The government can terminate a contract when the Department of Labor has made a preliminary finding of non-compliance with the Service Contract Act, even if the contractor has not exhausted its remedies fighting or appealing the finding.
The 3-0 (unanimous) decision by the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals in Puget Sound Environmental Corp., ASBCA No. 58828 (July 12, 2016) is troubling because it could result in other contractors losing their contracts based on preliminary DOL findings–perhaps even if those preliminary findings are later overturned.
The Puget Sound decision involved two contracts under which Puget Sound Environmental Corporation was to provide qualified personnel to accomplish general labor tasks aboard Navy vessels or at naval shore leave facilities. Both contracts included the FAR’s Service Contract Act clauses.
Under that first contract, PSE ran into SCA issues. DOL investigated and PSE entered into a payment plan to remedy the alleged violations.
The Navy, knowing about the payment plan, nevertheless entered into another contract with PSE to provide similar services. The second contract, like the first, was subject to the SCA.
Early into the performance of the second contract (referred to as Task Order 9) during the summer of 2011, DOL began a new investigation into PSE. DOL’s investigation ultimately concluded that PSE owed its workers over $1.4 million on both contracts for failure to pay prevailing wage rates, and failing to provide appropriate health and welfare benefits and holidays to its covered employees. DOL made some harsh claims, including that PSE had classified skilled maintenance and environmental technicians as laborers and had issued health insurance cards to employees who were stuck with large medical bills after they found the cards were not valid.
During the investigation, on September 1, 2011, DOL wrote to the Navy contracting officer and informed the contracting officer of DOL’s preliminary findings. A week later, the contracting officer emailed PSE and told it that the Navy “no longer has need for the firewatch/laborer services provided under task order” 9, and that the Navy was terminating the contract for convenience. That same day, as would eventually come out in discovery, the contracting officer had written an internal email stating that he was concerned about awarding PSE another task order because of the supposed likelihood that PSE would “commit Fraud against [its] employees[.]”
Five days later, PSE agreed to allow the Navy to transfer funds due on Task Order 9 to DOL to be disbursed as back wages. Shortly thereafter, on September 15, PSE and the Navy mutually agreed to terminate the contract for convenience. The Navy issued no further task orders, but awarded a bridge contract for the same services to another contractor in October of that year.
Just under two years later, on May 17, 2013, PSE submitted a certified claim under the Contract Disputes Act, claiming lost revenue of $82.4 million (based on five years worth of revenue on the contract) and asked for 4% of that number, or $3.3 million in damages. The contracting officer never issued a final decision on the claim, so PSE treated this as a deemed denial and on August 9, 2013, appealed the decision to the ASBCA.
On May 12, 2014, DOL’s Office of Administrative Law Judges reviewed the findings of the DOL investigation and concluded that DOL was right to assess the $1.4 million in back pay. The Office of Administrative Law Judges determined that PSE should be debarred for three years. PSE appealed the decision to the Administrative Review Board, which affirmed the ALJ. PSE indicated that it would appeal the ruling in federal court, although it had not done so by the time the ASBCA ruled on PSE’s appeal.
At the ASBCA, both PSE and the Navy moved for summary judgment. PSE primarily argued that the Navy terminated the contract in bad faith. PSE said that the contracting officer rushed to judgment and that the termination for convenience was effectively a termination for default, relying on the use of the word “fraud” in the contracting officer’s internal email as evidence of animus.
The ASBCA said: “Whether fraud was the best word choice is not the issue before us; the undisputed facts show that the contracting officer had a good faith basis for concluding that PSE failed to pay its employees in accordance with the contracts and that it had deceived those employees by leading them to believe that they had health insurance when, in fact, they did not.” The ASBCA denied PSE’s motion for summary judgment, and granted the Navy’s motion.
While the facts of the case are interesting, they’re not all that unique; DOL investigates and prosecutes alleged SCA violations with some frequency. What’s troubling about the Puget Sound case is that the Navy unceremoniously terminated a contractor well before any of the new allegations were fully adjudicated and before PSE had the opportunity to contest DOL’s preliminary findings.
Although PSE could still prevail in federal court, the preliminary findings were confirmed by DOL’s ALJ and Administrative Review Board. But preliminary findings are just that–preliminary–and sometimes are overturned. The ASBCA’s decision therefore begs the question: what if a future contractor is terminated based on a preliminary DOL finding that is later overturned? Does Puget Sound Environmental mean that that contractor would have no remedy?
It’s certainly a possibility. That said, some there may be ways for other contractors to distinguish Puget Sound Environmental.
For one thing, PSE had already agreed to pay back wages on an earlier contract, of which the contracting officer was aware. That earlier settlement likely influenced the contracting officer’s decision; had the DOL’s preliminary findings on task order 9 stood in a vacuum, the contracting officer might have allowed things to play out.
Additionally, in reaching its conclusion, the ASBCA wrote that “PSE has not provided us with any evidence that DOL is wrong (and that the contracting officer’s reliance on DOL is actionable.” For example, the ASBCA said, “with respect to the allegation that PSE failed to pay health and welfare benefits, if DOL was wrong and PSE had paid for those benefits, it would have been relatively simple to establish this. But, PSE has failed to provide any such evidence.” In a case where DOL’s preliminary findings were overturned, the contractor would have strong evidence that those preliminary findings were wrong–and hopefully, that it was unreasonable for the contracting officer to rely on those findings.
There is an old legal adage that “hard cases make bad law,” which means that when judges allow themselves to be persuaded by sympathy, they make bad decisions. The same can be true when the parties involved elicit little sympathy, as may have been the case here–by not providing evidence that it had actually complied with the SCA, PSE wasn’t likely to win many points with the ASBCA’s judges.
That said, the next appellant who comes before the ASBCA with a similar issue may be able to demonstrate that it did, in fact, comply with the SCA, and that DOL’s preliminary findings were wrong. If so, it remains to be seen how the ASBCA will view the termination of that appellant’s contract.