Postal Service Contracting

The U.S. Postal Service spends about $3 billion per year to move the mail by truck and does so under a special type of contract called a Highway Contract Route (HCR) contract. These contracts have unique contract clauses, and even their own lingo. For example, an HCR “amendment” is what the rest of the government contracting world would call a contract “modification.”

One of the biggest differences between HCR contracts and other government contracts is the Changes clause. Under an HCR contract, the contracting officer has limited ability to direct unilateral changes. The CO may only issue a unilateral change, called a “minor service change,” if the price impact would be $5,000 or less. Under a Contract Delivery Service (CDS) contract – a subset of HCR contracts for mailbox deliveries – unilateral changes must be $2,500 or less. Even for these changes, a contractor who disagrees with the CO’s determination may file a claim for additional compensation.

In addition to these monetary thresholds, unilateral changes are further restricted to certain types of changes. The only unilateral changes a CO can direct are an extension, a curtailment, a change in line of travel, a revision of route, and an increase or decrease in frequency of service or number of trips. The CO has no authority to unilaterally direct any other change, even if the price impact would be $5,000 or less. For example, the contracting officer may not unilaterally direct a contractor to change equipment or buy new equipment. Continue Reading The unique Changes clause in Postal Service HCR contracts

Similar to a Termination for Convenience clause, a Termination with Notice clause (often found in U.S. Postal Service contracts) allows a party to end a contract without breaching it. Under the clause, either party may terminate the contract without cost consequences by providing advance written notice – usually 60 days – to the other party. The Postal Service Board of Contract Appeals (PSBCA) addressed the limits that apply to the exercise of this clause in a decision on two closely related cases. Cook Mail Carriers, Inc., PSBCA No. 6583, and Patricia Joy Sasnett, PSBCA No. 6584, issued on March 24, 2017.

Cook and Sasnett each had separate Highway Contract Route contracts to transport mail at designated times between various points in Alabama. In March 2014, the Postal Service made changes to its processing network that affected several contractors, including Cook and Sasnett. While the network changes could have been effected by modifying their contracts, the Contracting Officer (CO) instead exercised the Termination with Notice clause.

When he terminated the contracts, the CO misunderstood the network changes.  He thought the changes were needed because the Gadsden, AL mail processing facility was closing.  In fact, the Gadsden facility was already closed and revised routes were needed because other mail transportation hubs were being relocated.

Propriety of the termination

Cook and Sasnett filed claims asserting the terminations were improper and the case ended up at the Postal Service Board of Contract Appeals (PSBCA). Examining the Termination with Notice clause, the PSBCA noted that while it does not include any express limitations, its use “is not truly unlimited.”  The PSBCA then considered whether the CO’s action was proper under three separate legal principles. Continue Reading Three legal principles that limit the Termination with Notice clause

postalTransportation contractors once again dominate the top spots in our annual list of the Top 150 U.S. Postal Service Suppliers. In fiscal year 2016, USPS spent over $14 billion on outside purchases, about half of that for transportation. As it has since 2002, Federal Express Corporation lands atop the list, this year with $1.678 billion in revenues – about a $300 million increase from last year. FedEx carries package and letter mail for the Postal Service. FedEx’s air cargo network contract with the Postal Service was recently renewed for a five-year period, extending the contract until September 29, 2024. Continue Reading Transportation Contractors Lead List of Top U.S. Postal Service Suppliers

Leslie Arkansas Post Office
The termination of a $34,000 mail delivery contract serving this post office in Leslie, AR could result in three standard clauses being declared unlawful on thousands of USPS transportation contracts.

Three standard clauses used in virtually all Postal Service surface transportation contracts are now on the chopping block. In an interim ruling, the Court of Federal Claims ordered the Postal Service to show why these three clauses should not be declared unlawful and unenforceable. Tabetha Jennings v. U.S., Fed. Cl. No. 14-132C, May 29, 2016.

The case involves the default termination of a $34,000 contract to provide mail delivery between Leslie and Timbo, Arkansas. Tabetha Jennings, the sole proprietor contractor, had provided service for seven years without any issues. Then, during a heavy volume Christmas season, a postmaster accused her of using a vehicle with insufficient capacity. The postmaster was wrong, but this charge led to other accusations. Eventually, the postmaster accused Jennings of conducting herself “in an unprofessional manner” and disrupting mail processing operations. These accusations, in turn, led the contracting officer to rescind Jennings’s security clearance and her access to postal premises and the mail.

Jennings disputed the accusations against her and presented statements from a different postmaster and from another contractor that backed her up. But the contracting officer was unmoved and did not lift the suspension of her security clearance. When Jennings failed to provide a substitute carrier to continue the service she had been barred from performing herself, the contracting officer terminated her contract for default. Continue Reading Court orders Postal Service to justify lawfulness of three standard clauses

Top 150 first page FY 2015Transportation and technology companies dominate the top 10 spots on the list of the Top U.S. Postal Service Suppliers for FY 2015.  Federal Express Corporation again tops the list, a position it has held since 2002. Overall, the Postal Service spent $12.5 billion on outside purchases, about half of it on transportation.

FedEx, now in the third year of a seven-year air cargo network contract, received nearly $1.4 billion in revenue, a 3 percent drop from last year. Package giant United Parcel Service is also among the agency’s top suppliers, earning $154 million in postal revenues and moving up from No. 12 to No. 11.

Other transportation-related companies in the top 10 include trucking company Salmon Companies, Inc. (No. 4, $229 million); Victory Packaging, logistics and distribution services provider for ReadyPost and other packaging supplies programs (No. 5, $212 million); commercial airline United Airlines, Inc. (No. 6, $197 million); and auto-parts supplier Wheeler Bros., Inc. (No. 9, $175 million). Not far behind are trucking company Eagle Express Lines, Inc., No. 12 ($140 million); cargo airline Kalitta Air, LLC, No. 15 ($97 million); and commercial airline Delta Air Lines, Inc., No. 16 ($93 million).

Technology-related companies on the list start with EnergyUnited Electric Membership Corporation, which provides telecommunication and energy billing services. EnergyUnited is again the Postal Service’s second-largest supplier with $440 million in revenue, most of which is paid out to other companies. At No. 3 is Honeywell International, Inc., which received $273 million under its contract to provide 225,000 Mobile Delivery Devices (MDD). Letter carriers use the MDD to scan mail and packages.

HP Enterprise Services, LLC, a provider of computer equipment, ranks No. 7 with $192 million in revenue, about $20 million more than last year. Accenture Federal Services, which provides enterprise technology and consulting services to the agency, is ranked No. 8 with $188 million. International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) and AT&T Corporation again placed in the Top 20. EMC Corporation, which recently won a Postal Service contract to provide information storage and management services, has already cracked the Top 20 with $81 million in postal revenue.

Rounding out the Top 10 with $159 million in revenue is Northrop Grumman Corporation, which operates the Postal Service’s central repair facility in Topeka, Kansas.

David Hendel, a partner at Husch Blackwell, has compiled annual lists of the top Postal Service contractors since 2002, including these lists from 2010 – 2014.

An agency must use-it or lose-it under a fixed-priced contract.  When an agency makes it impossible to receive a contractor’s service under a fixed-priced contract, it must still pay the full contract price. So long as the contractor is willing to live up to its end of the bargain, the contractor is entitled to payment regardless of whether it provided any service. And the agency’s failure to tender work does not itself serve as a constructive termination, so the contract remains in effect until actually terminated.

Those are the lessons of Olbeter Enterprises, Inc., PSBCA No. 6543, January 12, 2016, involving a point-to-point mail transportation contract. During the course of the contract, the Postal Service closed one of its facilities, making it impossible for Olbeter to provide the contracted service. The Postal Service, however, did not issue a termination notice or contract modification. Instead, it allowed the contract to remain in force and continued to make full payment, occasionally ordering other work for which Olbeter was paid separately.

Nine months after the facility closure, the parties agreed to a convenience termination. Later, the Postal Service decided that the payments it had made during the nine-month closure period were over-payments. The Postal Service recovered those amounts by withholding payments under a different contract. Olbeter appealed the withholdings to the Postal Service Board of Contract Appeals.

At the PSBCA, the Postal Service contended that Olbeter knew the facility had been closed, that this made performance impossible, and that the Postal Service intended to terminate the contract. The Postal Service thus argued that the facility closure itself served to constructively terminate the contract. The Board disagreed. Whatever the Postal Service’s intentions may have been, and regardless of Olbeter’s knowledge of those intentions, the agency had not taken action to terminate the contract. In addition, the parties had agreed to a termination nine months after the facility closed and the Board would not supplant that agreement with a constructive retroactive termination.

The Postal Service next contended that it had breached the contract itself by not tendering any mail. Since it had breached the contract, the Postal Service argued, Olbeter was limited to recovering its expectancy damages, which were much less than nine months of payments. The Board rejected this argument, holding that the agency’s failure to tender mail was not a breach.

Finally, the Postal Service contended that allowing Olbeter to retain nine months of payments for service it did not perform would unjustly enrich Olbeter or constitute a windfall. The Board denied this argument as well, noting that unjust enrichment is an equitable doctrine that applies when parties do not have an express contract, and here an express contract existed. That contract simply did not provide the Postal Service a mechanism to withhold payment for service that the agency had made impossible to perform.  Olbeter was thus entitled to retain the payments it had received for the nine-month closure period.

The principle underlying the Olbeter decision would apply equally to any fixed-priced contract where the government made performance impossible or waived its right to receive performance. If the contract does not have a clause that directly addresses such events, and if no contemporaneous action is taken to terminate it, the agency remains obligated to pay the full contract price.

HCR Seminar Postal Contracting Brochure 2016_3Unpaid for work you performed on your HCR contract?  Can’t agree with the Postal Service on a contract price adjustment?  Not given a chance to bid on new work in your area?

Learn about remedies for these problems at our new seminar, “Claims and Disagreements under Postal Service HCR contracts.”  Husch Blackwell partner David Hendel will present the seminar on January 19, 2016, at 9:00 – 10:30 a.m., at the Golden Nugget Hotel in Last Vegas, NV.

The seminar focuses on two areas where HCR contractors have substantial rights and remedies. First, we examine the claims process, which gives contractors the right to recover funds for various Postal Service actions – or inactions. We describe the activities that potentially generate claims, how to prepare a claim, when to bring a claim, and how claims are processed and resolved. We review actual claims that arose from service changes and describe how courts have ruled on them. We also provide a list of do’s and don’ts when preparing and submitting claims.

Second, we describe the “disagreement” process, which allows contractors to protest a Postal Service procurement action or award decision. We explain the grounds for bringing a disagreement, deadlines and filing requirements, and decisions by the USPS Supplier Disagreement Resolution Officer (SDRO).

The seminar is presented in conjunction with the Central/Western Area regional meeting of the National Star Route Mail Contractors Association. Separate registration is required. For Star Route Association members, the seminar fee is $195; for non-members, $295.  A $50 discount applies to each additional person who attends from the same company. Those wishing to register may go to https://www.regonline.com/hcr  or contact seminar coordinator Shana Hoy at  816.983.8809 at shana.hoy@huschblackwell.com.

PSBCA sealThe first Board of Contract Appeals to fully enter the digital age is the Postal Service Board of Contract Appeals, which recently issued new rules on electronic filing.  Although the PSBCA hears claims against the agency that provides U.S. Mail, that method of filing will no longer be allowed (absent permission). The Postal Service, however, is not a Luddite agency and has embraced modern technology in running its business.

Effective July 2, 2015, PSBCA filings must be made electronically unless permission to submit physical filings is requested and obtained. The website for electronic filing is https://uspsjoe.justware.com/JusticeWeb.  Online filers must use this exact web address. Omitting the initial “https://” – or the final “justiceweb” – results in an error message.  To assist users, the Board has created a PSBCA tutorial on electronic filing. Continue Reading U.S. Postal Service board enters the digital age

Top U.S. Postal Service Suppliers for Fiscal Year 2014

As it did last year and each of the previous eleven, Federal Express Corporation topped the list of the U.S. Postal Service’s largest suppliers in Fiscal Year 2014. EnergyUnited, which provides consolidated telecommunications and energy billing services to the Postal Service, once again held the second spot.

The list of the top five USPS suppliers in FY 2014 also includes mail hauler Pat Salmon & Sons, Inc., Victory Packaging, and transportation supplier Kalitta Air, LLC.

The top ten USPS suppliers in FY 2014 includes United Airlines, Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Accenture Federal Services, Wheeler Bros., Inc., and Northrop Grumman Corporation.

The full list of the Top 150 USPS Suppliers is compiled every year by David P. Hendel, a partner in Husch Blackwell’s Government Contracts Practice Group. David focuses his practice on representing contractors that do business with the United States Postal Service.

All of the recent Top 150 USPS Suppliers lists are available here:

 

OIG report - Jan 25 2015 - cover snippetEver since the Postal Service “defaulted” on its annual $5.5 billion payment to the U.S. Treasury for retiree pre-funding obligations, it has been assumed that USPS is a pauper agency. But a new white paper issued by the USPS Office of Inspector General concludes that the value of the Postal Service’s real estate holdings, and other factors, far outweigh its retiree obligations.

The OIG estimated the Postal Service’s total retiree healthcare and pension liabilities at $403.8 billion. That’s a lot of stamps, but the Postal Service has already set aside $356.6 billion (83 percent) of this amount, leaving an unfunded liability of $86.6 billion.  The OIG concluded that when this $86.6 billion is considered in conjunction with four factors, the agency’s assets would fully cover these obligations, and then some.

The Postal Service’s real estate holdings is the most important factor. The Postal Service values its real estate assets at book value, which is $13.2 billion. But book value considers only the original purchase price and depreciation, not what these assets would actually sell for. The OIG estimates the fair market value of these assets as high as $85 billion. That figure would offset all but $1.6 billion of the Postal Service’s unfunded liability.

The next factor is the impact of interest rates. Over the past few years, interest rates have been at historically low levels, and this may have skewed current day assumptions about USPS’s long-term liability. Changes in interest rates have a dramatic effect. The OIG cites to a study that found even a modest 1.25 percent increase in the current interest rate would reduce unfunded liabilities by $72.3 billion.

Requiring postal retirees to use Medicare as their primary health insurer, backed up by their postal health care plans, would further reduce the Postal Service’s retiree healthcare liability by $42.9 billion. This would require a change in the law, but various postal reform bills have already proposed this change.

Demographics is the fourth factor considered by the OIG. The Postal Service’s unfunded obligation is based on demographics associated with federal employees. But the demographics of the average postal worker is significantly different than the average federal employee. Applying postal specific demographics would reduce unfunded liability by $8.5 billion.

Taking into account all of these factors, the OIG concludes that the Postal Service has more than enough assets to cover its future obligations to retirees. Lawmakers, take note!

UPDATE (February 25, 2015):  USPS Chief Financial Officer Joe Corbett does not agree that the value of USPS assets could be as high as $85 million. During his presentation at a meeting of the Association for Postal Commerce (Postcom), he stated this estimate fails to take into account that many facilities were built specifically to suit USPS needs and would not ideally suit other businesses or operations. Corbett estimated the Postal Service’s real estate holdings to be worth about $25 billion.