WHEN A REQUEST FOR EQUITABLE ADJUSTMENT SHOULD BE TREATED AS A CLAIM UNDER THE CONTRACT DISPUTES ACT

In federal contracting, contractors are sometimes torn about submitting a request for equitable adjustment (known as an “REA” under 48 C.F.R. 252.243-7002) or submitting a formal claim under the Contract Disputes Act (41 U.S.C. s. 7103), the latter requiring a final decision by the contracting officer and starts the clock with respect to interest and preserving rights.  It is also sometimes not easy for the contracting officer receiving an REA to determine whether the REA is actually a claim under the Contract Disputes Act requiring more immediate action. This recent take by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit hits the nail on the head:

We recognize that contracting officers will sometimes face the difficult challenge of determining whether a request for equitable adjustment is also a claim. Contractors must choose between submitting a claim—which starts the interest clock but requires the contracting officer to issue a final decision within 60 days—and submitting a mere request for equitable adjustment—which does not start the interest clock but gives the contractor more time to negotiate a settlement and possibly avoid hefty legal fees.  The overlap between these two types of documents might create room for gamesmanship. For example, a contractor could submit a document that is a claim—starting the interest clock—but appears to be a mere request for equitable adjustment—causing the contracting officer to not issue a final decision within the 60-day deadline and allowing interest to accrue for months or years. But the government has tools to address this challenge: The contracting officer can communicate to the contractor that she is going to treat the document as a claim and issue a final decision within 60 days. Or the government can explicitly require the contractor to propose settlement terms and attempt to settle disputes before submitting a claim to the contracting officer for a final decision.

Zafer Construction Company v. U.S., 2022 WL 2793596, *5 (Fed.Cir. 2022).

Zafer Construction Company involved a design-build contractor on a federal project that submitted an REA for delays and changes caused by the government. Notably, both REAs and formal claims under the Contract Disputes Act (that are more than $100,000) require contractor certifications; however, the certification of a formal claim is a more robust certification than a certification of an REA.  In Zafer, the design-build contractor certified its claim with the more robust certification per the Contract Disputes Act (41 U.S.C. s. 7103).

After many years of the contractor trying to negotiate a resolution to its REA, it asked the government to convert the REA to a formal claim.  The contracting officer determined the formal claim was time-barred because much of it occurred more than six years before the contractor made its request to convert the REA into a claim.

The contractor sued the government in the Court of Federal Claims. Unfortunately, the Court of Federal Claims found that the claim was time-barred.  Even though the contractor submitted an REA, an REA is not a formal claim under the Contract Disputes Act.  The contractor appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

A claim in federal contracting is no different than a claim in private contracting: “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, the adjustment or interpretation of contract terms, or other relief arising under or relating to this contract.” Zafer, supra, at *1 quoting 48 C.F.R. 42-233-1(c).

Under the Contract Disputes Act, claims of more than $100,000 must include a specific “good faith” certification. See 41 U.S.C. s. 7103.  Also, “a contractor must show that ‘what the contractor desires by its submissions is a final decision’ from the contracting officer determining whether the contractor is entitled to the claimed amount.Zafer, supra, at *2 (citation omitted).  The contractor’s request for a final decision can be explicit or implicitId.  In other words, no magic words necessarily need to be used and “a request for equitable adjustment can constitute a claim.”  Id.

The contractor argued its initial REA satisfied the requirements of a formal claim under the Contract Disputes Act because “the document at length discusses [contractor’s] request for money owed, showing that [contractor] intended for the contracting officer to make a decision regarding entitlement.”  Zafer, supra, at *2.  The government disagreed stating the contractor clearly intended to only negotiate its REA and not receive a final decision.

The United States Court of Appeals, however, found that the contractor’s subjective intent is of no moment.  “The determination focuses on whether, objectively, the document’s content and the context surrounding the document’s submission put the contracting officer on notice that the document is a claim requesting a final decision.” Zafer, supra, at *2.  Through this objective approach in reviewing the REA submission, the United States Court of Appeals held it implicitly requested a final decision and, therefore, satisfied the formal claim requirements under the Contract Disputes Act.

If you are a federal contractor, it is important to understand the difference between submitting an REA and submitting a formal claim to ensure your rights are preserved moving forward.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

EXAMPLES OF (RISK SHIFTING & ACCEPTING) PROVISIONS IN A SUBCONTRACT

imagesIn reading articles posted in this blog, I hope it is impressed upon you to understand the risks you are accepting in your contract and what to do if you encounter a risk, as well as those risks you are flowing down or allocating to your subcontractors.   Construction is inherently risky so you want to know what to do when you encounter certain situations or occurrences, and in certain circumstances, you want to factor the costs associated with certain accepted risks in your contract amount. 

 

When it comes to subcontracts, there are provisions that contractors want to include in their subcontracts that subcontractors need to note:

 

  1. The schedule – the contractor will want to include provisions that any baseline schedule is not written in stone and that it has the discretion to resequence the progress of the work.  This is an understood event since the contractor is responsible for managing the work so subcontractors should account for this contingency.
  2. No damage for delay – the contractor will want to include a no-damage-for-delay provision that provides it is not responsible for any delay-related damages and that the subcontractor’s only recourse for a delay will be an extension of time.  The provision may also state that the contractor’s liability for any delay will be limited by the amount it receives by the owner associated with the delay.
  3. Change orders – There will be a change order issue at some point.  The subcontractor needs to understand the change order procedure so proper notice is given regarding the change order work before proceeding with that work.  And, if the subcontractor is directed to proceed with work (through a change order directive) or there is a dispute as to the amount or time associated with the change, the subcontractor needs to understand that it needs to track and itemize its costs associated with the change.
  4. Claims – If a subcontractor is delayed / impacted or there is an event triggering change order work, as mentioned above, the subcontractor needs to submit timely notice of the event or occurrence.  Otherwise, there may be an argument that this event or occurrence is waived.  The contractor will argue that the notice provision is important so that it can ensure it timely submits notice to the owner pursuant to the prime contract and a subcontractor’s failure to comply with the notice provision prejudiced the contractor.

 

Provided below is an example of contractual provisions that fit within the above four categories.  These provisions may be analogous to provisions in the subcontract you are working under or, if you are a general contractor, may be provisions you want to consider including in your subcontract.  Remember, the objective is to know those risks you are accepting, those risks to flow down or allocate to the subcontractor, and, importantly, what to do if you encounter a risk!!

 

Also, please share any examples of contractual provisions that you have come across that fit within these categories. The more examples the merrier when it comes to understanding the types of risks that are frequently dealt with and allocated between a contractor and subcontractor.

 

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Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

 

SUBMITTING A “CLAIM” UNDER THE CONTRACT DISPUTES ACT

UnknownThe case of Delaware Cornerstone Builders, Inc. v. U.S., 117 Fed.Cl. 539 (Fed.Cl. 2014) exemplifies what happens if a federal government contractor fails to properly submit a claim in accordance with the Contract Disputes Act (41 U.S.C. s. 7101 en seq.).  As reflected below, the failure of the contractor to comply with the Contract Disputes Act will strip the United States Court of Federal Claims of jurisdiction to resolve the contractor’s claim with the federal government.

 

In this case, the contractor disputed the scope of the government’s punchlist.  The contractor sent a letter to the contracting officer that included a good faith certification requesting payment in the amount of $143,390.39 pursuant to its resubmitted payment application #14.  The contracting officer denied the payment request stating that the amount exceeded the value of punchlist work. Due to the delay in the contractor completing the punchlist items, the government advised that it would hire another contractor to complete the items and deduct the costs from the contractor’s contract balance.  However, the government did not hire the replacement contractor.  Years later the contract was still not closed out. The contractor was still trying to get paid its contract balance and was communicating with the government’s legal counsel.   The government’s counsel advised the contractor to submit a formal claim (per the Contract Disputes Act), but the contractor failed to do so.  Instead, the contractor filed a lawsuit in the Court of Federal Claims for $200,760.39.  The government moved to dismiss the complaint based on the contractor’s failure to comply with the Contract Disputes Act prior to filing the lawsuit.  The Court of Federal Claims agreed:

 

The CDA [Contract Disputes Act] permits a contractor to appeal the final decision of a contracting officer to this Court within 12 months of receiving the decision on a claim. A contractor may also seek review in this Court if the contracting officer fails to respond to a contractor’s claim within 60 days, as provided in the CDA. As such, the predicate for jurisdiction under the CDA is an appeal of either a contracting officer’s final decision on a claim or a deemed denial of a claim.

***

The CDA does not define the term “claim,” but the Federal Acquisition Regulation (“FAR”) [in F.A.R. 2.101] defines a claim as 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, the adjustment or interpretation of contract terms, or other relief arising from or relating to the contract. Thus, the elements of a claim are: (i) a written demand, (ii) seeking, as a matter of right, (iii) the payment of money in a sum certain. Additionally, all claims requesting relief greater than $100,000 must be certified by the contractor.

***

An action brought before the Court of Federal Claims under the CDA must be based on the same claim previously presented to and denied by the contracting officer.

Delaware Cornerstone Builders, supra, at 545-47 (internal quotations and citations omitted).

 

While the contractor arguably submitted a certified claim for the $143,390.39 per its resubmitted payment application #14, this amount was different than the $200,760.39 it was seeking in its Complaint.  Thus, the amount it was seeking was not based on the same potential claim denied by the contracting officer which was a condition precedent to the contractor filing a lawsuit against the government in the Court of Federal Claims.

 

If a prime contractor wants to pursue a claim against the federal government, it needs to properly prepare and submit that claim pursuant to the Contract Disputes Act.  Notably, this is also memorialized in the disputes clause in F.A.R. 52.233-1 that is likely incorporated into the prime contract.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.