Payment Rights, Obligations and Remedies on Pennsylvania Public Works Projects

On Thursday, November 6, 2014, I gave a dinner presentation to the Southeast District meeting of the National Utility Contractors Association (Pennsylvania).  The topic was "Payment Rights, Obligations and Remedies on Public Works Projects."  If you would like a Read more

Commonwealth Court Rules That Award Of Fees And Penalty Is Mandatory On Finding Of Bad Faith

In a recently published opinion, the Commonwealth Court has held that a finding of bad faith by a public entity in refusing to make payment to a public contractor mandates the award of attorney's fees and the statutory penalty of 1% Read more

Procurement Code Is Not Violated Where Only One Price Is Considered In Contract Award

Can a Commonwealth agency consider just a single bidder's price and refuse to even look at the prices of other bidders in making a competitive contract award? According to a recent, unpublished decision of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, the Read more

Commonwealth Court: Bidder Qualification Criteria Can Be Waived Under Gaeta Decision

If a public entity issues a bid and specifies that bidders must have certain minimum experience, can the public entity waive those requirements for the low bidder?  In my view, the answer is no. Ordinarily, specified qualification criteria are for Read more

Payment Rights, Obligations and Remedies on Pennsylvania Public Works Projects

On Thursday, November 6, 2014, I gave a dinner presentation to the Southeast District meeting of the National Utility Contractors Association (Pennsylvania).  The topic was “Payment Rights, Obligations and Remedies on Public Works Projects.”  If you would like a copy of the PowerPoint presentation, send me an email, and I’ll be happy to send it along.

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Posted on by Christopher I. McCabe, Esq. in General Leave a comment

Commonwealth Court Rules That Award Of Fees And Penalty Is Mandatory On Finding Of Bad Faith

In a recently published opinion, the Commonwealth Court has held that a finding of bad faith by a public entity in refusing to make payment to a public contractor mandates the award of attorney’s fees and the statutory penalty of 1% per month.

In 2009, the City of Allentown (Allentown) awarded a road paving contract to A. Scott Enterprises (Scott).  After mobilization, the job was suspended when a pile of contaminated dirt was discovered at the job site.  Scott resumed some of its work and then left the job site while the parties negotiated Scott’s costs.  The parties were unable to agree on payment for the additional costs to deal with the job suspension and the contaminated soil.

Scott then filed suit to recover its losses on the project, and was awarded damages of $927,299.  The jury also found that Allentown breached the contract and acted in bad faith in refusing to make payment to Scott for its contract damages and suspension costs.  However, despite the finding of bad faith, the trial court refused to award Scott attorney’s fees, the statutory penalty of 1% per month, and pre- and post-judgment interest.  Scott appealed to the Commonwealth Court.

On appeal, Allentown argued that an award of fees and penalties was discretionary with the trial court.  The Commonwealth Court rejected Allentown’s arguments, and held that the jury finding of bad faith mandated an award of fees and penalties to Scott:

The purpose of the Procurement Code is to “level the playing field” between government agencies and contractors. See Pietrini Corp. v. Agate Construction Co., 2006 PA Super. 140, 901 A.2d 1050, 1055 (Pa. Super. 2006). It advances this goal by requiring a government agency that has acted in bad faith to pay the contractor’s legal costs, as well as an interest penalty. Otherwise, the finding of bad faith is a meaningless exercise with no consequence for the government agency found to have acted in bad faith. We conclude that Section 3935 of the Procurement Code requires the imposition of attorney’s fees and the statutory penalty upon a jury’s finding of bad faith. See City of Independence v. Kerr Construction Paving Company, Inc., 957 S.W.2d 315, 321-23 (Mo. Ct. App. 1997) (holding that Missouri’s procurement code’s use of “may” regarding penalty interest and attorney’s fees means “shall” and upon finding of bad faith by jury, trial court must award such damages, even though the extent of damages is a matter for the discretion of trial judge).

On the question of when the public agency must make payment to the contractor, the Commonwealth Court had this to say:

There was conflicting evidence on the exact amount the City owed Contractor.  However, the City had an obligation to make a good faith effort to pay for Contractor’s suspension costs and to pay those invoices it did not challenge. 62 Pa. C.S. §3932. If the City disputed the amount of a suspension invoice, it was required to so notify Contractor, withhold the disputed amount and pay the remainder of the invoices. Instead the City paid nothing.

While the Commonwealth Court held that an award of fees and penalties was mandatory, the amount to award is within the trial court’s discretion.  The case was remanded to the trial court for a hearing to determine the award of reasonable attorney’s fees.

The takeaway from this decision is that public agencies have a clear duty to determine what is owed to a contractor and to pay that amount.  They cannot simply throw up their hands and refuse to make any payment because there is a dispute over some items of work.  The Commonwealth Court’s holding strengthens the hand of public contractors in Pennsylvania, and puts public agencies on notice that the Procurement Code has real teeth and that they will be held accountable for bad faith conduct in refusing to make proper and timely payment to their contractors

The Commonwealth Court’s opinion can be found here.

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Posted on by Christopher I. McCabe, Esq. in Court Decisions, Procurement Code, Public Works Payment Rules Leave a comment

Procurement Code Is Not Violated Where Only One Price Is Considered In Contract Award

Can a Commonwealth agency consider just a single bidder’s price and refuse to even look at the prices of other bidders in making a competitive contract award? According to a recent, unpublished decision of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, the answer is yes.

In January 2014, the Pa. Department of Community and Economic Development (Department) issued a Request for Quotation (RFQ) seeking a contractor to design, market, and implement a sale of tax credits.  The RFQ specified that only those bidders whose technical submittal received at least 70% of the available technical points would be considered “responsible” and eligible for selection on the basis of price.  The Department received three bids. After applying the scoring criteria to the bidders’ technical submittals, the Department eliminated all but one bidder for selection on the basis of price.  A protest was filed by one of the eliminated bidders. The Department denied the protest, and an appeal was then taken to the Commonwealth Court.

On appeal, the bidder argued that, by applying a scoring threshold that eliminated all but one bidder and by failing to compare the selected bidder’s price to the other bidders’ prices, the Department violated the requirement of section 513(g) of the Procurement Code that an agency take price into account when awarding a contract.

Section 513(g) of the Procurement Code states:

(g)  Selection for negotiation.–The responsible offeror whose proposal is determined in writing to be the most advantageous to the purchasing agency, taking into consideration price and all evaluation factors, shall be selected for contract negotiation.

The Commonwealth Court rejected the bidder’s argument, holding:

Section 513(g) requires a purchasing agency to take price into consideration when determining which “responsible offeror” should be selected for contract negotiation. This provision neither requires a purchasing agency to revisit its determination that an offeror is not responsible nor does it prohibit a purchasing agency from applying announced criteria to determine that all but one offeror is non-responsible. Here, the Department was faced with only one offeror who met the RFQ’s criteria to be considered a responsible offeror.  Under these circumstances, we cannot say that the Department erred or violated the Procurement Code by considering the cost submittal of that offeror alone.

From a purely legalistic viewpoint, the Commonwealth Court is correct in interpreting section 513(g). But from a competitive bidding viewpoint, where the taxpayers are served by true competition where all bidders’ prices are exposed and considered, there is something just a bit uneasy about allowing a Commonwealth agency to award a contract based on just one price without knowing whether the other prices were lower.  In this case, was the winning bidder’s proposal truly the “most advantageous” to the Commonwealth, if the other bidders’ prices were lower and if the other bidders were also nonetheless qualified to perform the contract, notwithstanding their failure to meet a scoring threshold, considering that technical scoring and comparison of bidders’ qualifications are inherently subjective while the comparison of bidders’ prices is purely objective.

The unpublished decision of the Commonwealth Court can be found here.

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Posted on by Christopher I. McCabe, Esq. in Bid Protests, Court Decisions, Procurement Code Leave a comment

Commonwealth Court: Bidder Qualification Criteria Can Be Waived Under Gaeta Decision

If a public entity issues a bid and specifies that bidders must have certain minimum experience, can the public entity waive those requirements for the low bidder?  In my view, the answer is no.

Ordinarily, specified qualification criteria are for the benefit of the public and are intended to place all prospective bidders on a level playing field by informing them of the minimum qualifications and experience that are required for a contract award.  If the public entity specifies, e.g., five years’ experience in the particular work covered by the bid, bidders with less than five years’ experience will likely refrain from bidding knowing that they would be ineligible for an award.  For this reason, changing or relaxing the qualification criteria after the bids are opened is usually a no-no and a violation of the level playing field rule.  If the public entity decides, after the bid has opened, to award the contract to a bidder with, say, only three years’ experience, the public entity has effectively excluded from the bidding, unfairly and to its detriment, the pool of bidders with only three years’ experience.

In a recent, opinion dealing with a protest on a Commonwealth of Pa. RFP, JPay, Inc. v. Department of Corrections, the Commonwealth Court held that qualification criteria stated in a bid or an RFP could in fact be waived by the public entity under the Gaeta v. Ridley School District decision.  This holding breaks new ground in the area of bidder responsibility.

In 2012, the Pa. Department of Corrections issued an RFP for a turn-key “kiosk-like system” that would allow prison inmates to perform such tasks as placing commissary orders, downloading digital media, checking phone time, and receive and send emails.  The RFP required that each proposal contain an appendix detailing the offeror’s prior experience on at least three prior projects with “at least one (1) project where your firm has implemented a project of similar size and scope and one (1) project you have completed that is related to Kiosk like solutions.” The offeror was also required to include client references for each project, and to “provide examples [of] prior experience in providing MP3 players, downloadable digital entertainment (music), communication (email) and information through kiosks designed for a correctional environment” with examples and references related to the provision of those services within the previous five years.  The RFP also stated that the only two requirements were mandatory: that the bid be signed and timely received.  On the other hand, the RFP reserved the right to waive technical or immaterial nonconformities in the bid.  Three bids were received, and Global Tel*Link (GTL) was selected for negotiations.

One of the bidders, JPay, Inc., filed a protest, claiming among other things that GTL was not a qualified bidder.  The contracting officer responded to the protest that GTL satisfactorily demonstrated its prior experience by submitting ten references which demonstrated that GTL was in the process of implementing a similar kiosk system in South Carolina prison facilities and was planning to install such a system in Kentucky by the end of 2013. The protest was denied and JPay filed an appeal to the Commonwealth Court.

On appeal, JPay’s argument was framed as follows: “JPay alleges that, based upon information it has uncovered outside the RFP process, GTL provided inaccurate information in its submission and therefore could not have met the minimum technical requirements outlined in the 2012 RFP or earned the highest technical score.”

On this point, the Commonwealth Court stated:

The Designee held that the requirement in the 2012 RFP that offerors submit information related to their prior experience was not mandatory and OA was therefore authorized to either waive this requirement or consider it in the scoring. Even assuming JPay’s allegations regarding GTL’s experience are true, we agree with the Designee’s conclusion. The text of the 2012 RFP was clear that there were only two mandatory requirements — the timeliness of receipt of the proposal and signature of the offeror on the proposal — and that OA could waive any other non-conformity, allow the offeror to cure or consider the non-conformity in the scoring. While the 2012 RFP provides that offerors “must” submit information related to their experience on prior projects, a requirement phrased in the imperative does not necessarily make the requirement mandatory.

In my view, the Court’s opinion represents a monumental shift in thinking found in numerous public bidding decisions from years past.  While it is true that whether a bidder is qualified or responsible is typically a decision vested within the sound discretion of the public officials making that decision, and that courts are loathe to second guess decisions on bidder qualifications and responsibility, at the same time it has also been true that specified qualification criteria cannot be changed after the bids have been opened. To allow the criteria to be changed dramatically or waived entirely, as the Court now suggests is permitted under Gaeta, unlevels the playing field, and invites the potential for favoritism and corruption into the public bidding process.

I, for one, see great potential for harm in the court’s decision.  The holding in JPay, Inc. now opens the door wide open to the potential for all sorts of mischief hidden under the guise of public officials determining whether a bidder meets the pre-specified qualification criteria.

The Court’s decision can be found here.

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Posted on by Christopher I. McCabe, Esq. in Bid Specifications, Bidder Responsibility, Responsibility Leave a comment

Commonwealth Court Reaffirms No Right To Hearing On Protest Filed Under Pa. Procurement Code

Is there a right to a hearing on a bid protest filed under the Pa. Procurement Code? The answer is no.

In a recent, unreported decision involving a contract issued by the Philadelphia Parking Authority for a new red light camera system in the city of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth Court has re-affirmed long-standing precedent that a hearing is not mandatory on a protest filed under the Pa. Procurement Code.  Under 62 Pa. C.S. § 1711.1(e), whether to conduct a hearing is within the “sole discretion” of the head of the purchasing agency.  The Commonwealth Court also held that, under the Pa. Procurement Code, 62 Pa. C.S. § 1711.1(d),  it is not mandatory for a contracting officer to file a response to a protest before issuance of a determination by the agency head.  Finally, the Commonwealth Court found that the denial of a stay of procurement was not in error where the agency head had determined that the protest was clearly without merit and had articulated the substantial interests that would be harmed by a stay.

A copy of the Commonwealth Court decision in Am. Traffic Solutions, Inc. v. Phila. Parking Auth., can be found here.

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Posted on by Christopher I. McCabe, Esq. in Bid Protests, Court Decisions, Procurement Code Leave a comment
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