Contract Administration

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

Controlling legal spend is a frequent and important topic of discussion, especially among in-house counsel and their litigation teams. Much of the discussion focuses on the problem of soaring discovery costs driven by the proliferation of electronic data. As an eDiscovery attorney, I employ early case assessment strategies and tools, technology-assisted review, and even low-cost outside staff attorneys to try and curtail the cost of discovery. In the end, the effectiveness of these cost-reduction alternatives hinges on whether clients have done their part to reduce the volume of data upstream.

Beyond implementing a formal records retention plan, there are a number of fairly simple steps that companies can take to help reduce litigation costs. Items 1-5 help reduce the volume of data that needs to be collected and reviewed. Items 6-8 will help ensure that your litigation budget is not exhausted on spoliation or sanctions motions.

1.   When implementing an email archive, be mindful of how it will impact litigation costs.

An email archive is not a cure to your litigation woes. Storing every company email that was sent or received in an email archive may make preservation easy, but it may also be contributing to your soaring discovery costs. Despite claims to the contrary, most archives have poor search and export features. It is also very difficult to pull out only responsive email from an archive.  Instead, you end up overspending on attorney review of irrelevant data or producing mounds of irrelevant data.

One way to control this issue is to tailor the archive for your own business and legal needs from the beginning. Do you really need every employee’s email messages for the last 10 years? Very few industries have regulatory requirements that require such broad retention. Even those that do usually only apply to a small subset of employees. Confirm any applicable regulatory requirements and consider your own business and legal needs. Consider creating email groups with different retention cycles.

Continue Reading Eight ways to cut the cost of ediscovery

Contractors will have more forms to fill out, and possibly some explaining to do, when the recently issued Executive Order on Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces is fully implemented in 2016. The Executive Order requires offerors to disclose whether they have been found to have violated, within the past 3 years, any of 14 different labor laws.

Covered laws include:  Fair Labor Standards Act, Occupation Safety and Health Act, Davis Bacon Act, Service Contract Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and a host of others. Violations of equivalent state laws must also be reported.

An offeror with violations will be provided an opportunity to disclose steps it has taken to correct the violations or improve compliance. The procuring contractor officer will take this into account in determining the offeror’s responsibility.  The contractor will need to update its disclosure every six months.

Agencies are also required to ensure that contractors (and their subcontractors) provide their employees with “paycheck transparency,” providing a document to each employee that shows the hours worked, overtime hours, pay, and any additions or deductions made. Contractors must also state in writing if an individual is considered an independent contractor and not an employee.

These requirements apply to contracts and subcontracts valued at $500,000 or more. GSA is charged with developing a single website for contractors to use in meeting these new reporting requirements.

For contracts (and subcontracts) valued at $1 million or more, contractors may not require that their employees arbitrate claims relating to Civil Rights violations, sexual assault, or harassment. (Once such a claim has arisen, the parties can mutually agree to arbitrate the claim.)  This restriction, however, does not apply to employees who are covered by a Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The Executive Order is effective now, but the reporting requirement is not expected to begin until 2016, after the development of FAR regulations and clauses. Since the disclosure form has a 3-year look back period, violations that occurred in 2013 would be subject to the reporting requirement.

Contractors need only report adjudicated labor law violations:  a civil judgment, arbitral award, or administrative merits determination that the contractor violated a covered labor law. Settlements of alleged labor law violations are not reported. The Executive Order thus places further pressure on contractors to settle such claims rather than risk a reportable violation.

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

[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.]

Whether the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act tolls the six-year statute of limitations for civil claims under the False Claims Act will soon be addressed by the Supreme Court. In Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel Benjamin Carter, No. 12-1497 (July 1, 2014), the Court will have the opportunity to address several important questions about the application of the WSLA. Should it apply to civil claims or be limited to criminal actions? Does the tolling specified in the WSLA require a formal declaration of war? And does the WSLA apply to a qui tam claim in which the United States declines to intervene?

[Note:  The case also asks the Court to address whether the FCA’s “first-to-file” bar applies to cases filed after the first case is dismissed.  We’ll look at that question in another post.]

The case comes to the Supreme Court following the Fourth Circuit’s decision in U.S. ex rel Carter v. Halliburton Co., 710 F.3d 171 (4th Cir. 2013). In that case, the Fourth Circuit held that the WSLA tolled all civil actions—including civil FCA claims brought by qui tam relators—until the President or Congress declared a “termination of hostilities.” The Supreme Court accepted Halliburton’s petition for certiorari and will hear the case in 2015.

We believe the Fourth Circuit’s opinion represents a significant expansion of the WSLA. As Judge Agee points out in his dissenting opinion, a particularly troublesome aspect of the Fourth Circuit’s decision is its application of the WSLA to civil qui tam actions in which the United States has not intervened. The underlying purpose of the WSLA is to allow the law enforcement arm of the United States government to focus on its “duties, including the enforcement of the espionage, sabotage, and other laws’” in times of war. Id. (citing Bridges v. United States, 346 U.S. 209, 219 n. 18 (1953)). In a qui tam action initiated by a private citizen, the rationale for tolling the limitations period is diminished.

Continue Reading Will the Supreme Court uphold tolling of the six-year limitations period for civil False Claims Act cases during times of war?

The Severin doctrine restricts the ability of prime contractors to hold the government responsible for costs incurred by subcontractors. It is often of limited practical effect because it can usually be avoided by contract. Liquidation agreements, sponsorship agreements, pass-through agreements, and other similar agreements often include a conditional release that limits the subcontractor’s recovery to the amount that the prime contractor recovers from the government. With this protection, prime contractors are often willing to pursue subcontractor claims on a pass-through basis.

As we discussed in part one of this post, the Severin doctrine is nevertheless a recurring issue in federal contracts. Here we address two recent cases that explore the application of the Severin doctrine when the rights of the prime contractor and subcontractor are not expressed in a written agreement.

No subcontract at all

The decision in Parsons-UXB Joint Venture, ASBCA No. 56481, 13-1 BCA ¶ 35,378 (Aug. 1, 2013) [pdf] addresses the application of the Severin doctrine when there is no written subcontract. Parsons and UXB formed a joint venture to complete a Navy project to restore the Hawaiian island of Kaho’olawe, which had been used as a weapons range. The JV was “unpopulated,” meaning that employees of Parsons and UXB did all the work even though the JV formally held the contract. There were no subcontracts in place between the JV and either Parsons or UXB. When a dispute developed over costs incurred on the project and the JV brought the case to the Armed Services Board, the Navy cited the Severin doctrine. Without a subcontract, the Navy asserted that the JV could not be liable for costs incurred by Parsons or UXB and therefore could not pursue claims on their behalf.

Continue Reading Pass-through claims without a contract—Severin doctrine part two

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)

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

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