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Déjà Vu All Over Again?

VetLikeMe - September 25, 2014

By: Edward T. DeLisle

As a child growing up just outside of New York City, I was a big New York Yankees fan. My grandfather used to love telling me stories about how far Mickey Mantle could hit a ball and what a tremendous pitcher Whitey Ford was, not just for his time, but for all time. And then there was Yogi Berra. My grandfather loved Yogi Berra. He loved Yogi as much for his colorful nature, as he did for his catching prowess. His absolute favorite Berra quote was "It's like déjà vu all over again." It happens to be my favorite as well (although "The future ain't what it used to be" is a very close second) and it immediately came to mind as I recently reviewed the initial pleadings in Ambuild Company, LLC v. The United States Department of Veteran's Affairs, Court of Federal Claims, Civil Action No. 14-786C.

Back in February of 2013, the Court of Federal Claims issued its ruling in Miles Construction, LLC v. United States, No. 12-597C (February 14, 2013). Miles was a case that I litigated on behalf of a service-disabled veteran-owned company that nearly lost a contractual opportunity, along with its SDVOSB status, following a protest. The facts were as follows: Miles Construction was a SDVOSB that had been previously verified by the VA. A few months after being verified, Miles submitted a bid on a solicitation set-aside for SDVOSB concerns. A disappointed bidder filed an agency protest with the VA, challenging Miles' eligibility. Specifically, the protestor alleged that Miles' service-disabled veteran owner did not "unconditionally control" the company, as required by 38 C.F.R. § 74.4. OSDBU notified Miles of the protest, asking it to "respond directly to the allegations made in the status protest." Miles promptly responded and addressed each of the allegations. OSDBU accepted Miles' position regarding each of the allegations lodged by the protesting party, yet sustained the protest anyway. Why? Not because of issues relating to "unconditional control," but, rather, based upon an alleged failure of the service-disabled veteran to exhibit "unconditional ownership" over Miles, something never brought to Miles' attention. Miles lost both the contract and its verified status based upon this decision.

We challenged OSDBU's decision in a proceeding before the Court of Federal Claims and ultimately prevailed. Miles was reinstated as a verified SDVOSB and was later awarded the contract at issue in the case. One of the more important aspects of that decision pertained to due process. Citing to the Administrative Procedures Act, the court stated that where an agency performs an investigatory function, as OSDBU did in Miles, an interested party (like Miles) must be given notice of what's happening so that it can meaningfully participate in that process. That did not happen. Miles was not given an opportunity to address the "unconditional ownership" issues that led to its immediate dismissal from the VA's SDVOSB program. The court concluded that an agency cannot proceed in such a manner. It cannot issue what amounts to a death sentence without first allowing the accused a chance to defend itself. The court said it best: "an interpretation of 48 C.F.R. § 819.307(c) [the regulation pertaining to SDVOSB/VOSB eligibility protests] that does not allow this basic procedural due process is plainly erroneous and cannot be upheld." That sounds about as straight forward as it gets, but not so fast. Let's consider Ambuild, which was filed last month.

Ambuild Company, LLC was the apparent low bidder on a construction project at a VA Medical Center in Syracuse, New York. The second lowest bidder protested, challenging Ambuild's SDVOSB eligibility. It alleged that Ambuild was affiliated with another company from which it was obtaining impermissible financial assistance. Both the SBA (strictly on issues relating to size) and the VA investigated the allegations and Ambuild was given the opportunity to respond. Ambuild did respond. Shortly thereafter, the SBA issued its decision. It found that there was no affiliation between Ambuild and the other company identified in the protest, meaning that Ambuild was, in fact, small. About a month later, the VA issued its decision. While it rejected each of the allegations lodged by the protesting party, it upheld the protest anyway. It did so based upon an independent review of Ambuild's Operating Agreement and an ownership issue that it found as part of that review. Ambuild was unaware of this issue and, as such, did not address issues of ownership as part of its response to the protest. The VA's finding left Ambuild ineligible for award and resulted in its removal from the CVE database as a verified SDVOSB company. Sound familiar?

Despite the Miles decision, the VA believes that its position in Ambuild is justified. You see, following Miles, the VA revised its regulations. Ambuild has characterized that change as follows:

"They VA [] relies on an amendment to 48 C.F.R. § 819.307, which went into effect September 30, 2013, apparently in direct response to this Court's decision in Miles I. In an effort to circumvent the due-process protections mandated in Miles I, this amendment gives the CVE the ability to ?determine the SDVOSB or VOSB status of the protested concern based upon a totality of the circumstances?' 48 C.F.R. § 819.307(e). According to the VA, this language permits the CVE to ?consider facts or issues not specifically raised by the protesting party that impact the SDVOSB/VOSB status?' 78 FR 59861-01, Rules and Regulations of the Department of Veteran's Affairs, by Robert C. McFetridge, September 25, 2013. Under this interpretation, and as evidenced by the OSDBU Decision, a protest against a SDVOSB for any reason permits the VA to conduct a full-blown compliance review examining every potential status issue, each and every time a protest is filed."

In other words, the VA attempted to address some of the issues raised in Miles by revising the regulations governing eligibility protests. In this regard, it seems clear that the VA would like to conduct a "full-blown compliance review" in each case where such a protest is filed. While this, in and of itself, may not be objectionable, it is unclear how the VA will address the issue of due process. The Miles case was quite clear that procedural due process, that is, the right to meaningfully respond to an agency inquiry that could result in the loss of something legally tangible, must be afforded. Based upon an initial review of the facts in Ambuild, the protested party was not given the process to which it was entitled. Moreover, it appears that if due process was, in fact, given to Ambuild, it could have allayed the VA's concerns. It's still early and more facts could emerge, but this certainly does appear to be déjà vu all over again.

"Déjà Vu All Over Again?" was published on VetLikeMe on September 25, 2014.