No “Sum Certain” Means No Valid Claim, Board Holds

A contractor’s claim against the Government was invalid because the contractor did not demand a “sum certain” in clear and unequivocal terms.

In a recent decision, the Postal Service Board of Contract Appeals held that a contractor’s claim was deficient where the contractor argued that it was up to the government to figure out the amount of the claim using “simple mathematics.”

The PSBCA’s decision in Patrick J. Murray v. United States Postal Service, PSBCA No. 6603 (2016) involved a mail delivery contract between Mr. Murray and the Postal Service.  After agreeing to an extension to the contract, Mr. Murray sent the Postal Service several letters in which he asked, among other things, that his hourly rate be increased and that the contract be modified to include an increase in the mileage rate.  Mr. Murray’s letters did not demand a specific dollar amount.

The Postal Service declined to treat Mr. Murray’s letters as a claim.  Mr. Murray then filed an appeal of a “deemed denial” with the PSBCA.

The Postal Service moved to dismiss the appeal.  It argued that the PSBCA lacked jurisdiction because Mr. Murray had never filed a viable claim in the first place.  The Postal Service explained that Mr. Murray’s claim was not viable because Mr. Murray had not demanded a sum certain.

Mr. Murray conceded that his letters did not demand a specific amount.  However, he contended that “the sum certain requirement is met if the contracting officer can determined the amount claimed by a simple mathematical calculation.”  Mr. Murray argued that the amount of his claim could be determined by such simple calculations.

After noting that a “sum certain” was required in order for Mr. Murray to state a claim under his contract, the PSBCA wrote that “the contracting officer is not required to infer a sum certain” where one is not stated in the claim.  Further, “contrary to Mr. Murray’s explanation . . . a simple mathematical calculation of a sum certain is not possible.”  The PSBCA dismissed Mr. Murray’s appeal.

While the Patrick J. Murray case involved the unique legal landscape of a Postal Service contract, it is important to note that the FAR similarly defines a claim as, in relevant part, “a written demand or written assertion by one of the contracting parties seeking, as a matter of right, the payment of money in a sum certain . . ..”  While there have been a handful of cases (such as those truly involving very simple math) in which the Boards and courts have shown some leniency on the subject, the Patrick J. Murray case is a good reminder that a viable monetary claim against the government ordinarily requires a clear and unequivocal demand for a “sum certain.”

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