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

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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 Protests, Bid Specifications, Bidder Responsibility, Procurement Code, Responsibility Leave a comment