"good faith and fair dealing"

In Joe Tex’s song about unrequited love, the Southern Soul singer belts out, “I gotcha, never shoulda promised to me.” Joe Tex may have thought this approach is the right one for romantic disappointment, but parties to a contract have a different set of obligations.

A lawsuit by Washington State contractor Nova Contracting should serve as an alert to owners dealing with the assessment of a contractor’s performance. Nova’s lawsuit came about because of the owner’s termination of the contract. Nova claimed the owner was using a “gotcha” review process for its submittals that was designed to prevent performance. The trial court agreed with the owner.

Culvert_with_a_dropNova appealed and the court of appeals found sufficient questions of fact to send the dispute back to the trial court. The opinion offers insight into fair dealing and good faith in the performance of construction contracts. Nova Contracting, Inc. v. City of Olympia, No. 48644-0-II (Wash Ct. App. Apr. 18, 2017). Continue Reading Good faith and fair dealing puts an end to the “gotcha” in submittal review

Every government contract contains implied duties, such as the duty to cooperate and the duty of good faith and fair dealing. Such implied duties generally prohibit one party from interfering with the other’s performance or taking actions that undermine the other’s expected benefit of the bargain.

Implied duties offer important protections when an issue is not clearly addressed in the text of the agreement. But courts have been reluctant to apply them in a way that overrides express contract language. A party generally does not breach the duty of good faith and fair dealing, for example, simply by exercising a right that is expressly provided in the contract.

But the government does not have carte blanche. Even if there is express language that gives the government a certain right, the government cannot exercise that right unreasonably or in a way that interferes with the contractor’s performance. In Agility Public Warehousing Company KSCP v. Mattis, No. 2016-1265 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 4, 2017), for example, the Federal Circuit explained that the government can breach the duty of good faith and fair dealing even if its conduct is otherwise consistent with the express terms of a contract.

Airmen serve dinner in the field in a mobile kitchen trailer during Global Medic 13 on Fort McCoy, Wis., July 16, 2013. The food service specialists are assigned to the 940th Force Support Squadron, Beale Air Force Base, Calif.
Source: DOD Image Library

Continue Reading Can the government contract around the duty of good faith and fair dealing?

The contractor’s duty to proceed with performance pending the resolution of disputes is a basic concept in the law of government contracts. It is laid out explicitly in FAR 52.233-1(i), the mandatory disputes clause that appears in nearly all federal contracts: “The Contractor shall proceed diligently with performance of this contract, pending final resolution of any request for relief, claim, appeal, or action arising under the contract, and comply with any decision of the Contracting Officer.”

But the duty to proceed has important limits. A contractor is excused from its duty to proceed and may stop work if the government materially breaches its own obligations under the contract.

Breaches occur in many contexts. A cardinal change in the scope of work is a breach that excuses a contractor’s performance. Terminating a contract just to get a lower price is a breach. Refusing to pay for a contractor’s work without an adequate excuse is also a breach.

According to the decision in Kiewit-Turner v. Dep’t of Veteran Affairs, CBCA No. 3450 (Dec. 9, 2014) [pdf], the government breaches the contract by ordering a contractor to continue performance when it is clear that there will be no funds available to pay for the work. The Civilian Board of Contract Appeals recognized Kiewit-Turner‘s right to stop work when the Department of Veteran Affairs failed to provide a design that would have allowed construction to be completed within the budget established by the available appropriations. Despite the general duty to proceed, Kiewit-Turner was not required to continue performance because it was clear that the construction costs would exceed the available funds and the VA refused to seek additional funding or incorporate value engineering changes to reduce the overall construction cost. Continue Reading Kiewit-Turner and the right to stop work

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.”

Continue Reading How the Federal Circuit’s decision in Metcalf Construction fixes good faith and fair dealing

Metcalf Construction Company and the Navy argued their positions today in the appeal of Metcalf’s $27-million claim on its contract to design and build military housing in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. The appeal focuses on the December 9, 2011 decision by Judge Susan G. Braden of the United States Court of Federal Claims, which addresses the liability issues presented by Metcalf’s claim. See Metcalf Constr. Co. v. United States, 102 Fed. Cl. 334 (2011) (Metcalf I). A second decision issued on December 10, 2012 addresses the damages issues presented in the case. Metcalf Constr. Co. v. United States, 107 Fed. Cl. 786 (2012) (Metcalf II). Regardless of how the Federal Circuit resolves the appeal, the case is bad for federal construction contracting.

Duty of good faith and fair dealing

In Metcalf I, the court found that Metcalf could not establish its claim that the Navy breached its duty of good faith and fair dealing. This conclusion is based entirely on the Court’s interpretation of the applicable standard for proving such a claim. In Judge Braden’s view, “a breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing claim against the Government can only be established by a showing that [the Government] ‘specifically designed to reappropriate the benefits [that] the other party expected to obtain from the transaction, thereby abrogating the government’s obligations under the contract.’” Metcalf I § C.1.b (quoting Precision Pine & Timber, Inc. v. United States, 596 F.3d 817, 829 (Fed. Cir. 2010)).

Continue Reading The story of Metcalf Construction and why it’s bad for federal construction contracting