Public Bidding Hall of Fame: Yohe v. Lower Burrell

This post is one in a continuing series intended to highlight significant Pennsylvania court decisions in the area of public bidding.  The decision highlighted here concerns the core purpose of public bidding requirements. In 1965, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided Yohe Read more

Who Can Be Excluded From Public Bidding?

When a public bid is issued, can a municipality refuse to accept or open bids from any bidder it chooses? The answer is, yes and no.  In some cases, a municipality may engage in a pre-qualification process and exclude certain Read more

DGS Issues 2014 List Of Exempt Steel Products

The Pennsylvania Department of General Services has issued its annual list of machinery and equipment steel products which are exempt under the Pa. Steel Products Procurement Act.  The list for 2014 can be found Read more

Schuylkill Products Officers Sentenced To Prison And Ordered To Pay Restitution Of $119 Million For DBE Fraud

In the criminal fraud case involving Schuylkill Products, Inc., and the U.S. Department of Transportation's Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program (see my earlier post here about this case), the former Schuylkill Products vice presidents in charge of sales and marketing and field operations received lengthy prison sentences Read more

Board of Claims

Pa. Board Of Claims Will Continue To Hear Non-Procurement Code Contract Claims

Does the Pennsylvania Board of Claims have jurisdiction to decide all “contract” claims against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania?  Prior to 2002, the Board did have such jurisdiction, without question. However, since 2002, with the passage of Act 142, the Board has been faced “with a constant series of jurisdictional challenges” on grounds that its enabling provisions, now contained in the Procurement Code, limit its jurisdiction only to claims under Procurement Code contracts.

In a decision issued on September 11, 2013, the Board said it could and would continue to hear claims arising under non-Procurement Code contracts, even while it declined to hear the particular non-Procurement Code contract claim before it.  The Board found that it was required to read its jurisdictional statute broadly “so as to acknowledge the Board’s historical purpose, serve the public interest and avoid the potential for disruption to existing Commonwealth business and commercial interests should the validity of its non-Procurement Code contractual relations be called into doubt.”  In its ruling, the Board said that it did not believe that the General Assembly intended to radically alter the Board’s jurisdiction.  The Board agreed that restricting its jurisdiction to Procurement Code contracts only “could potentially threaten to disrupt several significant commercial and economic relationships enjoyed by the Commonwealth outside the Procurement Code arena.” The Board also pointed out that the legislative history of the 2002 amendments did not contain any discussion regarding modification of sovereign immunity coverage for contract claims against the Commonwealth.

Indeed, the Board went so far as to proclaim that: “We believe the circumstances … provide strong indication that the General Assembly did not intend to materially change the Board’s function, the scope of sovereign immunity or the long-established public policy served by the Board.”  The Board also found that a broad reading of its jurisdictional mandate “ultimately serves the best interest of the Commonwealth by providing parties contracting with a Commonwealth agency assurance that it may rely upon the agency to fulfill its obligations as well, avoiding the economic disruption that may result from public knowledge of a contrary holding.”

The Board’s decision came in the context of a claim involving a loan made by a Commonwealth agency. In August 2011, Telwell, Inc., filed claims in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County against Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS).  Telwell claimed that it was owed $500,000 in overpaid interest on a loan made to it by PSERS.  The claim stemmed from the fact that the loan commitment and the note recited different interest rate terms.  The claim was eventually transferred to the Board of Claims.

When Telwell filed for summary judgment, PSERS raised the issue of the Board’s subject matter jurisdiction. PSERS claimed that Board’s jurisdiction did not extend to claims arising from a loan made by a Commonwealth agency.  PSERS further argued that it enjoyed the defense of sovereign immunity.  PSERS’s position derived support from the 2002 amendments to the Procurement Code which codified the Board of Claims by moving its jurisdictional provisions into the Procurement Code. Thus, the Procurement Code, at 62 Pa.C.S. § 1724(a), now arguably limits the Board’s jurisdiction to claims arising from a “contract entered into by a Commonwealth agency in accordance with this part…” This “part” is a reference to Part I of the Procurement Code.  Section 102(f.1) of the Procurement Code further provides that “[t]his part does not apply to loans.” Again, this “part” is a reference to Part I of the Procurement Code.  On the other hand, section 1724(c) of the Procurement Code extends the Board’s jurisdiction to “a contract entered into by a Commonwealth agency involving real property interests in which the Commonwealth agency is the respondent.”

Telwell conceded that its claim was not based on a Procurement Code contract, but it argued that the Board needed to retain jurisdiction over claims arising from all contracts with the Commonwealth. While the Board agreed with many of Telwell’s arguments (as noted above), the Board ultimately sided with PSERS, relying primarily on section 102(f.1) of the Procurement Code which explicitly exempted “loans” from its purview, and, by extension, from the Board’s jurisdiction. The Board did not see any neat way around this unambiguous and blanket exclusion.  Nonetheless, in doing so, the Board acknowledged the far reaching and potentially disastrous ramifications of a ruling that it could not hear any claims under any non-Procurement Code contracts, noting that, if a contract claim does not fall within the Board’s jurisdiction, then there is no exception to sovereign immunity and no possibility of redress against the Commonwealth.

While the Board expressed its firm view that it could continue to hear non-Procurement Code contract claims, it appears certain that contract claims arising out of Commonwealth loans cannot be heard by the Board.  This in and of itself is a far reaching decision.  Moreover, there is no guarantee that Board’s expansive view of its jurisdictional legislation will be supported by the courts.

Thus, for this reason and more, the ruling in Telwell is potentially foreboding. A party obtaining a loan from the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth agency is now suitably forewarned – there is no remedy for a breach by the Commonwealth. Moreover, any party entering into a non-loan contract with the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth agency, but outside the purview of the Procurement Code, would be wise to look both ways, and think twice.  If the Commonwealth breaches such a contract, and the contracting party is damaged, the contracting party may well be out of luck, without any recourse or remedy if the arguments in favor of limiting the Board’s jurisdiction hold sway with the Commonwealth Court or the Supreme Court.  Section 1724(b) of the Procurement Code may provide some relief to parties contracting with the Commonwealth. This subsection gives the Board jurisdiction to arbitrate claims arising from “[a] written agreement executed by a Commonwealth agency and the Office of Attorney General in which the parties expressly agree to utilize the board to arbitrate disputes arising from the agreement.”  If the contract is an non-Procurement Code contract, the contracting party should insist that the Commonwealth agency and the AG’s office sign off on using the Board of Claims to hear claims.  This would arguably effectuate a waiver of sovereign immunity.

The Board of Claims decision can be found here.

A hat tip and thanks to West Chester attorney, Paul Drucker, Esq., who brought this decision to my attention.

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Posted on by Christopher I. McCabe, Esq. in Board of Claims, Procurement Code Leave a comment

Commonwealth Court Voids Drug Contract Where Price Was Not A Factor In Contract Award

In March 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) issued a Request for Proposals (RFP), under a competitive sealed proposal process, seeking proposals for the supply of pharmaceuticals for its Developmentally Disabled Centers.  The pricing structure set out in the RFP provided that the winning vendor would be reimbursed through Medicare, Medical Assistance (MA), or private insurance.  Apparently, DPW would not consider price as a factor in its award of the contract.

DPW received four bids and awarded the contract to Diamond Drugs whose proposal was scored the highest.  Omnicare filed a protest with DPW and argued that DPW violated the Procurement Code by failing to consider price as an element of the bids when it contracted to purchase pharmaceuticals for which there was no set pricing scheme and where DPW would pay for drugs not covered by Medicare, MA, or a private insurer.  Section 513(g) of the Procurement Code requires that a purchasing agency consider price in the competitive sealed proposal process. DPW argued that that its actions were proper because it would pay the same regardless of which vendor won the contract. DPW rejected the protest.  Omnicare then appealed to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.

On May 15, 2013, the Commonwealth Court sustained the protest and voided the contract.  The Commonwealth Court first held that the protest was timely as it was filed within seven days after notice of the contract award was posted to the DPW website.  The Commonwealth Court rejected DPW’s argument that the protest was untimely because the RFP provided Omnicare with enough information on which to base its bid protest.  The Commonwealth Court next held that the contract violated the Procurement Code because DPW will pay directly for non-compensable medications even though it did not consider price as a factor in its award.

The Commonwealth Court wrote:

In doing so, and in failing to consider pricing for non-compensable drugs as an element of the proposals, DPW deprived itself and the offerors of the opportunity to discover whether an offeror could offer better prices for non-compensable drugs than those arrived at by using the MA pricing formula. Given that the offerors’ prices for non-compensable drugs could have differed, DPW violated Section 513(g) [of the Procurement Code] by failing to consider pricing as an element of the proposals.

The Commonwealth Court decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Department of Public Welfare 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

Pa. Board of Claims Retains Exclusive Jurisdiction For State Contract Claims

I recently posted about a not-so-recent December 2011 decision in Scientific Games International Inc. v. Commonwealth of Pa., Department of Revenue, where the Pa. Commonwealth Court held that it had original jurisdiction to hear state contract claims seeking non-monetary relief.  Well, it turns out that the Commonwealth Court was wrong.  So, forget everything I wrote.

In a decision issued on March 25, 2013, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed the Commonwealth Court and held that claims arising from state contracts can be brought only in the Pa. Board of Claims. In its decision, the Supreme Court wrote that:

… we conclude that the Commonwealth Court erred in interpreting Section 1724(d) [of the Procurement Code] so broadly as to sanction original-jurisdiction actions in a judicial tribunal over nonmonetary claims against the Commonwealth.

***

On account of the doctrine of sovereign immunity, however, contractors, bidders, and offerors have limited recourse and remedies. Relative to controversies in matters arising from procurement contracts with Commonwealth agencies, the Board of Claims retains exclusive jurisdiction (subject to all jurisdictional prerequisites), which is not to be supplanted by a court of law through an exercise of original jurisdiction.

The full Supreme Court decision can be found here.  The factual background for the Court’s decision can be found in my earlier post.

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Posted on by Christopher I. McCabe, Esq. in Board of Claims, Court Decisions, Procurement Code Leave a comment

Commonwealth Court Can Hear State Contract Claims For Non-Monetary Relief

[UPDATE: The case discussed in this post is no longer valid.  The Supreme Court has overruled the Commonwealth Court.]

Despite common misperception, the Pa. Board of Claims is not the exclusive forum for all state contract claims.

In a decision from December 2011, Scientific Games International Inc. v. Commonwealth of Pa., Department of Revenue, the Pa. Commonwealth Court held that it has jurisdiction to hear state contract claims seeking non-monetary relief.  The decision concerned an RFP issued by the Department of General Services (DGS), on which there were two bidders, GTECH, the incumbent contractor, and its competitor, Scientific Games.  Scientific Games was awarded the contract, which it executed (DGS did not execute contract).  GTECH then protested.  The protest was rejected by DGS and was also found to be in bad faith.  Nevertheless, DGS canceled the RFP, stating that the cancelation was in its best interests.

Scientific Games then filed a complaint in the Commonwealth Court, claiming that it had a contract with the state and seeking specific performance of the contract and other non-monetary relief.  DGS filed objections to the complaint, arguing that the Board of Claims had exclusive jurisdiction over state contract claims and that Scientific Games had an adequate administrative remedy.

The Commonwealth Court rejected the arguments of DGS that the Board of Claims has exclusive jurisdiction of all claims arising out of state-issued contracts. The Commonwealth Court relied upon a provision in the Pa. Procurement Code concerning the jurisdiction of the Board of Claims which states: “Nothing in this section shall preclude a party from seeking nonmonetary relief in another forum as provided by law.”  The Commonwealth Court also held that the administrative remedies did not apply as the relief being sought by Scientific Games was non-monetary in nature.

This decision allows state contractors another potential forum for determination of their contract disputes with the state, provided, of course, that the disputes do not seek a monetary payment from the state.

The full court decision can be found here.

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

When A Claim Is Not A Claim

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.

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Posted on by Christopher I. McCabe, Esq. in Board of Claims, Court Decisions, DGS, Procurement Code Leave a comment

Public Bidding 101: Contract Award

This post is one in a continuing series on the basic tenets of public bidding in Pennsylvania.  The subject of today’s post is the contract award – when it must be made and who is entitled to the award.

Under the Pa. Procurement Code, 62 Pa.C.S. § 3911, the award of a public contract must occur within 60 days of the bid opening.  This deadline can be extended by written consent signed by the bidder and the public entity.  Thereafter, under 62 Pa.C.S. § 3912, once the contract is awarded, it must be executed by the public entity within 60 days of the award.  The failure of the public entity to meet these deadlines, absent a written waiver by the successful bidder, will release the successful bidder from any liability on its bid and will entitle all bidders to the return of any posted bid security.

Who is entitled to the contract award? Ordinarily, the lowest responsive and responsible bidder is entitled to the award of the contract.  For my post on bid responsiveness, click here.  For my post on bidder responsibility, click here.  Where the lowest bidder is either non-responsive or non-qualified, the contract may be awarded to a bidder whose price is not the lowest.  In Pearlman v. City of Pittsburgh, 304 Pa. 24, 155 A. 118 (1931), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania observed that, once the  pubic entity has determined the lowest responsible bidder, discretion ends, and the contract, if it is to be awarded, must be given to that bidder.

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Posted on by Christopher I. McCabe, Esq. in Procurement Code, Public Bidding 101 Leave a comment

E-Verify Mandated for Public Works Contracts in Pennsylvania

After a long wait, E-Verify is coming to Pennsylvania.  On July 5, 2012, Gov. Corbett signed into law the Public Works Employment Verification Act (S.B. 637) which takes effect January 1, 2013.

The Act requires all public works contractors and subcontractors in Pennsylvania to use E-Verify to verify the employment eligibility of new employees and applies to projects with an estimated cost in excess of $25,000 that are funded by the Commonwealth, or its political subdivisions, authorities, or agencies.  E-Verify is an internet-based system that compares information from an employee’s Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification, to data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration records to confirm employment eligibility.

Under the Act, a contractor must submit a verification form signed under penalty of perjury and acknowledging its compliance with the Act as a precondition of being awarded a public works contract.  Subcontractors must submit the form prior to commencing work on the public works project.  In addition, contractors must include in their subcontracts information about the requirements of the Act.  The Department of General Services (DGS) will create the verification form and is also charged with enforcement of the Act through complaint-based as well as random audits.

A contractor or subcontractor violates the Act by failing either to use E-Verify or to provide the verification form.  Sanctions for failure to use E-Verify range from a warning letter (to be posted on the DGS website) for a first violation to a one year debarment for a third and subsequent violation.  A willful violation of the Act will result in a 3-year debarment.  Civil penalties for failure to use the form or for false statements on the form range from $250 to $1,000 for each violation.

The Act provides significant protection for whistleblowers.  If an employee of a contractor or subcontractor is retaliated against for instigating or cooperating in an investigation, the employee can bring suit (which must be brought within 180 days from the date the employee knew of the retaliation) to obtain reinstatement of employment and to collect three times lost wages, along with an award of attorney’s fees and costs.

A contractor or subcontractor who relies in good faith on E-Verify has immunity from sanctions and shall have no liability to any individual who is not hired or is discharged from employment.  Good faith is shown by a federal agency’s written acknowledgment of the use of E-Verify.  Contractors are not liable for violations by subcontractors.

Information on E-Verify can be found here.  To participate in a webinar on E-Verify click here.  The full Act can be found here.

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Posted on by Christopher I. McCabe, Esq. in DGS, E-Verify, Procurement Code Leave a comment