SDVOSB Joint Ventures: SBA Overhauls Requirements

SDVOSB joint venture agreements will be required to look quite different after August 24, 2016.  That’s when a new SBA regulation takes effect–and the new regulation overhauls (and expands upon) the required provisions for SDVOSB joint venture agreements.

The changes made by this proposed rule will affect joint ventures’ eligibility for SDVOSB contracts.  It will be imperative that SDVOSBs understand that their old “template” JV agreements will be non-compliant after August 24, and that SDVOSBs and their joint venture partners carefully ensure that their subsequent joint venture agreements comply with all of the new requirements.

If you’ve been following SmallGovCon lately (and I hope that you have), you know that we’ve been posting a number of updates related to the SBA’s recent major final rule, which is best known for establishing a universal small business mentor-protege program.  But the final rule also includes many other important changes, including major updates to the requirements for SDVOSB joint ventures.  For those familiar with the requirements for 8(a) joint ventures, most of the new requirements will look familiar; the SBA states that its changes were intended to ensure more uniformity between joint venture agreements under the various socioeconomic set-aside programs.

The SBA’s final rule moves the SDVOSB joint venture requirements from 13 C.F.R. 125.15 to 13 C.F.R. 125.18 (a change of note primarily to those of us in the legal profession).  But the new regulation is substantively very different than the old.  Below are the highlights of the major requirements under the new rule.  Of course (and this should go without saying), this post is educational only; those interested in forming a SDVOSB joint venture should consult the new regulations themselves, or consult with experienced legal counsel, rather than using this post as a guide.

Size Eligibility 

In order to form an SDVOSB joint venture, at least one of the participants must be an SDVOSB, and must also be a small business under the NAICS code assigned to the procurement in question. The other joint venturer can be another small business, or the partner can be the SDVOSB’s mentor under the new small business mentor-protege program or the 8(a) mentor-protege program:

A joint venture between a protege firm that qualifies as an SDVO SBC and its SBA-approved mentor (see [Sections] 125.9 and 124.520 of this chapter) will  be deemed small provided the protege qualifies as small for the size standard corresponding to the NAICS code assigned to the SDVO procurement or sale.

This piece of the new regulation appears to overturn a recent SBA Office of Hearings and Appeals decision, in which OHA held that a mentor-protege joint venture was ineligible for an SDVOSB set-aside contract because the mentor firm was not a large business.

Required Joint Venture Agreement Provisions

Under the new regulations, an SDVOSB joint venture agreement must include the following provisions:

  • Purpose.  The joint venture agreement must set forth the purpose of the joint venture.  This is not a change from the old rules.
  • Managing Member.   An SDVOSB must be named the managing member of the joint venture.  This is not a change from the old rules.
  • Project Manager.  An SDVOSB’s employee must be named the project manager responsible for performance of the contract.  This, too, is not a change from the old rules.  Curiously, unlike in the rules governing small business mentor-protege joint ventures, the SBA doesn’t specify whether the project manager can be a contingent hire, or instead must  be a current employee of the SDVOSB.  The new regulation also doesn’t address OHA case law holding that a specific individual must be named in the agreement (i.e., it’s insufficient to simply state that “an employee of the SDVOSB will be the project manager.”)  It’s unfortunate that the SBA didn’t address that issue; if the SBA agrees with OHA’s rulings, it would have been nice to have the regulations reflect this requirement so that SDVOSBs understand that a specific name is required.
  • Ownership. If the joint venture is a separate legal entity (e.g., LLC), the SDVOSB must own at least 51%.  This is a change from the old rules, which don’t address ownership.
  • Profits. The SDVOSB member must receive profits from the joint venture commensurate with the work performed by the SDVOSB, or in the case of a separate legal entity joint venture, commensurate with its ownership share. This is a change from the old rule, which applies the 51% threshold to all SDVOSB JVs.  To me, there is no good reason to distinguish between “informal” and “separate legal entity” joint ventures, especially since the SBA (elsewhere in its final rule) concedes that “state law would recognize an ‘informal’ joint venture with a written document setting forth the responsibilities of the joint venture partners as some sort of partnership.”  In other words, an informal joint venture is a legal entity too, just not one that has been formally organized with a state government.  In any event, the long and short of this change is that we can expect to see many more informal SDVOSB joint ventures.  That’s because, using the informal form, the non-SDVOSB will be able to perform up to 60% of the work and receive 60% of the profits (see the discussion of work split below); whereas in a separate legal entity joint venture, the non-SDVOSB will be limited to 49% of profits, no matter how much work the non-SDVOSB performs.
  • Bank Account.  The parties must establish a special bank account” in the name of the joint venture.  This is a change from the old rule, which is silent regarding bank accounts.  The account “must require the signature of all parties to the joint venture or designees for withdrawal purposes.” All payments to the joint venture for performance on an SDVOSB will be deposited in the special bank account; all expenses incurred under the contract will be paid from the account.
  • Equipment, Facilities, and Other Resources. Itemize all major equipment, facilities, and other resources to be furnished by each venturer, along with a detailed schedule of the cost or value of such items. This is a change from the old rule, which doesn’t require this information to be set forth in an SDVOSB joint venture agreement.  In a recent court decision, an 8(a) joint venture was penalized for providing insufficient details about these items—even though the contract in question was an IDIQ contract, making it difficult to provide a “detailed schedule” at the time the joint venture agreement was executed. Perhaps in response to that decision, the new regulations provide that “if a contract is indefinite in nature,” such as an IDIQ, the joint venture “must provide a general description of the anticipated major equipment, facilities, and other resources to be furnished by each party to the joint venture, without a detailed schedule of cost or value of each, or in the alternative, specify how the parties to the joint venture will furnish such resources to the joint venture once a definite scope of work is made publicly available.”
  • Parties’ Responsibilities.  Specify the responsibilities of the venturers with regard to contract negotiation, source of labor, and contract performance, including ways that the parties will ensure that the joint venture will meet the performance of work requirements set forth in the new rule.  Again, if the contract is indefinite, a lesser amount of information will be permitted.  This is an update from the old rule, which requires information on contract negotiation, source of labor, and contract performance, but does not require a discussion of how the SDVOSB joint venture will meet the performance of work requirements.
  • Ensured Performance. Obligate all parties to the joint venture to ensure complete performance despite the withdrawal of any venturer. This is not a change from the current rule.
  • Records. State that accounting and other administrative records of the joint venture must be kept in the office of the small business managing venturer, unless the SBA gives permission to keep them elsewhere. Additionally, the joint venture’s final original records must be retained by the SDVOSB managing venturer upon completion of the contract. These provisions, which are not included in the old rule, seem dated in the assumption that records will be kept in paper form; it instead would have been nice for the SBA to allow for more modern record-keeping, like a cloud-based records system that enables documents to be available in real-time to both parties.
  • Statements. Provide that quarterly financial statements showing cumulative contract receipts and expenditures (including salaries of the joint venture’s principals) must be submitted to the SBA not later than 45 days after each operating quarter of the joint venture. This language, which was basically copied from the 8(a) program regulations, doesn’t specify who might be a “joint venture principal” in a world in which populated joint ventures have been eliminated. The joint venture agreement must also state that the parties will submit a project-end profit-and-loss statement, including a statement of final profit distribution, to the SBA no later than 90 days after completion of the contract.  I find these requirements a bit odd because, unlike for 8(a) joint ventures, the SBA doesn’t pre-approve SDVOSB joint ventures, nor does it seem that the SBA will review a particular SDVOSB joint venture agreement except in the case of a protest.  So why the ongoing requirement for submitting financial records?

While I wish that every SDVOSB would call qualified legal counsel before setting up an SDVOSB joint venture, the reality is that many SDVOSBs attempt to cut costs by relying on joint venture agreement “templates” obtained from a teammate or even from questionable internet sources.  Using SDVOSB joint venture agreement templates is risky enough under the old rules, but will be an even bigger problem after August 24, when all those old templates become severely outdated.  I hope that all SDVOSBs become aware of the need to have updated joint venture agreements meeting the new regulatory requirements, but I won’t be surprised to see some SDVOSB joint ventures using outdated templates in the months to come–and losing out on SDVOSB set-asides as a result.

Performance of Work Requirements

In addition to setting forth many new and changed requirements for SDVOSB joint venture agreements, the new regulation also specifies that, for any SDVOSB contract, “the SDVO SBC partner(s) to the joint venture must perform at least 40% of the work performed by the joint venture.”  That work “must be more than administrative or ministerial functions so that [the SDVOSBs] gain substantive experience.”  The joint venture must also comply with the limitations on subcontracting set forth in 13 C.F.R. 125.6.

And that’s not all: the SDVOSB partner to the joint venture “must annually submit a report to the relevant contracting officer and to the SBA, signed by an authorized official of each partner to the joint venture, explaining how and certifying that the performance of work requirements are being met.”  Additionally, at the completion of the SDVOSB contract, a final report must be submitted to the contracting officer and the SBA, “explaining how and certifying that the performance of work requirements were met for the contract, and further certifying that the contract was performed in accordance with the provisions of the joint venture agreement that are required” under the new regulation.

Past Performance and Experience 

Many SDVOSBs will groan at the new paperwork and reporting requirements established under the new regulation.  But the SBA has inserted at least one provision that is a definite “win” for SDVOSBs and their joint venture partners: the new regulation requires contracting officers to consider the past performance and experience of both members of an SDVOSB joint venture.  The regulation states:

When evaluating the past performance and experience of an entity submitting an offer for an SDVO contract as a joint venture established pursuant to this section, a procuring activity must consider work done by each partner to the joint venture as well as any work done by the joint venture itself previously.

Small businesses sometimes assume that agencies are required to consider the past performance and experience of the individual members of a joint venture–but until now, that wasn’t the case.  True, many contracting officers considered such experience anyway, but there have been high-profile examples of agencies refusing to consider the past performance of a joint venture’s members.  Of course, a joint venture is defined as a limited purpose arrangement, so it makes no sense to require the joint venture itself to demonstrate relevant past performance.  This change to the SBA’s regulations is important and helpful.

The Road Ahead

After August 24, 2016, those old template SDVOSB joint venture agreements won’t be anywhere close to compliant, so SDVOSBs should act quickly to educate themselves about the new regulations and adjust any planned joint venture relationships accordingly.  For SDVOSBs and their joint venture partners, the landscape is about to shift.