By: Michael H. Payne
The GAO requires, as provided in 4 CFR 21.2, that:
(a)(1) Protests based upon alleged improprieties in a solicitation which are apparent prior to bid opening or the time set for receipt of initial proposals shall be filed prior to bid opening or the time set for receipt of initial proposals. In procurements where proposals are requested, alleged improprieties which do not exist in the initial solicitation but which are subsequently incorporated into the solicitation must be protested not later than the next closing time for receipt of proposals following the incorporation.
(2) Protests other than those covered by paragraph (a)(1) of this section shall be filed not later than 10 days after the basis of protest is known or should have been known (whichever is earlier), with the exception of protests challenging a procurement conducted on the basis of competitive proposals under which a debriefing is requested and, when requested, is required. In such cases, with respect to any protest basis which is known or should have been known either before or as a result of the debriefing, the initial protest shall not be filed before the debriefing date offered to the protester, but shall be filed not later than 10 days after the date on which the debriefing is held.
Of course, filing a GAO protest may not achieve any meaningful relief unless the project is stayed pending resolution of protest. In this regard, FAR 33.104(c) provides that "When the agency receives notice of a protest from the GAO within 10 days after contract award or within 5 days after a debriefing date offered to the protester for any debriefing that is required by 15.505 or 15.506, whichever is later, the contracting officer shall immediately suspend performance or terminate the awarded contract," except when the interests of the United States will not permit waiting for a GAO decision. The key here is that, in a negotiated procurement, the agency must have received notice from the GAO within five days after the debriefing. That means that the protest needs to be filed as quickly as possible after the debriefing in order for there to be any realistic possibility that the GAO will notify the agency in time. In our experience, when agencies receive notice even one day late, they will refuse to impose a stay.
The rigid timeliness requirements of the GAO often lead protesters to file bid protests in the United States Court of Federal Claims where there is no 10-day, or 5-day, time limit, and where a debriefing is not a prerequisite to filing a protest on a negotiated procurement. The downside, however, is that the Court does not grant an automatic stay and a protester must file a motion for a temporary restraining order in order to halt further performance pending resolution of the protest. In our experience, the government frequently agrees to voluntarily stay performance once the protest is filed (often at the urging of the judge) and a TRO hearing is not always required.
It should also be noted that if a protest involves a matter that should have been raised prior to bid opening, or prior to the date for receipt of proposals, such as a challenge to the terms of the solicitation, a protest filed after award will be dismissed as untimely. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has held that “a party who has the opportunity to object to the terms of a government solicitation containing a patent error and fails to do so prior to the close of the bidding process waives its ability to raise the same objection subsequently in a bid protest action in the Court of Federal Claims.” (See Blue and Gold, 492 F.3d 1308). Accordingly, contractors should consult with legal counsel to be certain that all of the procedural requirements of a protest have been met.
Michael H. Payne is the Chairman of the firm’s Federal Practice Group and, together with other experienced members of the group, frequently advises contractors on bid protests and federal construction matters.