When is a claim not a claim? When it’s not.
In K-B Offset Printing, Inc. v. Department of General Services, a not-so-recent unreported decision, the Pa. Commonwealth Court held that a letter sent by a contractor to the Pa. Department of General Services and asserting entitlement to more than $1 million in contract underpayments did not constitute a “claim,” as that term is defined in the Pa. Procurement Code. As a result, the contractor was barred from pursuing its claim before the Pa. Board of Claims due to its failure to exhaust administrative remedies. (Under the Procurement Code, a contractor must first file a claim with the contracting officer before it can proceed before the Board of Claims, and the claim must be filed within six months of the date it accrues.)
A five-year contract between K-B Offset Printing and the state had expired in May 2011. An audit by K-B discovered that K-B was entitled to additional compensation, due to contractual price adjustments that were to occur every six months but were never implemented. In June 2011, K-B sent a letter to DGS demanding the underpayments. While DGS conceded that it had not made the necessary price adjustments, DGS refused to recognize the K-B claim to additional payments, basing its decision on its belief that K-B’s claims were barred by a six-month statute of limitations.
K-B then filed a claim with the Board of Claims. DGS objected, claiming that the Board lacked jurisdiction because K-B did not first exhaust its administrative remedies by filing a claim with the contracting officer. The claim was then dismissed by the Board of Claims. On appeal, the Commonwealth Court accepted DGS’s argument that K-B’s claim was not ripe because K-B did not first file a claim with the contracting officer before it proceeded with filing its claim with the Board of Claims. The Commonwealth Court held that K-B’s June 2011 letter was not a “claim,” and that K-B’s claim for the additional payments did not accrue until DGS sent the July 2011 letter which stated that DGS would not make any further payments. The Court rested its holding on a rule of the Supreme Court that a “claim” does not accrue until a claimant is affirmatively notified that it will not be paid by the Commonwealth.
At first blush, the court’s reasoning appears to be a monumental splitting of hairs. K-B sends a letter to DGS demanding more than $1 million as a matter of right under a contract. That looks and sounds like a claim. DGS then sends a letter conceding that it goofed on the pricing adjustments, but refusing to pay any more money to K-B due to a legal technicality. That looks and sounds like a denial of a claim. Nonetheless, the Commonwealth Court holds that a “claim” must still be filed with the contracting officer, even if such a claim is identical to the first letter and is doomed to ultimate failure. However, the first letter was not a claim because at that time DGS had not yet stated that would not pay K-B the underpayments. Until that statement was made by DGS, there was no “claim” that could be filed and pursued.
The moral of the story? File the paperwork, and dot your i’s and cross your t’s, even if the claim is pre-destined to be rejected and doomed to failure. The Commonwealth Court has now made it abundently clear that even a pointless gesture must be pursued in order to perfect a claim before the Board of Claims.
The K-B Offset court decision can be found here. Read it and be forewarned.