If you have been involved in a construction related arbitration and received an award, you should know it can only be challenged under the limited grounds set forth in the Mississippi Construction Arbitration Act, Miss. Code Ann. §§ 11-15-101, et seq. One of the grounds for challenging an arbitration award is there has been an “evident miscalculation” by the arbitrator. Miss. Code Ann. § 11-15-135(1)(a).

The Mississippi Supreme Court, in a case of first impression, was recently asked what qualifies as an “evident miscalculation” in D.W. Caldwell, Inc. v. W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Company [click here for the Supreme Court decision]. In that case, D.W. Caldwell, Inc. (“Caldwell”) had secured an arbitration award against W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Company (“Yates”). When Caldwell went to confirm the arbitration award, Yates objected claiming that there was an “evident miscalculation” in the arbitration award. The circuit court, over the objection of Caldwell, allowed Yates to offer documents from the arbitration and testimony to establish the “evident miscalculation” and reduced the arbitration award.

The Court, citing its past decisions, reminded the circuit court that its review of arbitration awards was extremely limited and restricted to the exceptions identified in Miss. Code Ann. § 11-15-135. Based upon the language of the statute, the Court concluded that “the ‘evident’ (plain, obvious, or clearly understood) miscalculation must be apparent from nothing more than the four corners of the award and the contents of the arbitration record.” Otherwise, “[l]ooking to evidence beyond ‘the face’ of the award or the arbitration record allows the parties to retry the matter in front of a trial judge.” The Court went on to provide guidance as to what might be considered by the circuit court in a proceeding to confirm an arbitration award holding “courts requested to confirm, modify and/or vacate arbitration awards are not at liberty to permit the examination of witnesses.” The Court therefore reversed the decision of the circuit court and remanded the case directing it to confirm Caldwell’s arbitration award.

The significance of this decision is that parties to arbitration should make sure that the hearing record is complete. However, even if the record is complete, thoughtful consideration should be given as to whether there are sufficient grounds to seek modifying or vacating the arbitration award before making such a request to a court.

 

The Mississippi Legislature has passed and on April 2, 2018, sent to the Governor HB 1306 for his signature. [Click here for link to House Bill 1306.] This legislation provides that "[a] provision in any contract, subcontract, or purchase order for the improvement of real property in this state or to provide materials therefor, is void and against public policy if it makes the contract, subcontract, or purchase order subject to the laws of another state, or provides that the exclusive forum for any litigation, arbitration or other dispute resolution process be located in another state." This means that Mississippi residents do not have to travel to foreign jurisdictions to have disputes resolved on projects located in Mississippi or have the laws of a foreign jurisdiction apply to a dispute arising out of or related to the improvement [construction or repair] of real property in this state.

This legislation provides Mississippi residents with a "home court" advantage that previously did not exist. HB 1306 will be effective for contracts entered into on or after July 1, 2018.

On January 10, 2018, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) issued its proposed regulation to implement the requirement in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (NDAA) that only the Small Business Administration (SBA) determine whether concerns are "unconditionally owned and controlled" by veterans or disabled veterans for purposes of veteran-owned and service-disabled veteran owned small businesses programs (VOSB and SDVOSB).

Currently, the VA and SBA maintain separate VOSB and SDVOSB set-aside programs, and their divergent regulations and findings on what constitutes the requisite "ownership and control" have caused inconsistencies and confusion for contractors. For example, in Veterans Contracting Group, Inc. v. United States, No. 17-1188C, issued by the Court of Federal Claims on December 11, 2017, the Court upheld a ruling by the SBA’s Office of Hearings and Appeals that left a concern eligible for the VA’s SDVOSB program but ineligible to participate in the SBA’s SDVOSB program. The Court references that the agencies’ respective programs "have materially diverged" and, as in this case, have produced "draconian and perverse" results.

The NDAA’s requirement that only the SBA issue the regulations and determinations for ownership and control, and the VA’s proposed rule implementing it should remedy this inconsistency and confusion. The VA’s proposed rule and be reviewed here. Comments are due not later than March 12, 2018.

Representative Bell has introduced House Bill No. 1306 [Click here to view House Bill No. 1306] that would require construction claims for projects located in Mississippi be litigated or arbitrated in Mississippi. This requirement would apply regardless of whether or not the contract had a provision that required the claims to be resolved in another jurisdiction. This is an important bill for Mississippi contractors since many foreign contractors frequently include a venue provision forcing Mississippi contractors to litigate or arbitrate their claims in the foreign contractor’s home state. Without this legislation, the cost to pursue a claim against a foreign contractor could be cost prohibitive and potentially force Mississippi contractors to settle their claim for pennies on the dollar. Mississippi Contractors should keep their eye on this litigation and encourage its passage.

On February 2, 2009, I posted a blog on forum selection clauses and their enforceability. [Link to prior blog article] On May 10, 2016, in Rigsby v. American Credit Counselors, Inc., the Mississippi Court of Appeals found a forum selection clause included in American Credit Counselors, Inc.’s Program Guidelines unenforceable. In so doing, the Court provides an excellent analysis of when forum selection clauses may be found to be unenforceable. [Link to Decision]

Ms. Rigsby was in serious financial problems and decided to engage the assistance of American Credit Counselors, Inc. ("ACCI") to assist in managing the payment of her debts. She was provided "Program Guidelines" which included a forum selection clause. The clause provided in pertinent part as follows:

…the parties agree that any arbitration brought with respect to this Agreement shall be brought exclusively in The State of Florida, County of Palm Beach, and the parties irrevocably submit to the jurisdiction of Palm Beach County, Florida.

When a dispute developed between Ms. Rigsby and ACCI she filed suit in the County Court of Harrison County, Mississippi. In its answer, ACCI claimed the protection of the forum selection clause and filed a motion to dismiss which was granted by the county court and affirmed on appeal by the circuit court. The Court of Appeals reversed the circuit court finding the forum selection clause unenforceable.

The Court, citing Titan Indem. Co. v. Hood, 895 So. 2d 138, 145 (Miss. 2004), acknowledged that "[a] clause is ‘mandatory’ if it purports to require litigation in the specified forum only and to prohibit litigation in any other forum." It therefore found the use of the word "solely" to be "sufficient to make it [the forum selection clause] mandatory."

Nonetheless, the Court continued with its analysis to determine whether, although mandatory, the clause was enforceable. In doing so, the Court considered the following guidance from the Mississippi Supreme Court:

Forum selection clauses are ‘presumptively valid and enforceable’ unless the resisting party can show:

(1) Its incorporation into the contract was the result of fraud, undue influence or overweening bargaining power;

(2) The selected forum is so gravely difficult and inconvenient that the resisting party will for all practical purposes be deprived of its day in court; or

(3) The enforcement of the clause would contravene a strong public policy of the forum in which the suit is brought, declared by statute or judicial decision.

The Court then considered the facts presented to the trial court and decided that there was no evidence of fraud or overreaching associated in the inclusion of the forum selection clause. However, the Court did find that Ms. Rigsby had satisfied the second consideration because of her age and financial condition she ‘will for all practical purposes be deprived of [her] day in court.’ Titan Indem., 895 So. 2d at 146.

The lesson for any contracting party is to consider the forum selection clause in any contract before placing your signature on the dotted line. Verify whether the forum selection clause is mandatory or permissive and that you can follow the requirements if the clause is enforced. Finally, do not assume you will be able to get out of a mandatory clause under the "deprivation of day in court" exception as it is a higher burden to meet and will be easier to negotiate terms you can live with before you ever sign the contract.

A question frequently asked by owners and contractors is when enough is enough and termination is justified. As a preliminary matter, immediate termination for a non-compliant contractor or subcontractor is never a good idea. Mississippi jurisprudence requires that notice (preferably in writing) should be given to the non-compliant party with an opportunity to cure the alleged defect. The decision to terminate is never easy and viewed by the court as an extreme remedy. Nonetheless, the court has also recognized that termination may be warranted where repeated attempts to cure have been ineffective.

Any notice of termination should be in writing identifying the "material breach" justifying the termination and entitlement to damages associated with completing the terminated scope of work. The owner or contractor should also secure a number of quotes/prices to complete the work. This will assist the owner or contractor from being accused of securing an unreasonable or excessive price to complete the terminated scope of work. Remember, any change in the original scope of work or "betterment" could be grounds for the terminated party to challenge all or a portion of the claimed damages.

Generally, most attorneys would say that you do not need a transcript of an arbitration hearing. However, there are exceptions–one of which was made apparent in a recent decision by the Mississippi Court of Appeals. In The City of Hattiesburg v. Precision Construction, LLC [Link to Decision] the City of Hattiesburg ("the City") attempted to challenge an arbitration award to Precision Construction, LLC ("Precision") alleging evident and material miscalculations in the award after Precision had filed a motion to confirm an arbitration award in its favor. Miss. Code Ann. § 11-15-123 provides that a party may request reconsideration of the arbitration award under limited circumstances if the request is made "within twenty (20) days of the receipt of the award". In response to Precision’s motion to confirm, the City filed a motion to amend, modify and/or correct the arbitration award under Miss. Code Ann. § 11-15-135. The trial court affirmed the award to Precision and the City appealed.

The City’s appeal of the award to Precision was unavailing in part due to the absence of a record.

…[T]here is no record of the arbitration hearing, so we cannot know whether the documents on which the City now relies were even presented at the hearing. The arbitrator’s decision indicates that no such argument was made. The concept of an "evident miscalculation" presupposes that the parties presented the arbitrator with evidence from which a "correct" calculation could have been made. If his calculations were consistent with the evidence and argument presented, then there is no miscalculation. Because there is no record of the hearing, it is impossible for us to say that the arbitrator made an "evident miscalculation." See Godeau v. Picheloup Constr. Co., 567 So.2d 697, 800 (La. Ct. App. 1990).

It may, therefore, be prudent to request a transcript of an arbitration hearing as a precautionary measure in the event a challenge to the arbitrator’s award is necessary.

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.

Public agencies may use past performance to award a contract to the lowest and best bidder or reject a bid. Occasionally, construction companies may dissolve or form new companies. The reasons for a change in a company’s corporate structure may vary. However, the good and/or the bad may follow the newly formed company. This issue was addressed a number of years ago by the Mississippi Attorney General and the position explained as follows:

[I]f a bidder presenting a valid COR number is a company with which DFA/BOB has no past experience or past performance history, DFA/BOB may consider past experience with or past performance of the company from which the bidder originated, the bidder’s parent company, or the company with which the bidder merged, partnered, or changed names.

The Attorney General went on to state that a public agency can also reject an apparent low bidder "who submits a bid under the same COR number as its predecessor, predecessor in name, parent company, or merger/partner" where the public agency considers a poor past performer. [Link to AG Opinion No. 2003-649].

The important point to understand is that good and/or poor past performance follows the COR number which is held by the qualifying party.

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.