The VA cannot buy products or services using the AbilityOne List without first applying the “rule of two” and determining whether qualified SDVOSBs and VOSBs are available to bid.
Today’s decision of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in PDS Consultants, Inc. v. United States, No. 16-1063C (2017) resolves–in favor of veteran-owned businesses–an important question that has been lingering since Kingdomware was decided nearly one year ago. The Court’s decision in PDS Consultants makes clear that at VA, SDVOSBs and VOSBs trump AbilityOne.
The Court’s decision involved an apparent conflict between two statutes: the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act, or JWOD, and the Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Information Technology Act of 2006, or VBA.
As SmallGovCon readers know, the VBA states that (with very limited exceptions), the VA must procure goods and services from SDVOSBs and VOSBs when the Contracting Officer has a reasonable expectation of receiving offers from two or more qualified veteran-owned companies at fair market prices. Last year, the Supreme Court unanimously confirmed, in Kingdomware, that the statutory rule of two broadly applies.
The JWOD predates the VBA. It provides that government agencies, including the VA, must purpose certain products and services from designated non-profits that employ blind and otherwise severely disabled people. The products and services subject to the JWOD’s requirements appear on a list known as the “AbilityOne List.” An entity called the “AbilityOne Commission” is responsible for placing goods and services on the AbilityOne list.
But which preference takes priority at VA? In other words, when a product or service is on the AbilityOne list, does the rule of two still apply? That’s where PDS Consultants, Inc. enters the picture.
The AbilityOne Commission added certain eyewear products and services for four Veterans Integrated Service Networks to the AbilityOne List. VISNs 2 and 7 had been added to the AbilityOne List before 2010. VISNs 2 and 8 were added to the AbilityOne list more recently.
PDS filed a bid protest at the Court, arguing that it was improper for the VA to obtain eyewear in all four VISNs without first applying the rule of two. The VA initially defended the protest by arguing that AbilityOne was a “mandatory source,” and that when items were on the AbilityOne List, the VA could (and should) buy them from AbilityOne non-profits instead of SDVOSBs and VOSBs.
But in February 2017, just two days before oral argument was to be held at the Court, the VA switched its position. The VA now stated that it would apply the rule of two before procuring an item from the AbilityOne list “if the item was added to the List on or after January 7, 2010,” the date the VA issued its initial regulations implementing the VBA. For items added to the AbilityOne List beforehand, however, no rule of two analysis would be performed.
(As an aside–the VA seems to be making a habit of switching its positions in these major cases).
The parties agreed that the VA’s new position mooted PDS’s challenges to VISNs 6 and 8, which would now be subject to the rule of two. But what about VISNs 2 and 7? PDS pushed forward, challenging the VA’s position that it could issue new contracts in those VISNs without performing a rule of two analysis. PDS argued, in effect, that nothing in the VBA allowed products added to the AbilityOne List before 2010 to somehow be “grandfathered” around the rule of two.
Judge Nancy Firestone agreed with PDS:
The court finds that the VBA requires the VA 19 to perform the Rule of Two analysis for all new procurements for eyewear, whether or not the product or service appears on the AbilityOne List, because the preference for veterans is the VA’s first priority. If the Rule of Two analysis does not demonstrate that there are two qualified veteran-owned small businesses willing to perform the contract, the VA is then required to use the AbilityOne List as a mandatory source.
Judge Firestone pointed out that under the VBA, “the VA must perform a Rule of Two inquiry that favors veteran-owned small businesses and service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses ‘in all contracting before using competitive procedures’ and limit competition to veteran-owned small businesses when the Rule of Two is satisfied.” Citing Kingdomware, Judge Firestone wrote that “like the [GSA Schedule], the VBA also does not contain an exception for obtaining goods and services under the AbilityOne program.” Judge Firestone concluded:
[T]he VA has a legal obligation to perform a Rule of Two analysis under the VBA when it seeks to procure eyewear in 2017 for VISNs 2 and 7 that have not gone through such analysis – even though the items were placed on the AbilityOne List before enactment of the VBA. The VA’s position that items added to the List prior to 2010 are forever excepted from the VBA’s requirements is contrary to the VBA statute no matter how many contracts are issued or renewed.
Judge Firestone granted PDS’s motion for judgment and ordered the VA not to enter into any new contracts for eyewear in VISNs 2 and 7 from the AbilityOne List “unless it first performs a Rule of Two analysis and determines that there are not two or more qualified veteran-owned small businesses capable of performing the contracts at a fair price.”
The apparent conflict between JWOD, on the one hand, and the VBA, on the other, was one of the major legal issues left unresolved by Kingdomware. Now, as we approach the one-year anniversary of that landmark decision, the Court of Federal Claims has delivered another big win for SDVOSBs and VOSBs.