Interaffiliate Transactions Exception Remains Narrow — For Now

The U.S. Small Business Administration, Office of Hearings and Appeals recently affirmed–for now–its narrow reading of the so-called interaffiliate transactions exception.

In a recent size appeal decision, Newport Materials, LLC, SBA No. SIZ-5733 (Apr. 21, 2016), OHA upheld a 2015 decision in which OHA narrowly applied the exception, holding that interaffiliate transactions count against a challenged firm’s annual receipts unless three factors are met: 1) the concerns are eligible to file a consolidated tax return; 2) the transactions are between the challenged concern and its affiliate; and 3) the transactions are between a parent company and its subsidiary.

The Newport Materials size appeal involved an Air Force IFB for the repair/replacement of roadways, curbing and sidewalks. The Air Force issued the IFB as a small business set-aside under NAICS code 237310 (Highway, Street, and Bridge Construction), with a corresponding $36.5 million size standard.

After opening bids, the Air Force announced that Newport Materials, LLC was the apparent awardee. A competitor then filed a size protest challenging Newport Materials’ small business eligibility.

The SBA Area Office determined that Newport Materials was 100% owned by Richard DeFelice. Mr. DeFelice also owned several other companies, including Newport Construction Corporation. Mr. DeFelice had previously owned 100% of Four Acres Transportation, Inc. However in January 2015, Mr. DeFelice transferred his interest in Four Acres to Newport Construction. Therefore, Four Acres was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Newport Construction. Four Acres’ entire business apparently consisted of performing payroll activities for Newport Construction.

In evaluating Newport Materials’ size, the SBA Area Office added the revenues of Newport Construction, which was affiliated due to Mr. DeFelice’s common ownership. The SBA Area Office then considered whether to add the revenues of Four Acres, as well. Newport Materials argued that Four Acres’ revenues should be excluded under the interaffiliate transactions exception in order to prevent unfair “double counting” of the Newport Construction’s revenues.

The SBA Area Office disagreed. Citing the 2015 OHA decision, Size Appeals of G&C Fab-Con, LLC, SBA No. SIZ-5649 (2015), the Area Office held that Four Acres’ revenues could not be excluded under the interaffiliate transactions exception. The Area Office found that “Four Acres and Newport Construction are legally prohibited from filing a consolidated tax return because they are both S Corporations.” Additionally, “the exclusion applies only to transactions between the challenged firm and an affiliate, not to transactions among affiliates of the challenged firm, as is the case here because [Newport Materials] is not a party to the transactions.” And finally, because the transactions in question happened before January 2015, “Newport Construction and Four Acres were not parent and subsidiary when the transactions occurred . . ..”

Newport Materials filed an appeal with OHA, arguing that previous OHA decisions, including G&C Fab-Con, were distinguishable and should not govern the outcome in this case. Newport Materials also argued that OHA’s narrow interpretation of the interaffiliate transactions exception was bad public policy.

In a brief opinion, OHA disagreed, holding that there was “no basis to distinguish the instant case from OHA precedent.” It concluded by rejecting Newport Materials’ policy arguments as beyond OHA’s purview: “Arguments as to which policy objectives should, ideally, be reflected in SBA regulations are beyond the scope of the OHA’s review, and should instead be directed to SBA policy officials.”

Those policy officials’ ears must have been burning. As Steve Koprince wrote in this space recently, SBA issued a Policy Statement on May 24, 2016 indicating it intends to broadly apply the interaffiliate transactions exception moving forward and specifically will not require concerns to be eligible to file a consolidated tax return. The policy statement said that “effective immediately” the exception will apply “to interaffiliate transactions between a concern and a firm with which it is affiliated under the principles in [the SBA’s affiliation regulation].” Thus, Newport Materials may already be essentially overturned.

What is not clear is how OHA will interpret the new policy. Believe it or not, there may still be some wiggle room for interpretation. The Policy Statement only specifically addresses the first of the three factors discussed in Newport Materials, the eligibility to file a consolidated tax return. Consolidated tax returns were at the heart of the G&C Fab-Con decision; the SBA policy makers evidently thought OHA got it wrong in that case and issued the Policy Statement to overturn OHA’s decision. However, the Policy Statement does not specifically address whether the transactions have to be between the challenged firm and an affiliate instead of the transactions occurring between affiliates of the challenged firm (as was the case in Newport Materials). The Policy Statement also does not specifically address whether the transactions have to be between a parent company and its subsidiary in order to qualify for the interaffiliate transactions exception.

That said, the Policy Statement uses broad language that the SBA policy makers likely intended to overturn all three limitations described in Newport Materials: “SBA believes that the current regulatory language is clear on its face. It specifically excludes all proceeds from transactions between a concern and its affiliates, without limitation.”

Whether or not OHA agrees remains to be seen.