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.
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The Missouri Court of Appeals decision in Penzel Constr. Co. v. Jackson R-2 School District, No. ED103878 (Mo. Ct. App. Feb. 14, 2017), is an important development for public construction contracting in Missouri. The decision adopts the Spearin Doctrine and approves the use of the Modified Total Cost method for proving damages. While these concepts have been used widely in federal construction contracting, the Penzel decision is the first published decision recognizing them in Missouri.

The Penzel case involved additions to a public high school. The School District hired an architect. The architect retained an electrical engineering sub-consultant. When the project went to bid, the School District furnished bidders with the architect’s plans and specifications. Penzel Construction Company submitted a bid as the general contractor.

Penzel’s electrical subcontractor was Total Electric. Total’s bid was $1,040,444. Neither Penzel nor Total “noticed” any errors, omissions, or other problems with the plans and specifications during the bidding process.

Total encountered delays totaling 16 months, which Total attributed to “defects and inadequacies” in the electrical design. Under a liquidating agreement between Penzel and Total, Penzel sued the District. Penzel alleged that the District impliedly warranted the design. Penzel claimed the design was not adequate for completing the project.

In addition to proving liability, Penzel needed to prove the damages associated with its loss of productivity claim. To do so, Penzel sought to use the Modified Total Cost Method. The claimed damages were comprised of additional project management and supervision costs, wage escalation, unpaid change order work, and consultant’s fees.
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Contract Disputes Act claims are subject to a six-year statute of limitations. While the math involved in calculating when that limitations glass-time-watch-businessperiod runs seems easy, determining when a CDA claim accrued is not always so simple. FAR 33.201 defines “accrual of a claim” as the date when the party with the claim knew or should have known all of the events that “fix the alleged liability” of the other party. But the Federal Circuit’s decision in Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. Murphy, No. 2015-1148 (Fed. Cir. May 18, 2016) [PDF], shows that the date of accrual is not always clear.
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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.
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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

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

The Supreme Court’s decision in Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Carter, No. 12-1497 (U.S. May 26, 2015) [pdf], holds that the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act applies only to criminal offenses. It also holds that the first-to-file bar in the False Claims Act applies only when an earlier-filed action remains “pending.” BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq.  Staff Sgt. Gary Messer, 332nd Expeditionary Aerospace Medical Squadron bioenvironmental engineer, transfers a sample of tap water to a tube before performing tests to confirm that the water is free from bacteria. March 13, 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Julianne Showalter.)The unanimous opinion, written by Justice Alito, takes a plain-meaning approach to both of the questions presented.

The Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act

Citing dictionary definitions of the word “offense” and the appearance of the WSLA in Title 18 of the U.S. Code, the Court inferred that Congress intended to toll the applicable statutes of limitations only in criminal cases. As to the removal of the phrase “now indictable” from the text of the WSLA in 1944, the Court found that such a subtle change does not prove that Congress intended to expand the tolling effect of the WSLA beyond criminal cases. “[T]he removal of the ‘now indictable’ provision was more plausibly driven by Congress’ intent to apply the WSLA prospectively, not by any desire to expand the WSLA’s reach to civil suits.”

Carter reverses the Fourth Circuit’s holding in United States ex rel. Carter v. Halliburton Co., 710 F.3d 171 (4th Cir. 2013) as to the scope of the WSLA.
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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.
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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.
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If you are getting ready to submit a claim on a federal contract—especially one that challenges an assessment of liquidated damages—take note of the Federal Circuit’s decision in K-Con Building Systems, Inc. v. United States, No. 2014-5062 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 12, 2015) [pdf]. It has some specific instructions for the contents of your claim letter and demonstrates the harsh results that follow from a misstep in the disputes process.

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Bethannie Kittrell.  August 26, 2013.K-Con held a Federal Supply Schedule contract for prefabricated structures. In 2004, it won a $582,000 Coast Guard task order for the design and construction of a Coast Guard cutter support building at Port Huron, Michigan.

K-Con’s July 2005 Claim

When K-Con was unable to complete the work by the deadline set forth in the task order, the Coast Guard assessed liquidated damages of $109,554—186 days at $589 per day. On July 28, 2005, K-Con submitted a one-page claim letter seeking remission of the liquidated damages.

Although it was brief, K-Con’s letter asserted three reasons why the liquidated damages assessment was improper:

  1. K-Con “was not the sole cause of any alleged delays” and any K-Con delays were “concurrent with delays caused by the government;”
  2. the government “failed to issue extension to the completion date as a result of changes to the contract by the government;” and
  3. the liquidated damages “are an impermissible penalty.”

K-Con’s letter requested a contracting officer’s final decision. Though it demanded relief of more than $100,000, K-Con’s letter asserted that a certification was not required “since the assessment of liquidated damages is a claim by the Government.”


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