In a GAO bid protest, recovering costs after an agency takes corrective action turns on whether or not the agency unduly delayed the corrective action.
A recent GAO case shows that, in certain circumstances, an agency may be able to fight a protester almost to the bitter end, then take corrective action without necessarily having crossed the “unduly delayed” line.
In Evergreen Flying Services, Inc., B-414238.10 (Oct. 2, 2017), the Department of the Interior issued a solicitation in September of 2016, asking for private aircraft to help fight wildfires.
DOI wanted to hire up to 33 planes for four years, with an optional six-month extension. The idea was that the planes would be offered to the Bureau of Land Management exclusively for the 2017 fire season.
A month later, DOI received proposals from 15 firms. It evaluated offers and settled on six firms and 33 individual planes (firms could offer the use of multiple aircraft). DOI announced the awards in December 2016.
Evergreen Flying Services, Inc., a small business from Rayville, Louisiana, was one of the unsuccessful offerors. It filed a GAO bid protest the day after Christmas. Four days later, it filed a supplemental protest. Evergreen challenged the agency’s evaluation of its proposal, the best value determination, and the availability of the awardee’s aircraft.
In January 2017, before submitting an agency report, DOI chose to take corrective action. Over the next two months, it reevaluated proposals and increased Evergreen’s ratings, but still did not select it for award. Evergreen protested again, on March 3.
This time DOI fought the protest. It filed a request for dismissal (which GAO denied) and then filed an agency report on April 5. The report included each awardee’s complete schedule of services/supplies, aircraft questionnaires, and DOI’s evaluation sheets for each awardee.
Evergreen poured through the documents, seized on some issues, and filed a supplemental protest (and comments on the agency report) on April 17. The supplemental protest, for the first time, alleged flaws relating to the other offerors and the agency’s evaluation of their proposals, including minor but technical flaws such as unsigned or typewritten names instead of signatures, and reliance on supporting documentation that was outside the solicitation’s five-year window.
GAO asked for a supplemental agency report. Two days before it was due, DOI chose to take corrective action by cancelling the solicitation altogether. DOI said that the fire season was rapidly approaching and it did not have time to reevaluate proposals again. It also said it could acquire the planes it needed through other means: most of the offerors, including Evergreen, had “on-call” contracts with DOI for fire suppression services.
GAO dismissed Evergreen’s latest protests on May 4.
Evergreen and other offerors then protested the decision to cancel the solicitation and lost. The result, therefore, of three protests, two supplemental protests, one agency report, one request for dismissal, and two corrective actions, was zero contracts.
By then, Evergreen (which was using DC-based government contracts lawyers) had, no doubt, spent a significant amount of money on legal fees. It filed a request for a recommendation of costs, arguing that the agency had unduly delayed taking corrective action in the face of a clearly meritorious protest. It had been 235 days (nearly eight months) since the solicitation came out, and 130 days since Evergreen’s initial protest.
GAO wrote that, when a procuring agency takes corrective action in response to a protest, “our Office may recommend reimbursement of protest costs where, based on the circumstances of the case, we determine that the agency unduly delayed taking corrective action in the face of a clearly meritorious protest, thereby causing the protester to expend unnecessary time and resources to make further use of the protest process in order to obtain relief.” A protest is “clearly meritorious” where “a reasonable agency inquiry into the protester’s allegations would reveal facts showing the absence of a defensible legal position.” And, with respect to promptness, “we review the record to determine whether the agency took appropriate and timely steps to investigate and resolve the impropriety.”
Because the better part of a year had passed during which time the agency fought the protester by filing a motion to dismiss (which it lost) and an agency report, Evergreen probably thought it had a good case for costs, at least on the “unduly delayed” side of the ledger.
But that is not the way GAO saw it. GAO said that the measure of undue delay is not whether the corrective action was prompt with respect to the protester’s initial grounds, but rather whether the corrective action was prompt with respect to the first “clearly meritorious” grounds of protest.
Thus, in order to recover costs back to the December protest and initial corrective action, “the central consideration . . . is whether Evergreen’s December protest included clearly meritorious protest ground that the agency expressly committed to rectify, but failed to, such that the protester was forced to continue its bid protest litigation to get relief.”
GAO said that the initial December 2016 protests did not include “any protest grounds that we consider clearly meritorious on their face.” As for the second protest, which again DOI fought hard against, GAO said that it was not necessarily meritorious either, just that the “argument required further record development and response from the agency to determine whether the protest ground had merit.”
Finally, GAO said that because the final corrective action took place two days before the supplemental agency report was due, the agency did not unduly delay taking it—adding that the arguments brought after reviewing the awardees’ and the evaluation documents may not have had merit.
In other words, DOI’s corrective action was not delayed. In fact, it was two days early. GAO denied the request for costs. GAO noted that the purpose of recommending costs is not to reward a protester for winning. It is to “encourage agencies to take prompt action to correct apparent defects in competitive procurements.”
Evergreen Flying Service shows that just because a protester “wins” does not mean GAO will recommend an award of costs, even when the protest process takes a long time. In our practice, we often suggest that clients assume that protest costs won’t be reimbursed, even if there is a corrective action or “sustain” decision, and consider an award of costs to be a potential bonus that may (or may not) accompany a successful protest. With the twin hurdles of “undue delay” and “clearly meritorious” to surmount, a recovery of costs is not a given.