Federal Court Protest Causes GAO Dismissal

When multiple unsuccessful offerors protest a solicitation, the GAO ordinarily will dismiss any and all bid protests associated with the procurement in the event one unsuccessful offeror takes its case to federal court–even if some protesters would prefer to remain at the GAO.

As one federal contractor recently learned in Colleague Consulting, LLC—Reconsideration, B-413156.18 (Sept. 12, 2016), the GAO’s jurisdictional rules prevent it from deciding protests when the outcome of the protest could be affected by a pending federal court decision.

Colleague Consulting involved a competition for a GSA contract. Colleague Consulting, LLC was eliminated from the pool of successful offerors because its proposal was deemed technically unacceptable. After learning of its exclusion, CCL filed protest with the GAO.

Separately, another unsuccessful offeror under the same solicitation filed a bid protest before the GAO challenging the GSA’s decision not to conduct discussions. After a time, that second unsuccessful offeror withdrew its protest from the GAO and refiled it before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

One of the goals of the GAO protest process is to give government contractors an administrative alternative to pursuing their bid protests in federal court. The GAO process, by design, is typically faster and less expensive than pursuing a protest in court (though not always). Despite this option, contractors also are afforded the opportunity to pursue bid protests at the Court of Federal Claims.

Because both the GAO and the Court of Federal Claims are authorized to decide bid protests, there is the possibility that different adjudicators will come to differing—and potentially contradictory—conclusions. To prevent such an outcome, the GAO’s jurisdictional regulations, at 4 C.F.R. § 21.11(b), state that “GAO will dismiss any case where the matter involved is the subject of litigation before, or has been decided on the merits by, a court of competent jurisdiction.”

Returning to Colleague Consulting, after the GAO received notice of the Court of Federal Claims protest, determined that “disposition of the COFC case could render a decision by our Office on CCL’s protest academic.” The GAO dismissed CCL’s protest, citing 4 C.F.R. § 21.11(b).

CCL filed a motion for reconsideration, urging the GAO to reverse its decision and continue hearing its protest. CCL argued that the word “matter” within  4 C.F.R. § 21.11(b) should be construed narrowly to mean that the GAO must dismiss a protest only where the arguments before the GAO and Court are similar. In this case, CCL argued, the arguments were entirely dissimilar: CCL was protesting its technical evaluation whereas the other unsuccessful offeror was protesting the GSA’s decision not to hold discussions.

The GAO disagreed.  It wrote:

While the word ‘matter’ is not defined, there is nothing in the language of the regulation, or elsewhere, to suggest that it is meant to apply to the exact narrow issue involved in the protest before our Office. Instead, the matter before the court can properly be characterized as a dispute over which companies should have remained in the competition under the GSA solicitation. While that matter remains before the [federal court], GAO will not also decide the question.

GAO denied CCL’s request for reconsideration.

In today’s contracting environment, it is not uncommon for more than one offeror to pursue a protest over the same procurement. With each offeror being able to choose where it wants to file (i.e. GAO or the Court of Federal Claims), an offeror wishing to use the GAO’s administrative processes may nonetheless be out of luck if a competitor chooses the Court.

Ian Patterson, a law clerk with Koprince Law LLC, was this post’s primary author.