As recently as May, the Department of Veterans Affairs told a nonprofit helping to employ blind workers that it intended to renew its contract. The organization was shocked, therefore, when on July 30, the VA issued a notice of award to a service-disabled veteran-owned small business. To make matters worse, the nonprofit’s GAO protest of the award was promptly dismissed for being untimely.
It’s no secret that the VA has tried to find ways around the statutorily-mandated rule of two–i.e. VA must set aside procurements for VOSBS if it has a reasonable expectation that it will receive fair and reasonable offers from two or more veteran-owned small businesses. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has already told VA, in Kingdomware, that it cannot circumvent the rule of two, VA apparently is still seeking ways to avoid it.
In late 2017, we wrote that the VA was considering using tiered evaluations to simultaneously 1) comply with the VA’s statutory Rule of Two (and Kingdomware), and 2) address situations in which SDVOSBs and VOSBs might not offer “fair and reasonable” pricing.
Since then, the VA has instituted the tiered evaluation process for certain solicitations, using one of three approaches:
Ever since the Supreme Court’s Kingdomware decision was handed down in 2016, an important question has remained: who has priority at the VA for items on the AbilityOne List?
Yesterday, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals provided the answer. The VA is required to prioritize service-disabled veteran-owned or veteran-owned small businesses when the Rule of Two is met, even when it buys items on the AbilityOne List.
In a strongly-worded opinion, a federal judge decried a “labyrinth of legal and regulatory hoops and hurdles” imposed on the VA as a result of the famous Kingdomware Supreme Court decision–and suggested that Congress could exercise a “kill switch” to curtail or even eliminate the SDVOSB and VOSB contracting preferences the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed.
While I have no reason to suspect that Kingdomware is in any danger of being overturned or curtailed by Congress, its certainly not great news for SDVOSBs and VOSBs that a federal judge seems to be pushing for that very thing.
The VA is considering using so-called “tiered evaluations” to address concerns that SDVOSBs and VOSBs may not always offer “fair and reasonable” pricing, even when two or more veteran-owned companies compete for a contract.
In a session yesterday at the National Veterans Small Business Engagement, a panel of VA acquisition leaders described the potential tiered evaluation process. It’s hard to argue that the VA isn’t entitled to fair and reasonable pricing, but judging from the reaction in the room, some SDVOSBs and VOSBs may wonder whether tiered evaluations are an effort to circumvent Kingdomware.
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.