Construction Contracting

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.”

Continue Reading Claims for remission of liquidated damages after the Federal Circuit’s decision in K-Con Building Systems

The Senate passed the Carl Levin and Howard P. “Buck” McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 [pdf] on Friday, December 12, 2014. President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law. The $585 billion bill authorizes the Pentagon’s activities in FY 2015. It includes $521.3 billion in base defense spending and another $64 billion in war funding. Here is a summary of the procurement reform initiatives that will be relevant to contractors in the upcoming year:

  1. Cyber incident reporting for operationally critical contractors. Section 1632 of the 2015 NDAA directs the Secretary of Defense to designate and notify “operationally critical contractors,” a term narrowly defined in the bill. After notification, designated contractors will be required to report to the Department of Defense each cyber incident with respect to any network or information system of such contractor. Reports must include: an assessment of the effect on the contractor’s ability to meet the Department’s contractual requirements; the technique used in the cyber incident; any sample of malicious software obtained; and a summary of information compromised by the incident. Despite the disclosure requirement, section 1632 provides for protection of contractor trade secrets and confidential commercial or financial information. It also limits the dissemination of information obtained to relevant entities and agencies.
  2. Enhanced authority for non-DOD Chief Information Officers. Section 831 of the NDAA increases the role of Chief Information Officers of agencies other than the Department of Defense. It provides that an agency may not enter into a contract for information technology unless the contract has first been reviewed and approved by the agency’s Chief Information Officer. The head of each covered agency must ensure that its Chief Information Officer has a significant role in all annual and multi-year planning, budgeting, and reporting related to information technology. The bill requires the Director of OMB and the Chief Information Officers of appropriate agencies to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of information technology investments and to develop opportunities to consolidate the acquisition and management of information technology services. The Chief Information Officer of each covered agency is directed to inventory agency data centers and develop a multi-year strategy for consolidation and optimization of those data centers inventoried.
  3. DOD CIO positions consolidated. Section 901 of the 2015 NDAA incorporates a DOD proposal to combine the positions of Chief Information Officer and Deputy Chief Management Officer into the position of Under Secretary of Defense for Business Management and Information. The new Under Secretary will oversee business operations, personnel, and IT projects and will be appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. This change will not take place until the next administration. Continue Reading Six contracting policy changes in the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act

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

Rochester, New York (1943)

Subcontracting is often the best way to complete a complex project. A subcontractor may have technical expertise, equipment, or human resources that are unavailable to the prime contractor. But assigning work to one or more lower-tier parties carries with it a certain amount of risk. One of the challenges is allocating liability for changes in the scope of work, delays, and other inefficiencies that increase a subcontractor’s cost or time for performance. Today we look at how the allocation of this risk is affected by the Severin doctrine.

The Severin doctrine takes its name from the decision in Severin v. United States, 99 Ct. Cl. 435 (1943). Severin employed a subcontractor on a contract to build a post office in Rochester, New York. As a result of construction delays, Severin sought to recover $702 on behalf of its subcontractor.

The Court of Claims (now the Court of Federal Claims) gave two reasons for rejecting the claim. First, the court held that the subcontractor could not sue on its own because it had no contract directly with the government. The government had waived its sovereign immunity only for its direct contractual agreements.

Second, the court held that Severin could not pursue a claim on the subcontractor’s behalf because Severin itself could not be held liable for the same damages under its subcontract agreement.

A strict application of the Severin doctrine would increase risks for both prime contractors and subcontractors and would hamper the efficient resolution of claims. It would restrict the use of no-damage-for-delay clauses and other risk-shifting clauses that have widely been seen as effective. But in practice, the Severin doctrine has not been strictly enforced.

Continue Reading Lessons learned from 71 years of the Severin doctrine

You’ve heard by now that the Supreme Court’s decision in Atlantic Marine Constr. Co. v. United States District Court, No. 12-929 (U.S. Dec. 3, 2013) is a strong endorsement of a contractor’s right to choose the forum that will resolve disputes with subcontractors. We discuss the Court’s decision in an earlier post.

So you know that you can have a forum selection clause. But Atlantic Marine doesn’t answer the hard question, which is this—

How do you write a forum selection clause that will be reliably and economically enforced—without an expensive trip through the court system, perhaps even all the way to the Supreme Court?

Here are some basic points on drafting a forum selection clause, drawn from some of the dozens of reported court cases addressing them—

Continue Reading Forum selection clauses after Atlantic Marine (Part II)

The Contract Disputes Act gives prime contractors a straightforward procedure for resolving claims against the federal government. But there is no mandatory approach to resolving disputes between contractors and subcontractors. Private parties may agree to arbitrate their disputes or designate a specific court to hear them. They may identify the applicable law, provide for the recovery of attorney’s fees, and prescribe any number of other details.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Atlantic Marine Constr. Co. v. United States District Court for Western District of Texas, No. 12-929 (U.S. Dec. 3, 2013), holds that forum selection clauses in subcontracts on federal projects are enforceable. In this first blog post of a two-part series, we discuss the decision in Atlantic Marine and the limits of the Supreme Court’s analysis. In the subsequent one, we will discuss the use of subcontract dispute resolution clauses more broadly.

Continue Reading Forum selection clauses after Atlantic Marine

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

The Contract Disputes Act imposes a six-year statute of limitations on all claims, whether they are asserted by the contractor or by the Government. See 41 U.S.C. § 7103(a)(4)(A). The limitations period begins to run upon accrual of a claim, which is “the date when all events . . . that fix the alleged liability of either the Government or the contractor and permit assertion of the claim . . . were known or should have been known.” FAR 33.201. Because six years must Aeroplane Sunsetpass before the claim expires, the precise date of accrual is often little more than an academic question. Indeed, there have been relatively few cases applying the CDA limitations period to Government claims. But accrual has recently become a real and sometimes insurmountable obstacle to Government claims. Here is a short summary of the basic concepts that have emerged from the decisions that have addressed the issue.

1.         The government has the burden of proving timeliness. 

The CDA limitations period is “jurisdictional.” When the government asserts a claim against a contractor, the government has the burden of proving jurisdiction. To do so, the government must establish that the claim was timely asserted. If the government cannot show that the claim was asserted within six years of accrual, the Board or the Court lacks jurisdiction to hear the claim. Raytheon Missile Systems, ASBCA No. 58011 (Jan. 28, 2013) [pdf].

Continue Reading “Accrual” of government claims under the Contract Disputes Act

By Hal Perloff

Energy is a national security issue. The U.S. defense industry represents one of the world’s largest markets for energy, and the cost and availability of energy directly affects military capabilities and readiness. Department of Defense leaders are revamping how DOD uses energy and determining which fuels offer the best overall investment, prices, and logistical advantages with the fewest environmental problems. Moreover, the military provides an attractive test-bed for commercialization of emerging technologies on a ‘demand-pull’ basis as well as an important market for fossil fuels, renewable energy and biofuels, energy services, energy efficiency, and demand response. A secure and sustainable energy system must be viewed from a national defense standpoint. What are the risks and rewards for moving the military toward an environmentally as well as economically sustainable energy system?

This year’s J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Conference is entitled “Laying the Foundation for Sustainable Energy Future: Legal and Policy Challenges” and will present a panel on Sustainable Energy and the National Defense. The panel will be chaired by former Chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, retired Lieutenant General Robert Flowers, and includes as panelists:

  • Honorable Katherine Hammack, Assistant Secretary of the Army (Installations, Energy & Environment)
  • General Paul Kern, Chairman, CAN Military Advisory Board, U.S. Army (Ret.)
  • Christopher Yukins, Co-Director of George Washington University Law School’s Government Procurement Law Program
  • Matthew Carr, Managing Director, Industrial & Environmental Section, Biotechnology Industry Organization
  • Hal Perloff, Partner, Husch Blackwell, LLP

This timely and insightful conference is co-sponsored by the George Washington University Law School, Husch Blackwell LLP, the Environmental Law Institute, and the Constellation Energy Foundation and will be held on April 10 & 11, 2013 at the Jacob Burns Moot Court Room on GW’s campus.

The government often blames construction contractors for shortcomings in its own design and unanticipated difficulties encountered at the site. “You’re supposed to be the expert!”  “You should have known what to expect because of the magic language on page 97 of the geotechnical report.” “You’re the design-builder!”

Alaskan RoadAt first glance, these arguments seem persuasive. But when they are presented to a judge at the Court of Federal Claims or a Board of Contract Appeals, their limitations become apparent. Contractors are not ordinarily expected to have the expertise of a designer or geotechnical engineer. And even when contractors have design-build responsibilities, they are entitled to rely on the design components that the government has furnished to them. And that single reference on page 97 of the geotechnical report?  It doesn’t override the interpretation that a reasonable contractor may draw from the boring logs and the geotechnical report as a whole.

Continue Reading Contractor expertise as a factor in differing site conditions claims