SBA OHA: Joint Ventures Can Be LLCs

Joint ventures can be formally organized as limited liability companies–and that should come as no surprise, given how often joint ventures use the LLC form these days.

In a recent size appeal decision, the SBA Office of Hearings and Appeals rejected the argument that, because a company was formed as an LLC, its size should not be calculated using the special rule for joint ventures.  Instead, OHA held, the LLC in question was clearly intended to be a joint venture, and the fact that it was an LLC didn’t preclude it from being treated as a joint venture.

OHA’s decision in Size Appeals of Insight Environmental Pacific, LLC, SBA No. SIZ-5756 (2016) involved a NAVFAC solicitation for environmental remediation at contaminated sites.  The solicitation was issued under NAICS code 562910 (Environmental Remediation Services) with a corresponding size standard of 500 employees.

After reviewing competitive proposals, NAVFAC announced that Insight Environmental Pacific, LLC had been selected for award.  Two unsuccessful competitors then filed size protests challenging Insight’s small business status.

The SBA Area Office determined that Insight had been established as an LLC in 2013.  Insight’s majority owner was Insight Environmental, Engineering & Construction, Inc.; the minority owner was Environmental Chemical Construction.  IEEC was designated as the “small business member” and “Managing Member” of the LLC.

Insight’s operating agreement included a number of provisions indicating that Insight had been formed for a limited purpose.  The operating agreement stated, among other things, that Insight’s purpose was to pursue the specific NAVFAC solicitation at issue, and perform the resulting contract if awarded.  The operating agreement also stated that the LLC would be terminated if NAVFAC announced that Insight would not be awarded the environmental remediation contract.

The SBA Area Office cited the SBA’s affiliation regulations, which define a joint venture as “an association of individuals and/or concerns with interests in any degree or proportion consorting to engage in and carry out no more than three specific or limited-purpose business ventures for joint profit over a two year period, for which purpose they combine their efforts, property, money, skill, or knowledge, but not on a continuing or permanent basis for conducting business generally.”  The SBA Area Office wrote that the operating agreement indicated that Insight was a joint venture, and pointed out that Insight’s own proposal referred to it as a “joint venture” in three places.  The SBA Area Office determined that Insight was a joint venture.

Under the SBA’s prior affiliation regulations, which applied to this procurement, the size of a joint venture ordinarily was determined by adding the sizes of the members of the joint venture.  Applying this affiliation regulation, the SBA Area Office determined that Insight was ineligible for the NAVFAC contract.  (As SmallGovCon readers know, the SBA recently updated its affiliation regulations to specify that a joint venture’s size is determined by comparing the size of each member, individually, to the relevant size standard.  Even if this change had applied to Insight, it presumably wouldn’t have altered the SBA Area Office’s analysis, because ECC apparently was a large business).

Insight filed a size appeal with OHA.  Insight argued that because it was an LLC, the SBA Area Office shouldn’t have treated it as a joint venture.  Instead, Insight contended, the SBA Area Office should have applied the ordinary affiliation rules for other entities.  Under these rules, Insight said, it would be treated as a small business because its minority member, ECC, couldn’t control the company.

OHA cited the regulatory definition of a joint venture, and then quoted another part of the SBA’s affiliation regulations, which states that a joint venture “may (but need not) be in the form of a separate legal entity . . ..”  OHA wrote that Insight “falls squarely within this definition.”  OHA pointed out that Insight was created for the “‘sole and limited purpose’ of competing for and performing the subject NAVFAC PAcific procurement” and that the LLC would terminate if Insight was not awarded the contract.  “It is therefore clear,” OHA wrote, “that [Insight] is not a business operating on ‘a continuing or permanent basis for conducting business generally,’ but rather is a temporary association of concerns engaging in a limited-purpose business venture for joint profit.”

OHA explained that “the fact that [Insight] is organized as an LLC does not alter this conclusion.”  OHA noted that the “regulation specifically states that a joint venture may or may not be organized as a separate legal entity,” and in commentary adopting the regulation, the SBA stated that a joint venture could use the LLC form.  OHA also noted that its own prior case law “has recognized that entities structured as LLCs may still be joint ventures with the joint venture partners affiliated.”  OHA denied Insight’s size appeal.

In the world of government contracting, joint ventures are commonly formed as LLCs.  Insight Environmental Pacific confirms that when an entity meets the definition of a joint venture, it will be treated as a joint venture–even if the entity is an LLC.