UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT HOLDS VETERANS AFFAIRS MUST SET ALL COMPETITIVE ACQUISITIONS ASIDE FOR VOSBS WHENEVER RULE OF TWO CAN BE MET

The United States Supreme Court issued a slip opinion today in Kingdomware Technologies, Inc. v. United States, 579 U.S. ____ (2016) in which it held the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must set every competitive acquisition aside for veteran-owned small businesses whenever the "Rule of Two" is met.

The Small Business Act requires federal agencies establish annual minimum goals for awarding contracts to small business concerns (SBC), including SBCs owned and controlled by veterans. These annual goals are frequently pursued by setting acquisitions aside for competition only by SBCs. In 1999, Congress added a set-aside goal of 3% for SBCs owned and controlled by veterans. However, agencies were failing to meet these goals. Congress responded, in part, by enacting the Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Information Technology Act of 2006 (the Act).

The Act required that the VA set more specific annual goals for contracting with Veteran Owned Small Businesses (VOSB) and Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Small Businesses (SDVOSB). Under 38 USC §8127(b) and (c), the VA can meet its goals by making non-competitive and sole-source awards to veteran owned small businesses if the awards are less than the simplified acquisition threshold or, if less than $5,000,000, to a VOSB that is a responsible source for the required performance and its price is fair.

At issue in this case was 38 USC §8127(d), which applies to all acquisitions not covered by §§8127(b) and (c) and includes the so-called Rule of Two. It states:

Except as provided in subsections (b) and (c), for purposes of meeting the goals under subsection (a) …a contracting officer of the Department shall award contracts on the basis of competition restricted to small business concerns owned and controlled by veterans if the contracting officer has a reasonable expectation that two or more small business concerns owned and controlled by veterans will submit offers and that the award can be made at a fair and reasonable price that offers best value to the United States.

In 2012, the VA decided to procure an Emergency Notification Service for some medical centers, and it did not conduct the competition as a set-aside for VOSBs. Instead, the VA sought prices from vendors on the Federal Supply Schedule ("FSS"). Kingdomware Technologies, Inc. protested to the GAO, asserting that §8127(d) did not allow the VA to purchase from the FSS unless the VA determined the Rule of Two could not be met. GAO found for Kingdomware, but the VA did not follow GAO’s recommendation. Kingdomware then sought relief in the Court of Federal claims. However, this time the VA was the winner, as the Court of Federal Claims granted summary judgment to the VA.

The Federal Circuit affirmed the Court of Federal Claims, but its panel was divided. The majority found that §8127(d) only required mandatory application of the Rule of Two to the extent needed to meet the VA’s annual contracting goals for VOSB set-asides. Judge Reyna dissented, opining that the plain language required application of the Rule of Two for all competitive acquisitions by the VA.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari, and Justice Thomas delivered the Court’s opinion that §8127 is mandatory and requires the VA to apply the Rule of Two to all contracting determinations and to award contracts to VOSBs. "The Act does not allow the Department to evade the Rule of Two on the ground that it has already met its contracting goals or on the ground that the Department has placed an order through FSS". Kingdomware Technologies, Inc. v. United States, Slip Op. at p. 8.  Opinion is attached here.

SBA Issues Final Rule Establishing Regulations for WOSB and EDWOSB Set-Asides and Sole-Source Contracts

On September 14, 2015, the Small Business Administration published its final rule implementing new regulations for awards to Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) and Economically Disadvantaged Women-Owned Small Businesses (EDWOSB). Now, as with other "special status" concerns such as 8(a) and Service Disabled Veteran Owned businesses, women-owned businesses will have access to set-aside and sole-source contracting opportunities. The legal basis for this final rule is §825 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015.

 

Under the current WOSB program, SBA reports that WOSBs received approximately $15 billion in contract actions according to FY 2013 small-business goaling reports. The new sole-source authority for awards to EDWOSBs and WOSBs can only be used where a contracting officer’s market research cannot identify two or more WOSBs or EDWOSBs that can perform at a fair and reasonable price but identifies one that can perform. WOSB and EDWOSB competitive set-asides and sole-source contracts can only be awarded in those industries for which WOSB and EDWOSB opportunities are authorized.

 

The final rule announced in the Federal Register is attached here and becomes effective October 14, 2015.

SBA Proposes Rule to Establish Universal Mentor-Protégé Program for All Small Business Concerns

President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 2013 ("NDAA") into law on January 2, 2013. The NDAA authorized the SBA to establish mentor-protégé programs for all small business concerns ("SBC")—not just socially and economically disadvantaged concerns certified to participate in the 8(a) Business Development Program. Over 2 years later, the SBA finally proposed a rule that would implement a mentor-protégé program allowing all small businesses the opportunity to benefit as a protégé to an approved mentor.

The SBA determined that a single set of mentor-protégé rules, applicable regardless of any other special SBC-status, would facilitate clarity and consistency among the contracting community. If a final rule is implemented along the lines of the "universal" program proposed, HUBZone SBCs, Veteran Owned and Service-Disabled Veteran Owned SBCs, Woman and Economically Disadvantaged Woman Owned SBCs, and other SBCs will have access to a mentor-protégé virtually identical to the 8(a) mentor-protégé program. Among other things, all approved mentor-protégé participants can joint venture and be considered "small" for purposes of small business set-aside contracts provided the protégé is small, mentors can have an equity interest in the protégé, mentors can provide bonding capacity for contracts, and mentors can provide business development assistance. Except for the Department of Defense Mentor-Protégé Program, all mentor-protégé programs currently in effect at other executive agencies will have one year from the date SBA’s final rule is published to have the SBA approve their mentor-protégé programs.

Another way the SBA proposes expanding mentor-protégé access is by removing barriers to being approved as a protégé. Currently, a SBC cannot be a protégé if its average annual receipts exceed one-half the size standard of its primary NAICS Code. If it cannot qualify based on this, then a SBC can only qualify as a protégé if it has never received an 8(a) contract or is within the business-development stage of the 8(a) Business Development program. These two latter eligibility factors would be removed as mentor-protégé access is expanded to all SBCs. However, the SBA has determined that any firm that is small relative to its NAICS Code should be able to participate in federal contracting as a protégé.

The SBA’s proposed universal mentor-protégé program would add additional certification and reporting requirements aimed at ensuring the approved mentor-protégé relationship is serving its purpose and is program-compliant. It would also add the requirement that any concern seeking approval as a protégé be certified by SBA as a small business concern. Also, 8(a) firms who are approved as protégés would be subject to size protests the same as other SBCs.

The full details of the SBA’s proposed rule are attached here. Comments on it are due to SBA April 6, 2015.

SBA Increasing Size Standards - Issues Interim Final Rule Effective July 14, 2014

Today the Small Business Administration issued an interim final rule that increases revenue-based size standards.  The adjustment is made, in part, to take account of inflation since the last inflation-adjustment in 2008.  In Sector 23, Construction, for example, the $35 million size standard increased to $36.5 million.

To see all size standard adjustments in the interim rule, click here.  The interim final rule takes effect July 14, 2014, but the SBA will receive comments on it through August 14, 2014.

SBA PUBLISHES PROPOSED RULE TO INCREASE TWO SIZE STANDARDS IN HEAVY AND CIVIL ENGINEERING NAICS CODES

Today the Small Business Administration published a proposed rule to increase the size standard for Land Subdivision and for Dredging and Surface Cleanup Activities, which are both in the Heavy and Civil Engineering Construction sector. SBA proposes to increase the size standard for Land Subdivision (NAICS 237210) from $7 million to $25 million in average annual receipts. Dredging and Surface Cleanup Activities is an "exception" sub-category of Other Heavy and Civil Engineering Construction. For Dredging and Surface Cleanup Activities, SBA proposes to increase the size standard from $20 million to $30 million in average annual receipts. Otherwise, the size standard for Other Heavy and Civil Engineering Construction (NAICS 237990) remains at $33.5 million.

If adopted as a final rule, these changes would allow contractors that have outgrown the previous size standards to become "small" again and prevent contractors that may be on the "other than small" bubble to remain "small". These changes also increase the pool of small businesses in these industry categories, allowing agencies to set more procurements aside for small-business concerns.

Interested parties must submit their comments not later than September 17, 2012, to SBA. The proposed rule is attached here.

"Redesignated" HUBZones Expiring October 1, 2011 - May Affect Your HUBZone Eligibility

 

On October 1, 2011, "redesignated" HUBZone areas will expire. These areas were previously set to expire at earlier dates, but in 2004, Congress extended and "grandfathered" their HUBZone status until the results of the 2010 Census were published. The original "redesignated" expiration date was June 1, 2011, but it was extended and now will take effect on October 1, 2011. The Small Business Administration is encouraging all currently-certified HUBZone concerns to assess the impact expiration of "redesignated" areas will have on their eligibility to remain in the HUBZone program, whether a concern’s principal office is currently located in a "redesignated" area or if it relies upon the employment of residents in redesignated areas to meet the "35%" rule.

The HUBZone program does not require termination of existing HUBZone contracts if a concern is no longer eligible after October 1, 2011. However, because a concern must be properly certified and eligible as of the date (a) it submitted its initial offer for the contract and (b) the date the contract was awarded, expiration of "redesignated" areas may impact pending offers. Also, regardless of whether a current HUBZone concern has an offer pending for a federal contract, it must always notify the SBA of any "material" change which could impact its HUBZone eligibility. Firms that will no longer qualify for the HUBZone program as of October 1, 2011, can voluntarily de-certify. If that is not done, the SBA will send proposed de-certification letters which must be responded to within thirty (30) days.

Concerns which voluntarily decertify or otherwise become non-compliant with the HUBZone program as of October 1, 2011, can re-apply after ninety (90) days have passed since the date of a voluntary decertification agreement or decertification.

SBA Final Rule Makes Important Changes to Size Regulations, 8(a) Business Development/Small Disadvantaged Business Status Determinations

Effective March 14, 2011, a final rule by the Small Business Administrations implements important changes to various regulations affecting size status and eligibility for the 8(a) Business Development Program/SDB Status Determinations. Substantive changes include the rule on affiliation among joint ventures, calculation of net worth, and new requirements for 8(a) joint venture agreements.

Prior to this new final rule, entities were not affiliated as joint venturers provided they only joint ventured to submit no more than 3 offers on Federal projects over a 2-year period. Under the new rule, joint ventures can be awarded 3 projects over a 2-year period and not be considered affiliates based on their joint venture activities. Joint venturers can now re-constitute their joint venture and be awarded 3 additional projects over subsequent 2-year periods.

Other changes affect the determination of who is economically disadvantaged. In determining one’s net worth, "[f]unds invested in an Individual Retirement Account or other official retirement account that are unavailable to an individual until retirement age without a significant penalty will not be considered in determining an individual’s net worth." Personal income averages for initial and continuing 8(a) program eligibility have also been established by the SBA.

The required contents of 8(a) joint venture agreements will also change effective March 14, 2011. To the extent other SBA contracting-assistance programs rely on the regulation for proper 8(a) joint venture agreements, those other programs will be affected by these changes, as well.

This final rule is extensive and includes other substantive and technical changes. Click here to view the Final Rule.

SBA Finally Issues Final Rule Establishing Women-Owned Small Business Program

On October 4, 2010, the U.S. Small Business Administration published a final rule in the Federal Register establishing a federal contracting programs for WOSBs.  See Press Release.  In a press release of the same date, the SBA says the new WOSB program will be used to help achieve a statutory goal that 5% of federal contracting dollars go to women-owned small businesses. [insert pdf] Under the program, contracts may be set-aside for competition among WOSBs when the anticipated contract price is not expected to exceed $3 million, except in the case of manufacturing contracts, is not expected to exceed $5 million.

The basic requirements to qualify as a WOSB are that the company be owned and controlled at least 51% by one or more women who are U.S. citizens and "small" according to its primary industry classification. According to the SBA, it will "pursue vigorously punitive action against ineligible firms which seek to take advantage of this program and in so doing deny its benefits to the intended legitimate WOSBs."

Who's Fooling Who? General Accountability Office Recommends SBA to Monitor 8(a) Program Closer to Prevent Fraud.

In March, the United States General Accountability Office ("GAO") issued its finding and recommendations concerning fraud in the 8(a) Program. 8(a) Program Report. During its investigation, GAO discovered that at least 14 ineligible firms had received $325 million in sole-source and set-aside contracts. The GAO investigation discovered evidence of an entity fraudulently reporting adjusted net worth; an entity that was merely an extension of a graduated 8(a) firm; a top executive who was not disadvantage controlling the management and operation of the certified firm; an entity that was merely a shell company for a large construction firm managed by a non-disadvantaged individual; failure on the part of the president of an entity to report ownership in significant assets to the SBA; an entity that continued to receive 8(a) contract after it graduated from the 8(a) program by using other certified firms as pass-throughs; and a president who falsely reported his annual salary to the SBA.

The GAO report contains extensive details on the 14 entitles that were investigated and recommendations to the SBA for addressing the seemingly pervasive fraud in the SBA 8(a) Program. The report makes for interesting reading. More importantly, however, it should serve as a warning to individuals and entities "gaming" the SBA’s 8(a) Program that greater scrutiny of applicants and certified firms can be expected.

Contracts for Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business Concerns

Service-Disabled Veteran Owned ("SDVO") contracts are one of several types of "set-aside" contracts which permit qualified entities to compete for federal government contracts on other than "full and open" competition terms. SDVO contracts are taking their place among small business set-asides, 8(a) set-asides, and HUBZone set-asides. With submission of its initial offer for a SDVO Small Business Concerns ("SBC") contract set-aside, a concern must certify that:

       

    • it is a SDVO SBC
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    • it is "small" as defined by the NAICS code assigned to the procurement
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    • it will comply with the percentage of work requirements set forth in 13 CFR 125.6
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    • if a joint venture, that both members of the joint venture are small; and
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    • if applicable, it is an eligible nonmanufacturer.

Even if a SDVO meets all of the foregoing on a particular procurement, it must still consider the Small Business Administration’s ("SBA") rules on affiliation, all of which can apply to render a "technically" compliant SDVO as "other than small" and therefore ineligible for the award of SDVO contracts. Whether a SDVO wants to ensure it has not run afoul of the rules prohibiting affiliation between SBCs or a SDVO competitor wants to successfully challenge the SDVO status of a competitor, the SDVO needs to be familiar with the rules by which the SBA determines entities to be affiliated.

For example, a SDVO that is deemed unduly reliant upon a subcontractor for performance of the vital or primary functions of a contract may be deemed to be affiliated with the subcontractor. If the average annual receipts of the SDVO and this "ostensible" subcontractor exceed the applicable size limitation, the SDVO will be deemed ineligible for the SDVO contract. More basic still could be a finding of affiliation based on the "newly organized concern" or shared ownership rules.

Affiliation with a subcontractor may also be found even though a subcontractor is not performing the vital or primary functions of a contract. While bonding assistance alone by a subcontractor generally does not create affiliation between a SBC and a subcontractor, when coupled with other performance assistance, it could result in a finding of affiliation. Other indicia of "assistance" include, but are not limited to, bid preparation by the subcontractor rather than the prime SDVO; the loan of equipment to the SDVO by a subcontractor; office sharing by the SDVO and a subcontractor; and payroll, bookkeeping, and other "back office" assistance by the subcontractor. The proximity of the SDVO’s offices may also come into play when affiliation with a subcontractor is examined. For instance, where a SDVO SBC has been located 1100 miles away from the site of contract performance has been determined by the SBA to render the SDVO unduly reliant upon a subcontractor because the SDVO is too remote to provide meaningful, day-to-day management of the project. However, an SDVO’s location 100 miles away from the site of contract performance has been deemed not too remote.

Whether affiliation exists to render your SDVO or a competitor’s SDVO ineligible for a particular procurement or ineligible generally for the SDVO program is very fact-specific. To minimize the risk of being declared "other than small" SDVOs should carefully review all rules by which the SBA examines allegations of affiliation.

Women-Owned Small Business Set-Asides on Their Way?

 

The Small Business Administration (SBA) plans to implement a Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) program that includes a full complement of benefits similar to those for the 8(a), HUB-Zone, and other programs. On May 11, 2009, the SBA announced in the Federal Register that it will revoke its previous proposed rule for a WOSB program and promulgate a new rule. Click here for announcement. [.pdf] The SBA says it is "committed to moving forward to implement a successful WOSB procurement program."

To qualify as a WOSB, a company must be small and at least 51% unconditionally and directly owned and controlled by one or more women who are United States citizens. An EDWOSB is a small business that is at least 51% unconditionally and directly owed by one or more women who are United States citizens and economically disadvantaged.

Currently, the WOSB program is limited in scope. It encourages prime contractors to subcontract with WOSBs but does not include many of the significant business opportunities SBA has established for other entities considered socially or economically disadvantaged. For instance, there currently are no set-aside procurements exclusively for competition among WOSBs. Also, there are no sole-source prime contracts for WOSBs. Nor do they enjoy any evaluation preferences in full-and-open competitions as currently exist in other socio-economic programs.

No firm date for issuance of a proposed WOSB program has been established, but the May 11, 2009, notice in the Federal Register anticipates a new announcement some time in July 2009.