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.

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.

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.

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.

Once a party receives an arbitration award, it does not necessarily mean that it will voluntarily be paid. Frequently, the party receiving the arbitration award must have it confirmed by the court and converted into a judgment. However, the party against whom the award has been made may challenge the award and seek to have it vacated. If the dispute involves an agreement related to construction, the parties must follow the procedures set forth in the Construction Arbitration Act, Miss. Code Ann. §11-15-101, et seq. If the dispute is unrelated to construction, the parties must follow the procedures set forth in the Mississippi Arbitration Act ("MMA"), Miss. Code Ann. §11-15-1, et seq. In a recent decision, the Mississippi Court of Appeals found the party against whom an award had been granted failed not only to timely challenge the arbitration award but also failed to set forth sufficient grounds to justify vacating the arbitration award and reversed the trial court’s findings. [click here to view decision].

In reversing the trial court, the Court of Appeals first considered the timeliness requirements for vacating an arbitration award under both the MMA and the Federal Arbitration Act ("FAA"), 9 U.S.C. §§1, et seq. Under the FAA, a motion to vacate must be served within three months after the award is filed or delivered. 9 U.S.C.§12. However, under the MMA provides as follows:

An application to vacate or modify an award shall be made to the court at the term next after the making and publication of the award, upon at least five days’ notice, in writing, being given to the adverse party, if there be time for that purpose; and if there be not time, such court, or the judge thereof, may, upon good cause shown, order a stay of proceeding upon the award, either absolutely or upon such terms as shall appear just, until the next succeeding term of court.

 

Miss. Code Ann. §11-15-27.  Because the challenging party complied with neither of these provisions, the Court of Appeals found the trial court had erred when it concluded the challenger’s motion for vacation was timely.

In addition, the challenger did not set forth any of the grounds that might justify the vacating of an arbitration award. These grounds are very limited and set forth in 9 U.S.C. §10(a) or under Miss. Code Ann. §11-15-23. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court for finding otherwise.

Although this case dealt with the MMA, the Mississippi Construction Arbitration Act also has strict filing deadlines for challenging an arbitration award and extremely limited grounds for challenging an award. It is therefore imperative that upon receipt of the arbitration award contractors consult their lawyer or the Mississippi Construction Arbitration Act to determine the time limitations for modifying or vacating an arbitration award.

On October 10, 2013, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court determination that Mississippi Code Annotation § 85-7-181 is unconstitutional. As prime contractors and owners know, an owner’s receipt of a stop-payment notice or "stop notice" could bring the flow of contract payments to a grinding halt. Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-181 required an owner to hold sufficient funds, otherwise due to a prime, to cover the amount alleged to be due and owing to a first-tier subcontractor who sent written notice that it was claiming the benefits of the "stop-payment" notice statute. Depending upon the amount of contract funds still remaining in the owner’s hands, if the owner paid the prime over the notice and thereby diminished sufficient funds available to pay the subcontractor, the stop-payment notice statute made the owner directly liable to the subcontractor. Owner-compliance, as intended by the statute, gave subcontractors (at least the first-tier) their only powerful tool to enforce payment rights on private, un-bonded projects.

The "stop-notice" statute has been in place for year, but on April 12, 2012, the Northern District of Mississippi ruled the statue unconstitutional on its face because it deprived prime contractors of property without due process. Noatex, an unlicensed California prime contractor, was hired by Auto Parts Manufacturing Mississippi ("APMM") to build an auto parts manufacturing facility. Noatex got into a billing dispute with its Mississippi subcontractor, King Construction of Houston, L.L.C. When King Construction sent a stop-payment notice to APMM asserting it was due over $260,000 from Noatex, that amount became bound in the hands of APMM. Noatex filed a declaratory judgment action, challenging the stop-payment notice statute as facially invalid and invalid as applied. The State of Mississippi, through the Attorney General’s Office, intervened in support of the stop-payment notice statute. Judge S. Allan Alexander agreed with Noatex, holding that simply by giving written notice of an alleged debt a contractor’s payment became bound in the hands of the owner—with no hearing before the money was bound—and thus the contractor was deprived of its property without due process.

The Fifth Circuit upheld Judge Alexander’s analysis. Among other things, the Fifth Circuit noted that the statute is "profound in its lack of procedural safeguards": no posting of a bond, no showing of exigent circumstances, and no sworn statement setting out the facts of the dispute. You can read the decision here.

Unless there are changes to the current stop payment law or the United States Supreme Court agrees to consider this issue, if appealed by the Mississippi Attorney General, there will be no "lien rights" for first-tier subcontractors. Only contractors with a direct contractual relationship with the owner will have lien rights.  Subcontractors may want to seek legal counsel concerning how to address stop payment notices that were to be filed or have been filed and to determine other remedies that may be available if their prime has failed to make payment.   

Yesterday the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion upholding as constitutional the Mississippi statute that caps the award of noneconomic damages at $1 million. Miss. Code § 11-1-60(2)(b) provides:

[i]n any civil action filed on or after September 1, 2004, …in the event the trier of fact finds the defendant liable, they shall not award the plaintiff more than One Million Dollars ($1,000,000.00) for noneconomic damages.

The term "noneconomic damages" is defined in §11-1-60(1)(a) to include "subjective, nonpecuniary damages arising from" death, pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of consortium, and other nonpecuniary damages. However, "noneconomic damages" do not include punitive or exemplary damages.

Lisa Learmonth was injured in an automobile accident and sued Sears, Roebuck and Co. for her injuries. A total award of $4 million was made by a jury, and $2.2 million of that amount was deemed to be for her noneconomic damages. When the district court reduced the $2.2 portion of the award to $1 million under §11-1-60(2)(b), Learmonth challenged the law as violating the Mississippi Constitution’s jury trial guarantee and separation of powers provisions.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s application of the $1 million cap. Noting it was Learmonth’s duty to prove the statute unconstitutional, the Fifth Circuit determined that burden was not met on the issues she presented on appeal. The Fifth Circuit rejected Learmonth’s argument that the legislature could not enact a legal remedy which limited an award of damages made by a jury. The Fifth Circuit also rejected her argument that the statute impermissibly allowed the legislature to dictate to the judiciary procedures or guidelines for determining awards. You can find the opinion here.

In a recent Mississippi Supreme Court decision the Court considered language in a contract which contained an arbitration provision, which excluded aesthetic-effect claims from arbitration. Click here to see decision. The contract in question was the AIA Document A101-1997 Standard Form of Agreement Between Owner and Contractor and AIA Document A201-1997 General Conditions for the Contract for Construction. The Owner maintained that because the contract stated "[a]ny Claim arising out of or related to the Contract, except Claims relating to aesthetic effect and except those waived…shall, be subject to mediation as a condition precedent to arbitration or the institution of legal or equitable proceedings by either party" there had been no clear waiver of its right to a jury trial. The trial court disagreed and on appeal the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed.

The Court found the language of the contract required arbitration of all claims with the exception of those relating to aesthetic effect. Opinion on whether there had to be an express waiver of the right to a jury trial, the Court stated:

No caselaw suggests that, to be valid, an arbitration agreement must include an express statement which waives the right to a jury trial.

[T]he Constitution does not ‘confer the right to a trial, but only the right to have a jury hear the case once it is determined that the litigation should proceed before a court. If the claims are properly before an arbitral forum pursuant to an arbitration agreement, the jury trial right vanishes.

McKenzie Check Advance of Miss., LLC v. Hardy, 866 So.2d 446, 455 (¶30)(Miss. 2004)(citations omitted). Section 11-15-103 requires only a written agreement to arbitration.

Thus, the Court makes it clear that where a contract includes an agreement to arbitrate disputes, there is no need to have an express waiver of the right to a jury trial.

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.