In Pennsylvania, a general rule of public bidding is that a disappointed bidder cannot recover lost profits or other costs for the reason that the bidding laws are for the benefit of the taxpayers and not the bidders themselves.
But what of the disappointed bidder, whose bid is wrongfully rejected but where injunctive relief is denied to the taxpayer who has sought such relief? If it is later determined that the taxpayer was indeed correct, but it is too late for the wrongful decision to be undone and for the contract to be awarded to the bidder instead, or at least enjoined, should the disappointed bidder be allowed to recover, if not its lost profits, at least its bid preparation costs?
In the case of Meccon, Inc. v. Univ. of Akron, the Ohio Supreme Court held in 2010 that, when a rejected bidder establishes that a public entity violated competitive-bidding laws in awarding a public contract, the bidder may recover reasonable bid preparation costs as damages if (a) the bidder promptly sought, but was denied, an injunction to suspend work on the project, pending resolution of the bid dispute, and (b) it is later determined that the bidder was wrongfully rejected and injunctive relief is no longer available.
The Ohio Supreme Court’s reasoning in support of its decision is powerful:
If, for instance, a rejected bidder alleges that a public authority failed to comply with competitive-bidding laws and promptly seeks injunctive relief to delay the public-improvement project pending resolution of the dispute, denial of the requested injunctive relief means that determination of the allegation of wrongful conduct by the public authority will not take place until much later in the litigation. Under our precedent, once the public-improvement work commences or is completed, the rejected bidder will not be able to perform the public contract even if the bidder demonstrates that its bid was wrongfully rejected. In such circumstances, the wrongfully rejected bidder is left with no remedy for the public authority’s unlawful conduct, and injunctive relief will no longer serve to deter the public authority’s unlawful conduct.
Of course, this rule has never been applied by the Pennsylvania courts. The general rule here is that only injunctive relief is available and only if sought by a taxpayer. The disappointed bidder itself has no standing as a bidder to seek any relief against a public entity for the reason that the bidding laws are for the benefit of the taxpayers and general public.
In view of the Ohio decision, there may come a time that such a limited claim is asserted on behalf of a disappointed bidder. To allow such a claim, the rule on standing would need to be modified in Pennsylvania.
There are numerous instances where injunctive relief is denied to a taxpayer, but where there is a strong claim that the public entity acted in a wrongful manner (thereby harming the interests of the public, the taxpayers, and the participating bidders). And certainly, for many large public works projects, the costs of preparing a bid, for what the bidder believed would be a fair and open process, can be quite significant. If such costs cannot recouped and the public entity faces no threat of injunctive relief, how are the interests of taxpayer served, especially where the bidder is a taxpayer itself?
If the bid process is found to be unfair and wrongful, but if injunctive relief is no longer available, there is no real deterrent to the public entity if it chooses to repeat its same conduct on future bids. In such a case, should the potential remedy be limited solely to injunctive relief for a taxpayer, even where such relief is unavailable as a practical matter, because the project has already commenced, and where the bidder, in reliance upon what was expected to be a fair and open process, has expended significant costs? In such a case, it could be argued that a limited exception to the standing rule should be carved out to permit the disappointed bidder to at least recover its bid preparation costs.
The Meccon decision can be found here.