In an interesting decision issued by the United States Court of Federal Claims on November 25, 2008, in a case entitled BLR Group of America, Inc. vs. United States, the Court ruled that it had jurisdiction to consider a contractor’s claim that a Contractor Performance Assessment Report (“CPAR”) was “false and highly prejudicial.” The case arose because the Air Force had assigned a final performance rating of “Marginal” to the contractor in several categories, and had refused to amend the rating pursuant to a rebuttal presented by the contractor. Instead, the Air Force disseminated the rating by posting it on the Past Performance Informational Retrieval System (“PPIRS”), a database of performance ratings accessed by contracting officers while making contractor responsibility determinations and while conducting past performance evaluations during the source selection process on negotiated procurements. At a time when contractors are experiencing the rapidly growing use of “best value” negotiated procurements, the accuracy and fairness of contractor performance evaluations can be critical to a contractor’s ability to successfully compete for government contracts.
The Court did not address the merits of the contractor’s contention that the performance rating was “false and highly prejudicial,” but simply ruled that the Court had jurisdiction to consider the case. The government had filed a motion to dismiss and cited a number of Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals decisions where the Board had declined to consider appeals based on challenges to performance evaluations. The Court refused to follow the Board’s decisions (the Court of Federal Claims is not bound by the decisions of the various boards of contract appeals) and concluded that a contractor could file a claim under the Contract Disputes Act of 1978. In doing so, the Court focused on the Federal Acquisition Regulation (“FAR”), which provides that a claim is “a written demand or written assertion by one of the contracting parties seeking, as a matter of right, the payment of money in a sum certain, the adjustment or interpretation of contract terms, or other relief arising under or relating to this contract.” See FAR 52.233-1. The Court also noted that the contractor was not appealing the performance evaluation itself, and concluded that a contractor’s claim requesting a change to a performance evaluation is a proper mechanism, and provides the proper jurisdictional predicate, to challenge an adverse performance evaluation in the Court of Federal Claims.
In addition, even though the contracting officer had not issued a final decision, the Court ruled that the contractor had made its claim to the contracting officer for a fair and accurate CPAR on January 12, 2007, and that the contracting officer, more than twenty-two months later, had failed to issue a final decision in conformance with 41 U.S.C. 605(a). The Judge then stated that “Because twenty-two months exceeds the length of time that the court considers “reasonable” for the contracting officer to issue a decision in this case, the court deems the claim denied by operation of 41 U.S.C. § 605(c)(5), which allows plaintiff to pursue the instant appeal.” In other words, the failure of the contracting officer to issue a decision within a reasonable time was treated as a “deemed denial” entitling the contractor to file an appeal.
The Court not only held that it had the jurisdiction to consider the case, but it also stated that a contractor is legally entitled to a fair and accurate performance evaluation. In view of what has frequently been the use of performance evaluations as a tool to unfairly punish contractors, and to intimidate them into not filing claims for fear that they will receive lower performance ratings, this decision comes as a welcome leveling of the playing field. We have always felt that the statutory right that contractors have to file claims and appeals should not be diminished by fear of reprisal. All claims should be evaluated on their merits.
Please see the Federal Construction Project Manager’s Bulletin, November 2008, a publication of Construction Contract Specialists, Inc., for an excellent article entitled "The Contractor Performance Evaluation System (Revisited)," authored by Paul Perkins, that addresses the BLR decision and revisits an earlier article. Mr. Perkins presents interesting background information on the contractor performance evaluation system and provides the author’s perspective as a former contracting officer, project manager, and construction consultant.