Every year or so, the U.S. Postal Service changes the standard Terms and Conditions that apply to its newly awarded Highway Contract Route (HCR) and Contract Delivery Service (CDS) contacts. When this occurs, the new terms only apply to newly awarded contracts–existing contracts are unaffected and retain the same terms as when awarded.

But this year, the Postal Service has sought to apply new Terms and Conditions to existing CDS contracts as well as newly awarded ones. In an email to its CDS contractors, the Postal Service asked them to sign, without any “alterations or additions,” a contract modification that incorporated the new terms. If the contractor did not so, the Postal Service’s email threatened contract termination:

“Because of the Postal Service’s interest in maintaining consistency across its many CDS contracts, please note that a failure to respond to this correspondence … may lead the Postal Service to consider termination of the subject contract.”

After receiving this email, many contractors asked me: “Can the Postal Service really do this?” In my opinion, several legal arguments, if upheld, would make the resulting modification unenforceable. For example, the modification might fail for lack of consideration, because it gave the Postal Service what it wanted without giving anything that contractors valued in return. And it might fail for violation of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, because it seeks to recapture benefits that were foreclosed at the time of contract award. But I think the best argument against its enforceability is based on the legal theory of coercion and duress. Normally, this is a difficult argument to make, but here the elements seem apparent from the Postal Service’s email itself.

Proving duress

To be relieved from a contract modification you signed on the basis of duress or coercion, you need to prove three things. First, you need to show that you involuntarily agreed to the modification. One common way of showing this is writing “under protest” next to your signature. But that was not an option here, because the Postal Service’s email said you must sign with “no alterations or additions” or it would nullify the document. No contractor sought the modification, nor was asked how they viewed it. The Postal Service’s email itself thus establishes involuntary action, as it permitted no response other than the contractor’s signature on an unaltered modification.

Second, you need to show that the circumstances permitted no other alternative than signing the modification. Once again, the Postal Service’s email again establishes this for you. The email says you must sign the modification or you risk having your contract terminated. In these circumstances, you have no other reasonable alternative to signing, because if you do not sign, you will lose the contract.

The Postal Service might argue that the email said a refusal to sign would only “lead the Postal Service to consider termination of the subject contract,” not that it was dead certain to be terminated. But viewed in context of the entire email, there was little reason to believe a non-conforming contract would survive. The Postal Service’s email explained that it was seeking uniformity in contract terms among all of its CDS contracts. If you did not sign the modification, then your contract would run counter to this policy. The email gave no reason to hope that your non-uniform contract would remain in place if you refused to sign the modification.

Third, you need to show that the circumstances you were faced with were the result of the Postal Service’s coercive acts and not a predicament of your own making. Once again, this is established by the Postal Service’s email. Contractors did nothing to place themselves into this predicament.

Gurdak case found similar coercion

A dozen years ago, the Postal Service tried something similar and the resulting modification was found to be coerced and unenforceable. In George P. Gurdak, PSBCA No. 5049, 05-2 BCA ¶ 33,092, the parties had previously agreed to a 10-year facility lease that required the contractor to make some renovations. When it came time for the Postal Service to approve the design of the renovations, the Postal Service balked, but not because of any problems it had with the design. Instead, the Postal Service wanted to pay a lower rent because it had re-measured the usable space and it was smaller than USPS had thought. The contractor strenuously objected to the modification, but the Postal Service said, “Take it or leave it.”  Without USPS’s design approval, the contractor could not proceed with the project, so the contractor signed the modification that reduced the lease rate.

After the building was renovated, the contractor submitted a claim for the original, higher lease rate. The contracting officer denied the claim, contending that the contractor had agreed to the lower rate in the signed modification. The contractor appealed to the Postal Service Board of Contract Appeals, contending the modification was coerced and unenforceable. The PSBCA agreed. Even though the Postal Service had the contractual right to approve the renovations design, its use of that right must still be exercised in good faith. The Board held that the Postal Service could not threaten exercise of a legitimate contract right if the exercise of that contract right would violate notions of fair dealing due to its coercive effect.

Just as in Gurdak, the Postal Service has threatened CDS contractors with exercise of a legitimate contract right (here, termination) in a way that violates notions of fair dealing and is coercive. In both cases, a “take it or leave it” threat was made for the wrongful purpose of forcing the contractor to accept new contract terms.

The Board in Gurdak held that the coerced modification was not binding on the contractor. Did this mean that the contractor could hold the Postal Service to those parts of the modification that it wished to enforce? In its email to CDS contractors, the Postal Service stated that the modification would also remove “outdated supplier obligations.”  If that is indeed true, then under Gurdak, is it possible that the Postal Service would still be bound to those parts of the modification?

What’s next?

In most cases, the modification will likely have little impact on performance, but it does increase the risk of disputes arising from the modification’s new obligations and approval requirements. Should USPS seek to enforce one of these new obligations, you may need to assert that such directive constitutes a constructive change because it arises from a coercive and unenforceable modification. If a mutually agreeable solution cannot be reached, you may need to bring a claim for the cost impact of the new directive under the Claims and Disputes clause of the contract.

Iran sanctions lifted as part of the Iran Nuclear Deal went back into effect today, November 5, 2018. Companies seeking or performing US government contracts should take this opportunity to confirm that none of their international vendors, suppliers, and subcontractors are on the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list.

As discussed in more detail in this blog post by our firm’s Export Controls and Economic Sanctions team, the reimposed sanctions extend to a wide range of individuals and companies, including those in the petroleum, shipping, and shipbuilding sectors, as well as to non-U.S. financial institutions and insurance companies that facilitate transactions with SDNs.

Further reading on this topic—

OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List (SDN)

OFAC’s Press Release on Iran Sanctions

OFAC Amendments to Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (Nov. 2, 2018)

 

 

Arbitration is often seen as a way of getting a more predictable result in complex construction disputes. The subject matter expertise available with experienced arbitrators and the finality of the arbitration process itself are certainly important considerations. But resolving disputes in arbitration can sometimes lead to surprising results, even ones that might be inconsistent with the underlying contract or with applicable state law.

The Eighth Circuit’s recent decision in Beumer Corp. v. ProEnergy Services, LLC, No. 17-2862 (8th Cir. Aug. 9, 2018), is an example of such a case. The arbitrator in this case awarded attorney’s fee of nearly a million dollars more than the liability cap in the contract. Despite the possibility that this result was inconsistent with state law, the Eighth Circuit let the award stand.

Continue Reading Why getting the wrong result in arbitration may be what you bought

The False Claims Act case against Lance Armstrong lasted longer than his 7 year Tour de France win streak.

While the settlement of the False Claims Act case against Lance Armstrong has generated a press release, a quick online search didn’t produce a copy of the actual agreement. So I filed a Freedom of Information Act request and the next day the Department of Justice provided me a copy of the Lance Armstrong settlement agreement.  Thank you, Team DOJ!  Below is my take on that agreement and what it tells us about the case.

The settlement amount

The settlement agreement provides that Lance Armstrong will pay $5 million to the Government and $1.65 million to the relator Floyd Landis. To put this in context, the Postal Service had paid about $40 million to sponsor Team Postal. Trebling that amount, and throwing in civil penalties and investigative costs, bumps up potential damages to well over $100 million. The settlement amount was thus less than 7 cents on the dollar.

Damages was always the Government’s weakness – because there weren’t any. This should have been apparent at the outset from the contemporaneous USPS reports on how much publicity and new revenue the Team Postal sponsorship had generated. These reports were poppycock, of course, but they still posed insurmountable problems for the Government’s case.

Continue Reading What the Lance Armstrong Settlement Agreement Tells Us about the Government’s Case

As part of our postal industry practice, we annually compile a list of the Top 150 USPS suppliers based on data received under the Freedom of Information Act.

In FY 2017, USPS spent $13.9 billion on outside purchases and rental payments, an increase of $181 million over last year.  The biggest increase went to the top 10 USPS suppliers. That group received a total of $3.9 billion, up $400 million from last year and accounting for 28 percent of the Postal Service’s total spend. The Top 150 suppliers received $9.2 billion, about two-thirds of the agency’s total spend. Only 81 suppliers collected revenues exceeding $25 million in 2017.

As it has since 2002, Federal Express Corporation lands atop the list, this year with $1.61 billion in revenues—about a $68 million drop from its 2016 earnings. FedEx carries package and letter mail for the Postal Service. FedEx’s air cargo network contract with the Postal Service has been extended several times, and the latest extension takes it to September 29, 2024.

Continue Reading Top 150 U.S. Postal Service suppliers get more in FY 2017

Contractors are now familiar with the Supreme Court’s June 2016 decision in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Escobar [PDF]. That decision recognizes False Claims Act liability for implied false certifications. But it also holds that FCA liability is available only when the false statement or omission is “material” to the Government’s decision to pay a claim. Our discussion of Escobar is available here.

Over the last 18 months, courts across the country have been asked to determine the impact of the Escobar decision. Ten of the eleven U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal have interpreted Escobar. Numerous U.S. District Courts have applied Escobar in resolving pre-trial motions. Cases based on “garden-variety breaches of contract or regulatory violations” are being thrown out. Even jury verdicts are being overturned for insufficient evidence of materiality. There is one inescapable conclusion from these post-Escobar decisions: materiality matters.

In this entry, we discuss two recent decisions that illustrate the impact of Escobar. One reaffirms the notion that, after Escobar, minor non-compliance with a regulatory requirement will not normally support FCA liability. The other highlights the critical role the government’s actions can play in establishing materiality. Together they reject jury verdicts imposing more than $1 billion in False Claims Act liability. Continue Reading After Escobar, materiality matters

The General Services Administration estimates the size of the federal market for commercial products to be about $50 billion a year. Manufacturers and distributors of commercial products have seen GSA’s multiple award schedule contracts as a good way to way to access federal customers. But a GSA schedule contract does not guarantee sales and the process of obtaining and adhering to such a contract presents its own headaches.

Soon there will be a better way.

Section 846 of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2018 establishes a program that will allow federal agencies to purchase commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) items through commercial e-commerce portals that are currently available only to the private sector. As long as the procurement is under the new $250,000 Simplified Acquisition Threshold, COTS products (not services) will be available for purchase Government-wide, presumably without additional competition and without a lengthy list of FAR clauses incorporated by reference.

Under the program, GSA will enter into “multiple contracts” with “multiple e-commerce portal providers.” To the maximum extent possible, the Government will adopt and adhere to standard terms and conditions established by the e-commerce portals themselves.

Continue Reading Will e-commerce portals replace the Federal Supply Schedules?

The standard form construction contract documents published by the American Institute of Architects are used widely throughout the construction industry. With assistance from federal agencies, the AIA created specific construction contract documents, such as the B-108-2009, to address the unique nature of federally-funded and insured projects. This year the AIA issued its once-a-decade revisions to address changes and trends in the industry. While the 2017 revisions d0 not materially alter the documents specifically tailored to federal projects, some of the changes will affect documents regularly used by federal contractors. They included changes in the insurance and indemnification clauses, addition of new limits on contractor claims, and new language addressing the treatment of retainage and the assessment of liquidated damages.

Husch Blackwell’s Brent Meyer prepared this overview of the noteworthy changes in the 2017 edition of the AIA contracts for Law 360.

 

Further reading—

7 Major Revisions To Standard Form Construction Contracts (Dec. 4, 2017)

Good faith and fair dealing puts an end to the “gotcha” in submittal review (June 26, 2017)

The Davis-Bacon Act does not apply to P3 projects (April 7, 2016)

After nearly a decade of litigation, justice was finally meted out in an extreme case of Government over-reach against a government contractor. The Government had sought to recover over $1.6 million from a government contractor whose subcontractor had underpaid a handful of employees by $9,900.

When all was said and done, a federal appellate court finally rejected the Government’s legal theory as essentially frivolous and ordered it to pay the contractor’s attorney fees, estimated at roughly $500,000.  When the Government expressed concern that this would have a “chilling effect” on its efforts to vigorously enforce the False Claims Act, the court stated: “One should hope so.”  The case is called U.S. ex rel. Wall v. Circle C Constr., LLC, No. 16-6169, (6th Cir. Aug. 18, 2017).

The story starts when the prime contractor, Circle C Construction, won a contract to construct buildings at the Fort Campbell military base. Circle C hired a subcontractor, Phase Tech, to perform the electrical work. The prime contract required compliance with the Davis-Bacon Act, which is similar to the Service Contract Act but applies to construction work. Like the Service Contract Act, the Davis Bacon Act requires the prime contractor and all subcontractors to pay construction workers the prevailing wages and benefits set by the Department of Labor. The Davis-Bacon Act also requires that the contractor submit certified payrolls as a condition of contract payment.

While Circle C did not have a written contract with its subcontractor Phase Tech, it did provide Phase Tech with the Wage Determinations from its prime contract. But Circle C did not verify whether Phase Tech was in compliance with the Davis Bacon Act. Phase Tech did not submit payroll certifications for two years after the project commenced, and later contended it was not aware it had to do so.

Eventually, one of Phase Tech’s employees brought a qui tam False Claims Act action against both Phase Tech and Circle C based on the under-payment of wages. Phase Tech settled the case by agreeing to pay $15,000, leaving Circle C as the remaining defendant. The Government agreed to take over the case from the employee and pursued the claim against Circle C.

Initially, the case did not go well for Circle C. The federal trial court hearing the case granted plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and damages of $555,000 (the entire cost of the electrical scope of work on the project), which was trebled to a total award of $1.66 million against Circle C.

Continue Reading Government ordered to pay contractor’s attorney’s fees in False Claims Act case

On August 29, 2017, the White House Office of Management and Budget announced that it would immediately pause the pay-data collection requirement of the revised EEO-1 form that was scheduled to take effect in March 2018. The data collection requirement would have significantly expanded employers’ reporting obligations to the EEOC to include pay data by gender, race and ethnicity on the annual EEO-1 form. The EEO-1 is required of employers with 100 or more employees and federal contractors and subcontractors with 50 or more employees.

The expanded EEO-1 reporting requirements had their genesis in an April 8, 2014 Presidential Memorandum, which directed the Secretary of Labor to propose “a rule that would require Federal contractors and subcontractors to submit to DOL summary data on the compensation paid their employees, including data by sex and race.” In a January 29, 2016 fact sheet, the Obama administration explained that the heightened EEO-1 reporting requirements would “help focus public enforcement of our equal pay laws and provide better insight into discriminatory pay practices across industries and occupations.”

President Trump’s OMB sees things differently. In its memorandum halting implementation of the proposed rule, OMB says that the heightened reporting requirements “lack practical utility, are unnecessarily burdensome, and do not adequately address privacy and confidentiality issues.” Further, these burdens outweighed any benefit that might come from implementing the expanded requirements at this time. OMB directed the EEOC to submit a new information collection package for the EEO-1 form for OMB’s review and to publish a notice in the Federal Register confirming that businesses may use the previously approved EEO-1 form in order to comply with their FY 2017 reporting obligations.  

Continue Reading OMB pauses new data collection for the 2017 EEO-1