost effective.” Compliance is not yet mandatory, but legislation incentivizing or requiring compliance should be expected.
These are by no means the first cybersecurity standards for federal contractors, but they would broaden and increase existing requirements. As they are implemented, cybersecurity requirements will certainly lead to an increase in pre- and post-award bid protests for ICT contracts. We see them principally in three areas.
Federal Express Corporation was the U.S. Postal Service’s largest contractor in fiscal year 2013. The next largest USPS supplier was EnergyUnited, which provides consolidated telecommunication and energy billing services. Military air mail transportation provider Kalitta Air was third. Six of the Postal Service’s top 10 suppliers served the agency’s transportation needs. The Top 150 USPS supplier list is compiled annually by David P. Hendel, a partner in Husch Blackwell LLP’s Government Contracts practice group who focuses on Postal Service contracting matters.
President Obama signed an Executive Order raising the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors on February 12, 2014. Our earlier entry on the issue discusses how a higher minimum wage will affect current contractors. It looks like more waiting will be required before the true impact will be known.
The Executive Order calls for the Secretary of Labor and the FAR Council to draft regulations and contract provisions implementing the new minimum wage and to publish them later this year. But the Executive Order also includes some useful guidance.
Here are the key takeaways—
Now for some good news in government contracts law. On February 11, 2014, a three-judge panel of the Federal Circuit reversed the Court of Federal Claims decisions in Metcalf Constr. Co. v. United States, 102 Fed. Cl. 334 (2011) (Metcalf I) and Metcalf Constr. Co. v. United States, 107 Fed. Cl. 786 (2012) (Metcalf II). The case has been remanded for further proceedings and application of the correct legal standards. A copy of the Federal Circuit’s decision is available here.
No requirement for proof of specific targeting
The main issue on appeal in Metcalf was the legal standard applicable to contractor claims that the government breached its duty of good faith and fair dealing. The Court of Federal Claims concluded that the decision in Precision Pine & Timber, Inc. v. United States, 596 F.3d 817, 829 (Fed. Cir. 2010) requires proof of specific targeting—that Government actions were “specifically designed to reappropriate the benefits” of a contract. Incompetence and failure to cooperate are not enough.
The Federal Circuit rejects this analysis. “The trial court misread Precision Pine, which does not impose a specific-targeting requirement applicable across the board or in this case.”
The Federal Circuit’s opinion in Metcalf also rejects the Government’s attempt to limit the scope of the duty of good faith and fair dealing. Citing Precision Pine, the Government argued that the duty of good faith and fair dealing “cannot expand a party’s contractual duties beyond those in the express contract or create duties inconsistent with the contract’s provisions.” In its appellate brief, the Government urged a broad application of that language that would almost always preclude a good faith and fair dealing claim. Citing its interpretation, the Government argued that Metcalf’s claim must fail because it could not “identify a contract provision that the Navy’s inspection process violated.”
That argument went nowhere with the Federal Circuit. According to the court’s decision, the Government’s interpretation “goes too far: a breach of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing does not require a violation of an express provision of the contract.”
Submitted by Russell Orban
The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014, Public Law No. 113-76 (Jan. 17, 2014) funds the federal government until September 30, 2014. This legislation followed the groundbreaking Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, Public Law No. 113-67 (Dec. 26, 2013). Together, these laws reflect a significant departure from the recent past. Normally, the budget agreement sets the boundaries for federal government spending in the upcoming fiscal year and the details are then supplied by the Appropriations Committees. The Bipartisan Budget Act set levels for both FY2014 and FY2015—the period from October 1, 2013 to September 30, 2015. This gives Congress a head start on its spending process for FY2015 and will postpone budget-deficit skirmishes until after the next election. Many important things remain undecided, but it is encouraging that Congress has found some common ground.
During the budget process, the House and Senate decide how much the federal government will spend in an upcoming year. Targets are based on Presidential requests and Congressional committees’ advice about agency needs. Allocations are made to each appropriation subcommittee, and Congress has four or five months to agree on how to spend the allotted money. The President’s role in the process comes from his power to veto appropriations bills.
Without a budget, no appropriations guidelines were set and gridlock ensued. Disagreements over spending cuts, raising revenues and allocating money resulted in stalemate, automatic sequestration cuts, and a government shutdown.
Since that time, both sides have worked out a compromise that spends less than the President requested but more than what originally passed. Here are some thoughts on what the two laws do and what they don’t do:
What the Budget Act and the Consolidated Appropriations Act do—
- Prevent another government shutdown. By passing a bill that prescribes spending amounts for the rest of the fiscal year, Congress avoided another shutdown in January.
- Meet budget targets. The Bipartisan Budget Act set a discretionary spending ceiling of $1. 012 trillion for 2014, and the Consolidated Appropriations Act met that goal. This is $191 billion less that the President requested, but it marks the fourth straight year of reduced government spending. That has not happened for over 60 years.
- Set spending levels for two years. The Budget Agreement makes it possible for the Appropriations Committees to get an early start on 2015 spending priorities and (hopefully) work out differences ahead of time. Setting budget targets moves the endless budget deficit debate off center stage.
- Reduce the impact of “sequestration.” Republicans and Democrats agree that sequestration is arbitrary and wasteful. The Budget Agreement reduces sequestration in 2014 and 2015 by $63 billion, postpones portions of those cuts, and finds ways to “pay for” any increased spending. The legislation reflects agencies’ latest priorities with flexibility to make intelligent reductions instead of blind, across-the-board cuts.
As part of the Obama Administration’s push to raise the minimum wage, the President announced during his State of the Union speech that he intends to issue an Executive Order raising the minimum wage for workers on federal contracts to $10.10 per hour. We’ll wait for the Executive Order itself before offering specific guidance on its requirements, but it’s not too early for contractors to begin thinking about how this might impact their business. Here are a few things to consider—
1. The new minimum wage could apply to some current contracts.
The Obama Administration has asserted that the wage increase will apply only to new federal contracts—i.e., those awarded after the effective date of the Order. But the regulations implementing the prevailing wage requirements could mean that the $10.10 minimum will also apply to some current contracts.
The McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act requires contractors and subcontractors performing service contracts to pay their workers not less than the locally prevailing wage or the amount paid by the predecessor contractor under a collective bargaining agreement. The Department of Labor prepares wage determinations establishing the minimum wages and fringe benefits based on surveys of local prevailing wages or existing collectively bargaining agreements.
FAR provisions implementing the Service Contract Act contemplate that the prevailing wages may change during the course of a service contract. Under FAR 22.1007, the contracting officer is required to obtain and incorporate a new wage determination for modifications that extend the term of an existing contract or make a change in the scope of work “whereby labor requirements are affected significantly.” FAR 22.1007(b). A new wage determination is also required on the annual or biennial anniversary date of multi-year service contracts. FAR 22.1007(c). Depending on how the Executive Order implementing the new minimum wage is worded, the wage determination applicable to contract modifications or to multi-year service contracts could require current contractors to pay the new $10.10 minimum wage.
The FAR permits the government to suspend or debar a contractor based solely on its affiliation with another contractor that has been suspended. See FAR 9.406-1(c) & FAR 9.407-1(c). The Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Agility Defense & Government Services v. U.S. Dept. of Defense, No. 13-10757 (11th Cir. Dec. 31, 2013), significantly expands the impact of a suspension due to affiliation. The court held that the initiation of legal proceedings (such as an indictment) permits the indefinite suspension of the contractor’s affiliates, even if the affiliates have not been accused of any wrongdoing. The decision overturned a 2012 Alabama district court decision that was a limitation on suspension due solely to corporate affiliation. We discuss the district court case in an earlier blog post.
Public Warehousing Company was indicted for fraud related to a government contract in November 2009 and was suspended as a result of the indictment. The Defense Logistics Agency then suspended Agility Defense & Government Services and Agility International, Inc., subsidiaries of Public Warehousing. The affiliates submitted written requests for reinstatement because they were not implicated in the indictment. After the agency’s refusal to reinstate them, the affiliates undertook several actions attempting to end their suspension, including a proposed management buyout that would have resulted in Public Warehousing retaining only an indirect 40-percent ownership in one of the affiliates.
As their suspension approached three years, the affiliates filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. The court found in their favor, ending the suspension. The district court reasoned that the applicable regulation limited the automatic suspension to 18 months. In the district court’s view, suspension beyond 18 months required the agency to initiate legal proceedings directed to the affiliates’ involvement. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.
New OFCCP rules amending the nondiscrimination and affirmative action provisions of the Vietnam Era Veterans Readjustment and Assistance Act and Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act are expected to be effective March 24, 2014. OFCCP has published a set of forms that are to be used in implementing the new rules, which are available in this client alert from Husch Blackwell’s OFCCP compliance team.
As we have discussed in several earlier posts, the new rules represent an aggressive move by OFCCP. They impose significant new recordkeeping obligations on federal contractors and subcontractors. They set high placement goals and hiring benchmarks for veterans and individuals with disabilities. They authorize OFCCP to obtain more contractor information during compliance reviews.
One of the key issues with the new rules is that they require federal contractors and subcontractors to ask job applicants and current employees whether they are individuals with disabilities. Such questioning is normally prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Needless to say, there has been a lot of opposition to the new OFCCP rules.
Rochester, New York (1943)
Subcontracting is often the best way to complete a complex project. A subcontractor may have technical expertise, equipment, or human resources that are unavailable to the prime contractor. But assigning work to one or more lower-tier parties carries with it a certain amount of risk. One of the challenges is allocating liability for changes in the scope of work, delays, and other inefficiencies that increase a subcontractor’s cost or time for performance. Today we look at how the allocation of this risk is affected by the Severin doctrine.
The Severin doctrine takes its name from the decision in Severin v. United States, 99 Ct. Cl. 435 (1943). Severin employed a subcontractor on a contract to build a post office in Rochester, New York. As a result of construction delays, Severin sought to recover $702 on behalf of its subcontractor.
The Court of Claims (now the Court of Federal Claims) gave two reasons for rejecting the claim. First, the court held that the subcontractor could not sue on its own because it had no contract directly with the government. The government had waived its sovereign immunity only for its direct contractual agreements.
Second, the court held that Severin could not pursue a claim on the subcontractor’s behalf because Severin itself could not be held liable for the same damages under its subcontract agreement.
A strict application of the Severin doctrine would increase risks for both prime contractors and subcontractors and would hamper the efficient resolution of claims. It would restrict the use of no-damage-for-delay clauses and other risk-shifting clauses that have widely been seen as effective. But in practice, the Severin doctrine has not been strictly enforced.
You’ve heard by now that the Supreme Court’s decision in Atlantic Marine Constr. Co. v. United States District Court, No. 12-929 (U.S. Dec. 3, 2013) is a strong endorsement of a contractor’s right to choose the forum that will resolve disputes with subcontractors. We discuss the Court’s decision in an earlier post.
So you know that you can have a forum selection clause. But Atlantic Marine doesn’t answer the hard question, which is this—
How do you write a forum selection clause that will be reliably and economically enforced—without an expensive trip through the court system, perhaps even all the way to the Supreme Court?
Here are some basic points on drafting a forum selection clause, drawn from some of the dozens of reported court cases addressing them—