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

There is no doubt that contractors have the power to challenge an erroneous assessment of their performance on a government contract. FAR 42.1503 requires the government to issue past performance reviews in draft. Contractors are entitled to rebut any inaccuracies in the draft. Even if the government declines to make a requested change, contractors are entitled to have their comments included in the final report. Under the FAR disputes clause, contractors may submit a claim challenging a faulty past performance assessment. Denial of such a claim can be appealed to a Board of Contract Appeals or the United States Court of Federal Claims.

Of course getting a court decision reversing a poor past performance assessment presents a number of hurdles. One such hurdle is the requirement that a contractor submit a “claim” and that the contracting officer issue a final decision denying it. Without a claim and a final decision or sufficient passage of time to establish a “deemed denial,” there would be no jurisdiction allowing a Board or the Court to consider a contractor challenge to a poor past performance assessment.

But what happens when a negative past performance assessment is linked to unresolved disputes over delays, change orders, or government backcharges? Wouldn’t a resolution in the contractor’s favor necessarily require a reassessment of the contractor’s performance? As a matter of common sense, yes. Unfortunately common sense doesn’t create Contract Disputes Act jurisdiction. The recent decision in Extreme Coatings, Inc. v. United States, No. 11-895C (Fed. Cl. Oct. 3, 2012), concludes that a claim involving affirmative contractor claims or government counterclaims does not meet the jurisdictional requirement for a claim challenging past performance.Continue Reading The correlation between contractor claims and past performance