When issues arise in performance of a federal contract, a contractor may seek redress from the government by filing a claim with the contracting officer. However, commencing such a claim may result in an exercise of patience and waiting by the contractor.
The Contract Disputes Act, as a jurisdictional hurdle for claims over $100,000, requires a contractor to submit a “certified claim” to the agency. The CDA also requires the contracting officer, within sixty days of receipt of a certified claim, to issue a decision on that claim or notify the contractor of the time within which the decision will be issued.
That second part of the equation can lead to some frustration on the part of contractors. As seen in a recent Civilian Board of Contract Appeals decision, a contracting officer may, in an appropriate case, extend the ordinary 60-day time frame by several months.
In Stobil Enterprise v. Department Veterans Affairs, CBCA No. 5616 (2017), the VA awarded Strobil a contract to provide housekeeping and dietary services for an inpatient living program at a VA facility. After encountering contractual issues, Stobil initially filed a claim in the amount of $166,000. The VA denied this claim, and Stobil appealed. The CBCA dismissed Stobil’s appeal because the underlying claim hadn’t included the required certification.
Stobil then went back to the drawing board and filed a certified claim, “based on the same contracts and similar issues as those presented” in the first claim. But the certified claim was in the amount of $321,288.20, plus a whopping $2.3 million in interest. Stobil filed its certified claim on November 28, 2016.
By way of a January 27, 2017 letter, the contracting officer notified Stobil that the contracting officer would issue a decision on the certified claim by March 31, 2017. According to the contracting officer, the decision would be issued about four months after Stobil had filed its claim–or about twice as long as the 60-day time frame set forth in the CDA.
Apparently frustrated with the delay, Stobil requested the CBCA direct the contracting officer to issue its decision sooner. The CBCA declined this request.
In its rationale, the CBCA noted that the CDA doesn’t require a contracting officer to issue a decision within 60 days, but instead provides the contracting officer the option of notifying the contractor of the time within which the decision will be issued. The CDA doesn’t provide an outer limit on the period in which the decision may be extended beyond 60 days. Instead, the question is whether the delay was reasonable in light of the specific facts and circumstances of the case.
The CBCA continued:
Typically, in evaluating undue delay and reasonableness [of the date proposed by the contracting officer for issuance of a decision on a claim], a tribunal considers a number of factors, including the underlying claim’s complexity, the adequacy of contractor-provided supporting information, the need for external technical analysis by experts, the desirability of an audit, and the size of and detail contained in the claim.
The CBCA explained that while the VA had previously issued a decision on Stobil’s claims involving similar matters,”Stobil nearly doubled the amount of its claim from its former appeal . . . and is also now seeking around $2.3 million in interest.” This is, the CBCA said, “by no means a slight up-tick in money sought, such that the contracting officer should be able to rely primarily on whatever documentation Stobil previously submitted” with its initial claim. The CBCA agreed with the VA that with the significantly increased monetary demand and possibility of new items requiring review, the contracting officer was not “unduly delayed” in issuing a decision. The CBCA concluded that the VA’s timeline for issuing a decision on the certified claim was “reasonable, constituting only a modest delay.”
It’s commonly understood that a claim filed pursuant to the Contract Disputes Act must be decided within 60 days. But as the Stobil Enterprise case demonstrates, agencies have the discretion to extend the 60-day period significantly, provided that the extension is deemed “reasonable.” Here, the contracting officer essentially doubled the underlying 60-day period, but was guilty of nothing more than a “modest delay.” Contractors availing themselves of the claims process should be prepared to play the waiting game.