Christopher I. McCabe, Esq.

Contractor & Subcontractor Payment Act Does Not Apply To Public Projects In Pennsylvania

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In a recent decision, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has held that the Pa. Contractor and Subcontractor Payment Act (“CASPA”) does not apply to a construction project where the owner is a governmental entity.  CASPA is a Pennsylvania statute governing payments to contractors and subcontractors on construction projects located in Pennsylvania.  CASPA typically applies to private development projects, whereas the Pa. Procurement Code’s Prompt Pay Schedules apply to state or local public works projects.

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

Participation By Awardee In Bid Protest Hearing Not Improper Under Procurement Code

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In two, not-so-recent decisions involving bid protests filed under the Pa. Procurement Code, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has held that it was not improper to allow the awarded vendor to actively participate in the protests.

In the two cases, the aggrieved bidders filed protests with the Pa. Department of Corrections challenging awards for a contract for a secure telephone system for inmates housed at Department facilities.  In each case, the Secretary permitted the contract awardee to participate in the bid protest.  In one protest, the awardee was permitted to file a reply to the bid protest.

On appeal, the bidders argued in each case that the contract awardee’s participation in the protest and hearing was unlawful because, under section 1711.1 of the Procurement Code, the only proper parties to a protest are the protestant and the contracting officer, and the awardee may not participate because, under the statute, it is not an enumerated party to a protest.

The Commonwealth Court flatly rejected this argument, finding that there was no abuse of discretion in allowing the contract awardee to participate in the protest. This decision makes perfect sense.  The Procurement Code itself, at section 1711.1(e), provides that the person deciding the protest “may request and review such additional documents or information he deems necessary to render a decision and may, at his sole discretion, conduct a hearing.”  This could certainly include information from the vendor who has been awarded the contract.  In addition, as the Court noted, the Department of General Service’s Procurement Handbook permits such participation where “substantial issues are raised by the protest.”  Furthermore, by comparison, in an equity action filed to protest and enjoin a local contract award, the contract awardee is deemed to be an indispensable party and must be included in the proceeding.

So, if you intend to protest a bid or contract award under the Procurement Code, you are hereby forewarned: be prepared to fend off arguments by both the agency soliciting your bid and the entity who has been awarded the contract.

The two Commonwealth Court decisions can be found here and here.

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

Extra Work Claim Against School District Does Not Require Written Change Order Or Adherence To Section 508 Of Public School Code

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Long-standing precedent in Pennsylvania required a contractor’s change order claim against a public entity to be supported by a written change order and strict adherence to the contract requirements and any applicable public law.

For claims against school districts, all of that changed in 2007 with the Commonwealth Court’s decision in James Corp. v. North Allegheny School District, 938 A.2d 474 (Pa.Cmwlth.2007).  In James Corp. the Commonwealth Court allowed an extra work claim in the absence of a formal written change order and held that Section 508 of the Public School Code of 1949 (requiring affirmative vote of a majority of all the members of a school board for contracts) did not bar the claim.

And now the decision in James Corp. has been re-affirmed by the Commonwealth Court.  On March 6, 2015, the Commonwealth Court issued a formal opinion in East Coast Paving & Sealcoating, Inc., v. North Allegheny School District, a case involving a change order claim based on a directive to perform work without a formal written change order, and cited its decision in James Corp. as binding precedent.  In East Coast Paving, the Commonwealth Court stated:

With respect to the School District’s argument that a change order was a necessary condition to payment, our holding in James Corp. v. North Allegheny School District, 938 A.2d 474 (Pa.Cmwlth.2007), is binding precedent. Notably, it involved the School District as the defendant and the very same contract language invoked here by the School District.

The Commonwealth Court also rejected the school district’s argument that Section 508 was an insurmountable obstacle to the contractor’s extra work claim:

In its second issue, the School District argues that the trial court erred in concluding that the School District authorized East Coast to do the soft spot repair work. The School District contends that a change to a contract “must be approved by affirmative vote of the school board members and the approv[al] must be reflected in the minutes or record as provided by Section 508 of the Public School Code, 24 P.S. § 5–508.” School District Brief at 15. According to the School District, the School Board did not approve the soft spot repair work.

The School District made this argument in James, and we rejected it there. We explained:

We reject [the School District’s] argument [that] Section 508 of The Public School Code of 1929, Act of March 10, 1929, P.L. 30, as amended, 24 P.S. §§ 5–508 (requiring school board approval for increases or decreased to indebtedness), bars [the contractor’s] claim for payment of additional work. Testimony established [the School District] considered the work part of the contract; thus, further school board approval was unnecessary.

James, 938 A.2d at 478 n.12. Moreover, we explained:

[The School District], having directed [the contractor] to perform the additional work asserting it was required by contract, cannot now disavow liability for costs incurred by claiming [the contractor] did not have written authorization [from the School Board].

Id. at 487.

The record established that the School District required East Coast to do the soft spot repair work. The School District does not argue that the soft spot repairs were not necessary. As in James, it was not necessary for the School Board to approve, specifically, the soft spot repair work. The School Board approved the paving project and its completion by East Coast, and that is all that was required by Section 508.

Thus, at least for the time being, and at least with respect to contractor claims against school districts in Pennsylvania, a contractor does not need a formal, written change order in order to pursue a claim for extra work performed at the direction of an official or employee of the school district.  Moreover, Section 508 of the Public School Code is not a legal impediment to these claims.  This is more than welcome news for contractors doing business with school districts across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Of course, contractors are advised to consult with experienced counsel when faced with these types of claims.

The Commonwealth Court decision in East Coast Paving can be found here.

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Posted on by Christopher I. McCabe, Esq. in Court Decisions, Public School Code Leave a comment

Commonwealth Court Again Holds That Penalty Award Is Mandatory On Finding Of Bad Faith

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[NOTE: The Commonwealth Court decision reported in this post has been overruled by the Supreme Court. See my new post on the Supreme Court’s July 2016 ruling that a finding of bad faith does not mandate an award of fees and penalties.]

In a recent, unpublished opinion, in the case of Klipper Construction Associates, Inc. v. Warwick Township Water and Sewer Authority, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania affirmed its recent holding in A. Scott Enterprises, Inc. v. City of Allentown (Oct. 2014), and has held again that a finding of bad faith on the part of a public agency in withholding payment from a public contractor mandates the award of a penalty.  This is from the Court’s decision:

Contractor’s assertion that the trial court erred in failing to award any penalty is correct. As noted above, a finding of bad faith requires the trial court to make a penalty award under Section 3935(a) of the Prompt Pay Act. A. Scott Enterprises, Inc., __ A.3d at __, 2014 WL 5335358 at *7. We must therefore reverse the trial court on this issue.

What is “bad faith”?  Section 3935(a) of the Procurement Code has this to say about bad faith:

An amount shall be deemed to have been withheld in bad faith to the extent that the withholding was arbitrary or vexatious. An amount shall not be deemed to have been withheld in bad faith to the extent it was withheld pursuant to section 3934 (relating to withholding of payment for good faith claims).

The takeaway? If you are a public contractor denied payment by a public entity and can show bad faith – arbitrary or vexatious conduct – on the part of the public entity, then you will be awarded a penalty which might be as high as 1% per month on the amount owed.  If you are the public entity and are withholding payment from the contractor, then you must fully comply with section 3934 of the Procurement Code to avoid a finding of bad faith.

The Commonwealth Court decision can be found here.  My earlier post on the A. Scott Enterprises case 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

Payment Rights, Obligations and Remedies on Pennsylvania Public Works Projects

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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

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[NOTE: The Commonwealth Court decision reported in this post has been overruled by the Supreme Court. See my new post on the Supreme Court’s July 2016 ruling that a finding of bad faith does not mandate an award of fees and penalties.]

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

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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

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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

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

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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

Public Bidding 101: Are Proprietary Specifications Permissible?

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On a public bid can a public entity direct a contractor to furnish and install equipment made by only one manufacturer?  This question is raised often by clients who complain when the specifications they are bidding against are viewed as “proprietary” in nature.  Is this legal, they ask?  Can the public entity really limit the specified equipment to a sole manufacturer?  As always, the answer is, “it depends,” although it is safe to say that all proprietary specifications should be viewed initially as inherently suspect and contrary to the spirit of public and competitive bidding.

The rare, but easy to justify case is where the equipment specified is intended to complement or replace existing unique equipment.  Thus, in Silsby Mfg. Co. v. City of Allentown, 153 Pa. 319, 26 A. 646 (1893), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that the purchase of replacement flues for a patented engine, which could not be bought from any other supplier, was not subject to competitive bidding.  In the same vein, if the public entity could buy such unique equipment without competitive bidding, the public entity will likely be permitted to specify the same equipment in the specifications for a contract to furnish and install the same equipment.

The more common, but harder to justify case is where the equipment specified is clearly proprietary (i.e., made by a sole manufacturer), but where the public entity fails to specify acceptable, alternative equipment, or fails to use the words “or equal” after specifying the base equipment.  In this day and age, it is extremely rare that there are not competing sources for building systems equipment.  Today, major pieces of building equipment (e.g., plumbing or mechanical equipment) are manufactured by a multitude of competing manufacturers, and it is fair to say that all operate in essentially the same manner with the same performance and results. In fact, it is the rare manufacturer who has cornered the market for a piece of building systems equipment.

The only reported court decision in Pennsylvania dealing even remotely with proprietary specifications is Direnzo Coal Co. v. Dep’t of Gen. Servs., 825 A.2d 773 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2002).  In Direnzo, the issue was whether the specified ash content of anthracite coal (12.6%) was unduly restrictive and limiting of competition.  The court rejected the attempt to set aside the procurement, finding:

DGS has discretion to prepare necessary specifications to meet its minimum needs. As addressed above, the change in the maximum allowable ash content from 14% to 12.6% was developed in order to ensure compliance with federal and state regulations pertaining to particulate matter emissions. Therefore, Specification C-80 reflects the legitimate needs of the Commonwealth.

The decision in Direnzo can be found here.

The Pennsylvania Department of General Services Procurement Handbook, Part I, Chapter 13, has this to say about “proprietary specifications”:

Since the purposes for competitive bidding require that all responsible bidders shall have the opportunity to compete, a specification or SOW [statement of work] that has the effect of putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of potential bidders is faulty and illegal. A proprietary specification or SOW has the effect of severely restricting competition.

Recently, I handled a bid protest where the school district specified as “base bid” equipment certain manufacturer-specific pieces of HVAC equipment.  The school district did seek other pricing via alternates and thus agreed that this other “alternate” HVAC equipment would achieve the same result with the same performance as the base bid-specified equipment.  However, rather than specifying all of the HVAC equipment manufacturers as acceptable “base bid” equipment, or using the words “or equal,” the school district elected to favor certain manufacturers over others.  The school district’s attempt to seek alternate pricing for alternative manufacturers proved ineffective where the “base bid” equipment could be purchased only through one manufacturer’s representative and where the representative offered only a lump sum quote for all equipment and refused to provide any “breakout” pricing.  This refusal prevented bidders from providing alternate pricing for alternative heat pumps, as they could not obtain separate pricing for the base bid heat pumps.  Due to the protest I filed, the school district was forced to re-bid the HVAC contract.  This case illustrates the peril of proprietary specification – it is usually not cost effective for the public owner, and it usually limits competition and can lead to higher pricing which is the opposite intent of public bidding.

If you are a contractor faced with a proprietary specification, your best bet is to bring it to the attention of the public owner before bids are due. You should demand the right to offer a substitute that is equivalent to the specified equipment and you should seek to have this substitute equipment accepted as equivalent in all respects.  If this does not work, you should contact experienced counsel who can persuade the public owner of the error of its ways – that the proprietary specification is contrary to the spirit of public bidding and open and fair competition.  Whatever it does, the contractor should not wait until after the bids have been submitted and opened. By then it may be too late.

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Posted on by Christopher I. McCabe, Esq. in Bid Specifications, Court Decisions, Public Bidding 101 Leave a comment