By: Michael H. Payne

A decision was issued by the United States Court of Federal Claims on December 20, 2011, in Martin Construction Co. v. United States, a case involving a Corps of Engineers construction project in North Dakota. Martin was represented by Michael Payne and Joseph Hackenbracht, of Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman, and the case involved a termination for default by the Omaha District of the Corps on a multi-million dollar project involving the construction of a marina. The termination occurred because the Contracting Officer concluded that Martin was at fault for failing to complete the project by the required contract completion date. Martin had argued that the Corps’ design of the cofferdam (temporary dam), which was critical to the construction of the marina, was defective and that the contractor was effectively prevented from completing the marina according to the original schedule. The Court agreed that there was a defective design and found that the Corps’ designer had grossly underestimated the amount of water that would flow through the cofferdam.

The decision is extremely critical of the Corps of Engineers and amounts to a complete vindication of Martin. The Court ruled that the termination for default was wrongful and ordered a conversion to a termination for convenience. This, of course, now exposes the Corps to the payment of damages amounting to millions of dollars to compensate Martin for the costs incurred in attempting to deal with the defective design. The Court aptly noted that “The most troubling aspect of this case is the Corps’ adamant refusal to accept any responsibility for the defective design, even while Martin made every effort to comply with it.” The Court was also very critical of the Contracting Officer and stated that “Competent procurement officials would have acknowledged the agency’s obvious design mistake, made the necessary corrections, and afforded the contractor the contractor the additional time and money to complete performance.”

The Court concluded that the “evidence is overwhelming” that Martin was entitled to a time extension and that the termination for default was improper. Judge Thomas Wheeler quoted Martin’s geotechnical and scheduling experts, and he also quoted the Plaintiff’s brief by stating that “As Plaintiff’s counsel aptly pointed out, the Defendant ‘ignored the elephant standing amongst the teacups in the living room.” The decision is an important verification to the federal contracting community that a termination for default is a “drastic action” that will not be sustained unless the government can meet its burden of proof that the termination was justified. It was unfortunate, however, that Martin was forced to suffer the consequences of the “black mark” associated with a default termination until, as in this case, justice was ultimately served.

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 federal contracting matters, including teaming arrangements, negotiated procurements, bid protests, claims, and appeals.