Every year or so, the U.S. Postal Service changes the standard Terms and Conditions that apply to its newly awarded Highway Contract Route (HCR) and Contract Delivery Service (CDS) contacts. When this occurs, the new terms only apply to newly awarded contracts–existing contracts are unaffected and retain the same terms as when awarded.

But this year, the Postal Service has sought to apply new Terms and Conditions to existing CDS contracts as well as newly awarded ones. In an email to its CDS contractors, the Postal Service asked them to sign, without any “alterations or additions,” a contract modification that incorporated the new terms. If the contractor did not so, the Postal Service’s email threatened contract termination:

“Because of the Postal Service’s interest in maintaining consistency across its many CDS contracts, please note that a failure to respond to this correspondence … may lead the Postal Service to consider termination of the subject contract.”

After receiving this email, many contractors asked me: “Can the Postal Service really do this?” In my opinion, several legal arguments, if upheld, would make the resulting modification unenforceable. For example, the modification might fail for lack of consideration, because it gave the Postal Service what it wanted without giving anything that contractors valued in return. And it might fail for violation of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, because it seeks to recapture benefits that were foreclosed at the time of contract award. But I think the best argument against its enforceability is based on the legal theory of coercion and duress. Normally, this is a difficult argument to make, but here the elements seem apparent from the Postal Service’s email itself.

Proving duress

To be relieved from a contract modification you signed on the basis of duress or coercion, you need to prove three things. First, you need to show that you involuntarily agreed to the modification. One common way of showing this is writing “under protest” next to your signature. But that was not an option here, because the Postal Service’s email said you must sign with “no alterations or additions” or it would nullify the document. No contractor sought the modification, nor was asked how they viewed it. The Postal Service’s email itself thus establishes involuntary action, as it permitted no response other than the contractor’s signature on an unaltered modification.

Second, you need to show that the circumstances permitted no other alternative than signing the modification. Once again, the Postal Service’s email again establishes this for you. The email says you must sign the modification or you risk having your contract terminated. In these circumstances, you have no other reasonable alternative to signing, because if you do not sign, you will lose the contract.

The Postal Service might argue that the email said a refusal to sign would only “lead the Postal Service to consider termination of the subject contract,” not that it was dead certain to be terminated. But viewed in context of the entire email, there was little reason to believe a non-conforming contract would survive. The Postal Service’s email explained that it was seeking uniformity in contract terms among all of its CDS contracts. If you did not sign the modification, then your contract would run counter to this policy. The email gave no reason to hope that your non-uniform contract would remain in place if you refused to sign the modification.

Third, you need to show that the circumstances you were faced with were the result of the Postal Service’s coercive acts and not a predicament of your own making. Once again, this is established by the Postal Service’s email. Contractors did nothing to place themselves into this predicament.

Gurdak case found similar coercion

A dozen years ago, the Postal Service tried something similar and the resulting modification was found to be coerced and unenforceable. In George P. Gurdak, PSBCA No. 5049, 05-2 BCA ¶ 33,092, the parties had previously agreed to a 10-year facility lease that required the contractor to make some renovations. When it came time for the Postal Service to approve the design of the renovations, the Postal Service balked, but not because of any problems it had with the design. Instead, the Postal Service wanted to pay a lower rent because it had re-measured the usable space and it was smaller than USPS had thought. The contractor strenuously objected to the modification, but the Postal Service said, “Take it or leave it.”  Without USPS’s design approval, the contractor could not proceed with the project, so the contractor signed the modification that reduced the lease rate.

After the building was renovated, the contractor submitted a claim for the original, higher lease rate. The contracting officer denied the claim, contending that the contractor had agreed to the lower rate in the signed modification. The contractor appealed to the Postal Service Board of Contract Appeals, contending the modification was coerced and unenforceable. The PSBCA agreed. Even though the Postal Service had the contractual right to approve the renovations design, its use of that right must still be exercised in good faith. The Board held that the Postal Service could not threaten exercise of a legitimate contract right if the exercise of that contract right would violate notions of fair dealing due to its coercive effect.

Just as in Gurdak, the Postal Service has threatened CDS contractors with exercise of a legitimate contract right (here, termination) in a way that violates notions of fair dealing and is coercive. In both cases, a “take it or leave it” threat was made for the wrongful purpose of forcing the contractor to accept new contract terms.

The Board in Gurdak held that the coerced modification was not binding on the contractor. Did this mean that the contractor could hold the Postal Service to those parts of the modification that it wished to enforce? In its email to CDS contractors, the Postal Service stated that the modification would also remove “outdated supplier obligations.”  If that is indeed true, then under Gurdak, is it possible that the Postal Service would still be bound to those parts of the modification?

What’s next?

In most cases, the modification will likely have little impact on performance, but it does increase the risk of disputes arising from the modification’s new obligations and approval requirements. Should USPS seek to enforce one of these new obligations, you may need to assert that such directive constitutes a constructive change because it arises from a coercive and unenforceable modification. If a mutually agreeable solution cannot be reached, you may need to bring a claim for the cost impact of the new directive under the Claims and Disputes clause of the contract.

The U.S. Postal Service spends about $3 billion per year to move the mail by truck and does so under a special type of contract called a Highway Contract Route (HCR) contract. These contracts have unique contract clauses, and even their own lingo. For example, an HCR “amendment” is what the rest of the government contracting world would call a contract “modification.”

One of the biggest differences between HCR contracts and other government contracts is the Changes clause. Under an HCR contract, the contracting officer has limited ability to direct unilateral changes. The CO may only issue a unilateral change, called a “minor service change,” if the price impact would be $5,000 or less. Under a Contract Delivery Service (CDS) contract – a subset of HCR contracts for mailbox deliveries – unilateral changes must be $2,500 or less. Even for these changes, a contractor who disagrees with the CO’s determination may file a claim for additional compensation.

In addition to these monetary thresholds, unilateral changes are further restricted to certain types of changes. The only unilateral changes a CO can direct are an extension, a curtailment, a change in line of travel, a revision of route, and an increase or decrease in frequency of service or number of trips. The CO has no authority to unilaterally direct any other change, even if the price impact would be $5,000 or less. For example, the contracting officer may not unilaterally direct a contractor to change equipment or buy new equipment. Continue Reading The unique Changes clause in Postal Service HCR contracts

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. Continue Reading Three legal principles that limit the Termination with Notice clause

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. Continue Reading Court orders Postal Service to justify lawfulness of three standard clauses

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 will present the seminar on January 19, 2016, at 9:00 – 10:30 a.m., at the Golden Nugget Hotel in Last Vegas, NV.

The seminar focuses on two areas where HCR contractors have substantial rights and remedies. First, we examine the claims process, which gives contractors the right to recover funds for various Postal Service actions – or inactions. We describe the activities that potentially generate claims, how to prepare a claim, when to bring a claim, and how claims are processed and resolved. We review actual claims that arose from service changes and describe how courts have ruled on them. We also provide a list of do’s and don’ts when preparing and submitting claims.

Second, we describe the “disagreement” process, which allows contractors to protest a Postal Service procurement action or award decision. We explain the grounds for bringing a disagreement, deadlines and filing requirements, and decisions by the USPS Supplier Disagreement Resolution Officer (SDRO).

The seminar is presented in conjunction with the Central/Western Area regional meeting of the National Star Route Mail Contractors Association. Separate registration is required. For Star Route Association members, the seminar fee is $195; for non-members, $295.  A $50 discount applies to each additional person who attends from the same company. Those wishing to register may go to https://www.regonline.com/hcr  or contact seminar coordinator Shana Hoy at  816.983.8809 at shana.hoy@huschblackwell.com.

COVER of USPS OIG report Voyager capping Sept 30 2014Calling the Voyager fuel card program unmanageable and uneconomic, the USPS Office of Inspector General recommends that the Postal Service use another method to manage fuel under its HCR contracts. In its advisory report dated September 30, 2014, the OIG concludes that the Voyager fuel card program has cost more money that it saved and discourages fuel efficiency. The Postal Service spent $5.1 billion for 1.6 billion gallons of fuel for Highway Contract Route (HCR) contracts under the program over the last nine years.

Continue Reading Voyager card fuel program is unmanageable, says USPS OIG

The Postal Service spent $2.8 billion on 16,993 Highway Contract Route (HCR) contracts in 2011, according to a newly released audit report by the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General (OIG).  The OIG conducted the audit to assess the integrity of data in the Transportation Contract Support System (TCSS). OIG found the TCSS data is accurate. In a spot-check of 196 sampled contracts, OIG did not find a single data error. But there was one area of disagreement with management. OIG contended that 94% of the sampled contracts did not have proper funding approval documentation prior to contract award. Postal management disagreed with this conclusion, saying that advance funding approval was obtained through other methods.

Continue Reading Postal Service spent $2.8 billion on highway transportation in 2011

Personal use of an undeliverable coupon by a mail delivery contractor violated postal regulations but did not justify the default termination of her contract.  The particular post office had allowed others in the office to use such undeliverable items, though that local practice violated postal regulations.  Although the Postal Service Board of Contract of Contract Appeals (PSBCA) decided the case in the contractor’s favor, one judge dissented and believed the termination was justifiable.  See Laura K. McNew, PSBCA No. 6286, April 23, 2012.

Continue Reading Postal contractor’s default termination overturned

Oral contracts do exist, and the U.S. Postal Service cannot force you to sign a contract with different terms than previously agreed upon. That’s the take-way from a recent decision issued by the Postal Service Board of Contract Appeals (PSBCA) in a case called Sharon Roedel, PSBCA No. 6347, 6348, April 10, 2012.  The PSBCA found that the Postal Service breached an oral contract it had with Roedel, and that USPS owed her the profits and wages she would have earned under the six-month emergency contract.

Continue Reading Postal Service breaches oral contract: owes contractor lost profit and wages

If your Postal Service HCR contract is terminated for convenience, what costs are you entitled to recover?  The Postal Service Board of Contract Appeals recently addressed this very question.  Here’s a hint: it’s more than just the cost of your now underused equipment.  Read on for the details.

Continue Reading Recoverable Costs under a Terminated Postal Service Contract