Definitive Responsibility Requirement in Solicitation Upheld by Mississippi Court of Appeals

The Mississippi Court of Appeals has recently recognized the validity and enforceability of a definitive responsibility requirement set forth in a solicitation for the construction of a prison. [click here for a copy of decision] The solicitation required that prospective bidders "[p]rovide [a] list of prior construction experience with references on successful correctional facilities projects within the last [five] years having a minimum construction contract amount of eight[-]million dollars…each for no less than two…separate projects…Failure to do so may be cause for rejection." Desoto County Board of Supervisors rejected the apparent low bidder and second low bidder who did not satisfy the solicitation’s requirement and awarded it to the third low bidder for a price premium of $283,100.00. The disappointed bidders challenged the decision to award the contract to the third low bidder but the Court affirmed the decision finding the definitive responsibility requirement to be reasonable and enforceable.

There are two lessons to be learned from this. The first lesson is to protest such a definitive responsibility requirement as unduly restrictive of competition and try to convince the procuring agency to eliminate or "loosen" the standard. The second lesson is to make sure you can satisfy the criteria set forth in the solicitation or face the prospect of having your bid rejected as non-responsive.

When do you have a contract with a public entity?

It can be unclear when a contractor bidding on a public construction project actually has a binding contract with a public entity. This question appears to have been addressed by the Mississippi district court in Northeast Mississippi Community College District v. Vanderheyden Construction Company. In that case, the community college had issued an advertisement for bids from qualified contractors for the construction of a new science and math building. The advertisement reserved the right to reject any and all bids. After bids were opened, Vanderheyden was declared the low bid. The Board of Trustees ("the Board") voted to award the contract to Vanderheyden but after the board meeting the second low bidder challenged the award alleging a number of deficiencies in Vanderheyden’s bid. Rather than risk a lawsuit by the second low bidder, the Board decided to rescind the award and readvertise. At the second bid opening the protester on the original procurement was the low bidder and Vanderheyden was the second low bidder.

The issue presented to the district court was whether the Board could properly rescind its prior award to Vanderheyden and readvertise the project. The district court concluded that "a public entity cannot reject all bids and readvertise the project after it has already accepted the lowest responsible bidder." In analyzing the actions of the Board, the district court when on to state:

[T]he court is of the opinion that once the board chose to accept Vanderheyden’s bid, the reserved right to reject any and all bids had not been exercised and it was no longer operative. To hold otherwise would be contrary to well-established principles of contract law and would permit the possibility of favoritism in public bidding, the very evil which the bidding process statutes were enacted to prevent.

Therefore, once a public entity has officially accepted a bid, there is a binding contract between the parties unless the public entity has expressly conditioned the award upon certain requirements.

Appeals from School Board Orders--Do not delay!

If you are bidding on a project for a school board and are aggrieved by the decision to award the contract to another party, you must appeal the order "within ten (10) days from the date of adjournment of the meeting at which the order is entered."  Miss. Code Ann. § 37-7-115. The procedure for appealing the award decision is the same as set forth in Miss. Code Ann. § 11-51-75 and requires preparing and filing a bill of exceptions with the circuit court.  Because of the short time within which to appeal the decision, a contractor must not delay in deciding whether to appeal or walk away and fight another day.

Bid Protests--Time is not on your side

If you believe you have grounds for protesting the decision of a board of supervisors, or municipal authorities of a city, town, or village to reject a bid or award a contract, you need to act promptly. The clock is ticking and fast.

Under Miss. Code Ann. §11-51-75 (Rev. 2002) you have only ten (10) days from the adjournment of the meeting to appeal the adverse decision of the board of supervisors or municipal authorities to the circuit court. Do not wait for the official copy of the minutes to the meeting. Contact your legal counsel immediately since he/she will need to prepare a bill of exceptions (essentially a statement of the facts) that must be signed by the president of the board of supervisors or the municipal authority and presented to the circuit court clerk to perfect the appeal.

Remember, in the context of bid protests, if you delay you will lose the right to challenge the decision of the board of supervisors or municipal authority.

Listing of Subcontractors with a Bid--should it be grounds for rejecting a low bid from a responsible bidder?

Where in the Mississippi Procurement Statutes does it require subcontractors to be listed with a bid?  The correct answer is NO WHERE!!  So why use it to decide whether to award the contract to a prime contractor who is the low bidder with a valid certificate of responsibility from the Mississippi State Board of Contractors?

Rule 12 of the Mississippi State Board of Contractor’s Rules and Regulations states:

… the Prime Contractor on or before the date of being awarded the prime Contract, shall submit to the awarding agency a list of all subcontracts, exceeding Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000.00) with respect to public projects…

(Emphasis added.)

The Department of Finance and Administration’s Procurement Manual provides as follows concerning the requirement for the listing of subcontractors:

600.55

SUBCONTRACTOR’S LIST

The Contractor will submit to the Bureau a list of all Subcontractors to be used on the Project within seven (7) days after written notice of contract award. Any Subcontractor listed must be acceptable to the Bureau. [Miss Code 1972, Annotated, Sections 31-3-1 through 31-3-23.]

(Emphasis added.)

And, when the City of Vicksburg questioned whether it could award the contract to the apparent low bidder that had not listed its subcontractors as required on the Bid Form, the Attorney General opined as follows:

In response to your first inquiry, previous opinions have stated that a waiver of an irregularity in a bid received would not be improper in cases where (1) the irregularity does not destroy the competitive character of the bid by affecting the amount of the bid thereby giving the bidder an advantage or benefit over other bidders and (2) the irregularity does not involve noncompliance with a statutory or regulatory requirement. See MS AG Op., Dees (June 7, 1995) and MS Ag Op., Kilpatrick, December 19, 1997). See also Parker Construction Company v. Board of Aldermen of the City of Natchez, 721 So.2d 671 (Miss. App. 1998). In your first inquiry, the irregularity was the failure to list the names of subcontractors on the bid form. We have previously opined that there is no statutory or regulatory requirement that a contractor submit a list of subcontractors upon the submission of his or her bid.  MS AG Op., Dees (June 7, 1995).  In fact, as you have stated, the Rules and Regulations of the State Board of Contractors, Rule 12, specifies that "the Prime Contractor, on or before the date of being awarded the prime contract, shall submit to the awarding agency a list of all sub-contracts, exceeding Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000.00) with respect to public projects…" It is the responsibility of the awarding authority, however, to make a final determination whether an irregularity in a bid may be waived.

(Emphasis added). Mississippi Attorney General Opinion, dated September 22, 2000, addressed to Nancy D. Thomas. See also, Mississippi Attorney General Opinion, date June 7, 1995, addressed to A.J. "Buddy" Dees, Jr. (public agency permitted to award contract where prime contractor’s bid document listed subcontractor did not have a certificate of responsibility but prime contractor substituted licensed subcontractor prior to award).

Nonetheless, the design professionals for most public projects require the listing of subcontractors. Then, when a prime contractor fails to list its subcontractors or makes an error in listing its subcontractor, the design professional and/or public agency decide whether to reject the bid or waive the "irregularity". What are the criteria for deciding which of the two options will be exercised? You tell me.

If the public agency requires the listing of subcontractors it should state in the Instructions to Bidders that the bid will be rejected if subcontractors are not listed properly. It is just that simple. In addition, public agencies should change their rules and regulations to state listing of subcontractors must be submitted with the bid to be considered for award. This would mean that everyone would know the rules for listing of subcontractors. Will this happen? It is doubtful. It appears design professionals and public agencies prefer the flexibility afforded by such an ambiguity in the bidding process rather than the objectivity associated with clear Instructions to Bidders.

No Certificate of Responsibility = Null and Void Contract

On July 21, 2009, the Mississippi Court of Appeals made it clear that any contract entered into by a party with an unlicensed contractor is null and void. United Plumbing & Heating Company v. AmSouth Bank (Ct. App. No. 2007-CA-01194). This is the first reported decision that addresses the interpretation of Miss. Code Ann. § 31-3-15. This statute provides in pertinent part as follows:

No contract for public or private projects shall be issued or awarded to any contractor who did not have a current certificate of responsibility issued by said board [of contractors] at the time of submission of the bid…Any contract issued or awarded in violation of this section shall be null and void.

In United, the general contractor [United] entered into a contract with an owner [Wee Care] for the construction of a building. The contractor and its subcontractors were not paid for their work. The owner filed bankruptcy and the contractor filed suit against the lender [AmSouth] to recover its contract balance. AmSouth filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that because United did not have a valid certificate of responsibility, the contract was null and void. United argued that it did hold a certificate of responsibility, even though the certificate was issued in a classification different from the type of work being performed for Wee Care. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of AmSouth. United appealed the decision but the Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling finding:

[T]he contract entered into between United and Wee Care was null and void because United failed to possess the appropriate certificate of responsibility for the type of work it undertook to perform. Having found that United’s contract with Wee Care was void, it follows that any contractual obligations AmSouth [the lender] may have owed [United or] the subcontractors are also void.

(emphasis added). If a contractor or subcontractor does not have a current certificate of responsibility, it may find itself in the position of having furnished labor and material on a project and not being paid. This could result in a financial disaster for one party and a windfall for the other party.

United makes it abundantly clear that owners, contractors and subcontractors should always check Mississippi State Board of Contractors to determine if the contractor or subcontractor holds a license for the work to be performed. It is also prudent for a party to confirm with the licensed entity that the qualifying party is currently an "owner, or a responsible managing employee, or a responsible managing officer, or a member of the executive staff…" See, Who Can be a "Qualifying Party" for a Contractor’s Certificate of Responsibility? Posted on this blog site by Christopher Solop, May 13, 2009.  (The State Board of Contractors has recently proposed an amendment to Rule L shortening the period to replace a qualifying party after the individual holding the certificate of responsibility leaves the employment of the company from 180 days to 90 days. This change will take effect on October 8, 2009.)

 

Checklist for Mississippi Construction Contractors

If you have ever been the apparent low bidder on a public construction project and had your bid rejected because of an irregularity in the bid documents, you are not alone.  What is even more frustrating, and will make you fighting mad, is when the public agency decides to waive the same irregularity of a competitor when you are the second low bidder.  Perhaps the best way to avoid this situation is to make sure that you have completed your bid in strict accordance with the instructions to bidders.  I know it is difficult to focus on all the particulars when less than an hour before the bid is to be submitted subcontractors and suppliers are sending in prices or changing the ones previously provided.  Here is a simple bid checklist that may help you avoid those last minute mistakes.

  • Read the "Instruction to Bidders" when you obtain a copy of the solicitation to make sure that there are no unusual or different bid requirements. 
    • Pre-Bid Conference
    • Bid Bond
    • Site Visit
    • Listing of Subcontractors
  • Prepare the bid envelope in advance, identifying (1) the project, (2) the person to whom the bid is to be submitted, (3) the location where the bid is to be submitted and (4) the date and time for the submission of the bid.  ALWAYS PLACE CERTIFICATE OF RESPONSIBILITY NUMBER ON THE OUTSIDE OF THE ENVELOPE.
  • Complete the bid form and check to determine whether all the blank spaces for prices are completed with a dollar amount or a "---" or "-0-".
  • Check your addition and multiplication for unit prices and total bid price.
  • Acknowledge all Amendments/Addenda to the solicitation.
  • List subcontractors, if required.
  • Sign and date the bid documents.
  • Check the bid bond, if required, to make sure that it is in the correct amount and proper form.
  • Place bid documents and bid bond, if required, into envelope and submit.

In the event you are determined to be the apparent low bidder, and your bid is not more than ten percent (10%) above the amount of funds allocated for the project, it is likely that you will be awarded the contract.