Protest of Approved-Source Restriction Must Be Filed Before Proposal Deadline

I was grocery shopping the other day, and I had to make the tough choice between the name-brand cereal and the store-brand cereal. I don’t know about you, but with some products, the name brand has a certain flavor that the store brand just can’t replicate. When it comes to government contracts, the same is true–sometimes the government wants a certain brand or supplier and will accept no substitutes.

GAO recently held that, where an agency required quotations including parts from one approved source of supply, and an offer is submitted that proposes an “alternate product,” the agency can reasonably reject the bid–and that a protest of the approved source restriction itself is untimely if it isn’t filed before the proposal deadline.

The additional wrinkle in this decision is that, if the vendor wishes to protest the sole-supply-source restriction in the solicitation, the protest has to be made before the submission deadline for the solicitation. Therefore, the protester’s argument that it should be considered an alternate source was dismissed as untimely because the alternate-source issue is a term the protester should have raised prior to the solicitation submission deadline. This is yet another variation on the tricky rules of bid protest timeliness–in this case, involving the issue of proposing an alternative to the approved source set forth in the solicitation.

GAO’s decision, W K Engineering Int’l, Inc., B-414932, (Oct. 13, 2017), involved an RFQ issued by the DLA for headrest pad assemblies associated with aircraft ejection seats.  The RFQ required that vendors submit one headrest for first article testing, and also noted that “[o]nly quotes from the approved source of supply or authorized dealers are acceptable. The dealer must provide a copy of the letter from the approved source of supply approving them to act as a dealer/distributor with their quote.  Quotes from secondary dealers will not be accepted.” The approved source of supply was AMI Industries, Inc., and the agency indicated the specific part number and listed no other approved suppliers.

The solicitation also incorporated the terms and conditions set forth in the DLA master solicitation for automated simplified acquisitions. Under these terms, alternate products would not be evaluated if the solicitation was “automated,” and the DLA, with GAO concurrence, contended that the solicitation was indeed automated through DIBBS, the DLA’s Internet Bid Board System.

WK Engineering submitted its bid with an alternate product to that required in the solicitation and did not include a letter from AMI approving WKE as a dealer of AMI’s product. WKE, upon submission for its quotation, received a notification from the DIBBS system that “[o]ffers of alternate products will not be evaluated for the current procurement.” DLA awarded the purchase order to AMI, the approved source of supply.

GAO dismissed WKE’s protest, holding that, as applicable to WKE, “[a] protester is not an interested party to protest an award to an approved source where the protester would not be eligible for award because it is not itself an approved source for the item.” This seems fairly straightforward, at least as GAO describes it. If the solicitation says quotations must include an approved source of supply, and a quotation does not include that source of supply (or indicate the vendor will act as a dealer for the source of supply), then the protester could never be awarded the bid, so it is not an interested party to protest.

The second part of GAO’s opinion is more nuanced. WKE argued that it should be considered equally with AMI, the approved source, because it is a “qualified manufacturer of similar parts.” GAO held that this amounted to a challenge “based upon alleged improprieties in a solicitation, which are apparent prior to the time set for receipt of initial quotations, [which] must be filed prior to the time set for receipt of initial quotations” under 4 C.F.R. § 21.2(a)(1).

According to the GAO, since the requirement to use the specific source was clearly apparent in the RFQ, WKE should have been able to formulate its objection upon reading the RFQ, and therefore any protest was due prior to the proposal deadline. A problem that is clear on the face of the solicitation is sometimes called a patent defect, and patent defects ordinarily cannot be challenged after the date proposals are due. Since the protest was not filed until after award was made, this part of the protest was also dismissed.

GAO’s holding is another reminder that, if a contractor believes there is an improper requirement or error in a solicitation, a protest must be made before any submission deadline. In this particular example, if a potential vendor thinks there should be alternatives to an approved source of supply, any protest of that issue is probably due before the quotation deadline. If you wait too long, GAO will not usually give you a second chance to raise this kind of issue in a protest.