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Steve focuses his litigation and arbitration practice on government contracts, renewable energy, and construction projects. He began his career litigating construction disputes on federal government projects, but clients quickly began looking to Steve for guidance on all of their government contracting needs.

When drafting small business joint venture agreements, the devil is in the details. A template JV agreement—like the one from the Small Business Administration—may not guarantee a JV’s eligibility for a contract award. The details of the agreement, like which contracts the JV will pursue and what each side will contribute, are critical.

Even if approved, a generic JV agreement may not survive a protest.

In CVE Protest of Veterans Contracting, Inc., the SBA’s Office of Hearings and Appeals sustained a protest challenging a JV’s status as a service-disabled veteran-owned small business because its JV agreement was too generic to establish the JV’s eligibility as an SDVOSB. The JV in that case (CRNTC) was a joint venture between CR Nationwide, LLC (the SDVOSB partner) and Trumble Construction, Inc.

The Department of Veterans Affairs approved CRNTC’s SDVOSB status for a period of three years in June 2018. The approval was based on the JV agreement between CR Nationwide and Trumble, which made CR Nationwide the majority owner. But the JV agreement did not identify any particular solicitation that CRNTC would pursue or otherwise outline what each partner would contribute to the JV. The agreement specified that the parties would identify the contract and scope of work at a later date and would set those out in a jointly executed statement that would be submitted to the relevant contracting authority.Continue Reading The importance of specificity in small business joint venture agreements

If you are excluded from the competitive range in a procurement, you have a right to request a debriefing (within 3 days) to learn why. 41 U.S.C. § 3705(a). But the scope of that pre-award debriefing is more limited than a post-award debriefing. Pre-award debriefings cover the agency’s evaluation of “significant elements” of the excluded contractor’s offer, the rationale for the exclusion, and “reasonable responses to relevant questions” posed by the excluded offeror. 41 U.S.C. § 3705(d). But they expressly cannot cover the total number or identities of offerors, or the “content, ranking, or evaluation” of the other offerors’ proposals.  41 U.S.C. § 3705(e). That information is available only in post-award debriefings.  41 U.S.C. § 3704(c).  This difference in scope may create the temptation to delay a pre-award debriefing until after award in the hope that you will gain more information. But giving in to that temptation may preclude a protest at GAO.
Continue Reading Don’t delay a pre-award debriefing

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

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.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

Contractors know that discovery is the most time-consuming and expensive part of litigation. Until now, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure have done little to address the problem. Parties that preserve too much data are burdened with the cost of collecting and reviewing it. Parties that preserve too little risk not having access to key evidence or being penalized for spoliation.

While we’re not sure the problem can be fixed with a few changes to the procedural rules, reducing discovery costs appears to be a key goal of the recently-proposed amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure [pdf]. The revised rules were passed by the Judicial Conference of the United States in September 2014 and are now awaiting approval by the Supreme Court. Assuming they are approved, the amendments will become effective on December 1, 2015.

The proposed amendments have three primary objectives: (1) improve early and active judicial case management; (2) enhance the importance of proportionality in the discovery process; and (3) encourage greater cooperation among litigants. The amendments would also resolve an apparent circuit split over when sanctions may be imposed for failing to preserve electronically stored information. The changes aimed at accomplishing these objectives appear in the proposed amendments to Rules 1, 4, 16, 26, and 37.


Continue Reading Amendments to the Federal Rules make discovery better, faster, cheaper

The attorney-client privilege applies with equal force to internal investigations today as it did 30 years ago thanks to the D.C. Circuit’s recent decision in In re: Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc., No. 14-5055 (D.C. Cir. June 27, 2014). The appeals court decision vacates the March 6, 2014 district court decision in the same case. At the district court, Judge James Gwin ruled that the attorney-client privilege did not protect documents developed during KBR’s internal investigations of potential fraud relating to its LOGCAP III contract. According to Judge Gwin, KBR’s investigations were not privileged because they were conducted “pursuant to regulatory law and corporate policy rather than for the purpose of obtaining legal advice.”

The D.C. Circuit’s decision reverses Judge Gwin’s ruling. The decision recognizes the “uncertainty generated by the novelty and breadth of the District Court’s reasoning” and echoes the Supreme Court’s concern that an “uncertain privilege, or one which purports to be certain but results in widely varying applications by the courts, is little better than no privilege at all.” If the district court’s decision were to stand, “businesses would be less likely to disclose facts to their attorneys and to seek legal advice.” The behavior created by this uncertainty in the attorney-client privilege would undercut the very compliance and disclosure regulations central to Judge Gwin’s analysis.


Continue Reading Barko v. Halliburton—How the D.C. Circuit’s decision reaffirms the attorney-client privilege in internal investigations

It should come as no surprise that the contracting policy changes in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 [pdf] reflect a continued focus on reducing spending. But they also encourage collaboration between the government and the private sector and emphasize the need for innovative contracting strategies and greater flexibility in the procurement process, which may benefit contractors in the long run. Here is a breakdown of a few of the highlights:

  • Extension of restrictions on contractor services spending. Section 802 of the 2014 NDAA amends Section 808 of the 2012 NDAA to extend the temporary limit on the amounts obligated for DOD spending on contract services in FY 2014 to the amount requested for contract services in the President’s budget for FY 2010. It also requires that the heads of each Defense Agency continue the 10-percent-per-fiscal-year reductions in spending for staff augmentation contracts and contracts for inherently governmental function for FY 2014, and requires that any unimplemented amounts of the 10 percent reductions for FY 2012 and FY 2013 be implemented in FY 2014.
    Continue Reading Procurement reforms in the FY 2014 National Defense Authorization Act

[UPDATE: On May 26, 2015, the Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Carter and held that the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act is limited to criminal offenses. Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. Carter, No 12-1497 (U.S. May 26, 2015) [pdf]. Our discussion of the Carter decision is available here.]

What is the statute of limitations for qui tam actions brought against a contractor during a time of war? The answer to this question depends not only on whether the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act applies to actions brought by an individual relator under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act, but also on when the United States is “at war.” The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed both of these questions in U.S. ex rel. Carter v. Halliburton Co., 710 F.3d 171 (4th Cir. 2013).

“At war” does not mean “declared war.”

The Wartime Suspension of Limtations Act was enacted in 1942. It suspends the applicable limitations period for any offense involving fraud against the United States when the country is “at war” or when Congress has enacted a specific authorization for the use of the Armed Forces. The suspension lasts for the duration of the war and until five years after hostilities end. 18 U.S.C. § 3287. Hostilities must be terminated “by a Presidential proclamation, with notice to Congress, or by a concurrent resolution of Congress.”

The meaning of “at war” is not specifically outlined in the WSLA, but it is a focal point of the decision in Carter. The relator, a water purification operator at two U.S. military camps in Iraq, asserted that his employer charged the government for work that was not performed. Due to a number of procedural obstacles, the action was filed outside of the six-year limitations period that normally applies to FCA qui tam actions. As a result, the district court dismissed the action as untimely. The relator appealed, asserting that the WSLA tolled the limitations period because the hostilities in Iraq meant that the United States was “at war.” The Fourth Circuit agreed, reasoning that a “formalistic” definition of when the country was “at war” did not reflect the “realities of today.”Continue Reading The statute of limitations for qui tam actions under the False Claims Act when the United States is “at war”

Flight delays resulting from the furloughs of air traffic controllers are certainly not the only impact of sequestration. All federal contractors and grant recipients will have to adapt to reduced federal spending. According to the OMB report to Congress on sequestration reductions for FY 2014, $109 billion will be cut from the federal budget next year with equal reductions of approximately $54.7 billion in the defense and non-defense categories. Discretionary defense spending will see a $53.9 billion reduction, while direct defense spending will be reduced by $749 million. Non-defense discretionary spending will decrease by $37.2 billion, and non-defense direct spending will shrink by $17.5 billion, $11.2 billion of which will come from reductions in Medicare spending.

As agencies struggle with these mandatory budget cuts imposed by sequestration, incrementally funded contracts are particularly vulnerable. Despite the apparent need for their goods or services and the high caliber of their work, contractors holding incrementally funded contracts may find that funds are simply not available. Here are three strategies contractors can take to limit the risk of performing without compensation:Continue Reading Three contractor strategies for sequestered federal contracts