By: Edward T. DeLisle & Maria L. Panichelli

In a recent opinion, SDVOSB Appeal of Rush-Link One Joint Venture, SBA No. VET-228 (2012), the United States Small Business Administration (“SBA”) Office of Hearings and Appeals (“OHA”) used two 8(a) program regulations, namely 13 C.F.R. § 124.106(g) and 13 C.F.R. § 124.3, to determine whether a joint-venture met the eligibility requirements for the Service-Disabled Veteran Owned (SDVO) Small Business Program. Specifically, the OHA found that the joint-venture was not eligible for participation in the program; certain loans from minority owners imposed impermissible restrictions on the service-disabled veteran/majority-owner’s ownership.

Rush-Link One Joint-Venture (“Rush-Link”) was a joint-venture between Link Contracting, Inc. (Link), which held a 51% interest in the joint-venture, and Rush Construction, Inc. (Rush). Following the award of a SDVO set-aside contract to Rush-Link, a competitor challenged the joint-venture’s eligibility for the SDVO program.

For a small business concern to qualify as an eligible SDVO, a service-disabled veteran must directly and unconditionally “own” at least 51% of the firm. 13 C.F.R. § 125.9. The service-disabled veteran also must “control” both the long-term decision-making and the day-today management of the firm. 13 C.F.R. § 125.10(a). For a joint-venture to be SDVO-eligible, the joint-venture agreement must contain a provision designating an SDVO participant as the managing venturer, and designating an employee of the managing venturer as the project manager. 13 C.F.R. § 125.15(b)(2)(ii).

Applying these provisions to Rush-Link, the SBA Director for Government Contracting (“DGC”) concluded that Mr. George A. Carpenter, the president and 55%-owner of Link, was a service-disabled veteran. However, he found that Carpenter did not “own” Link within the meaning of the SDVO Program regulations, based on the existence of several promissory notes that divested Carpenter of certain ownership rights. More specifically, the terms of these promissory notes – given to three minority-owners of Link in exchange for critical loans provided to the company – restricted Carpenter’s ability to transfer his interest or receive dividends or distributions. Therefore, in reliance upon 13 C.F.R. § 124.106(g), which states that a person “controls” a company if he or she “provides critical financing” to the company or exercises control “through loan arrangements,” the DGC concluded that Carpenter’s ownership was impermissibly restricted by the promissory notes. The DGC reached this conclusion, even though 13 C.F.R. § 124.106(g) is an 8(a) regulation intended to govern small-disadvantaged businesses, and is not part of the regulations governing the SDVO program.

On appeal, Link cited 13 C.F.R. § 124.3, another 8(a) regulation, for the proposition that “ordinary” loans following “normal commercial practices” should not be the basis for finding that a small business owner does not control his or her company. The OHA acknowledged this was correct, but concluded that the loans in question here were “commercially irregular” because the holders of the promissory notes were not banks or other commercial lenders, but minority owners of the company itself. Based on this conclusion, the OHA determined that the promissory notes impermissibly restricted Carpenter’s ownership, and that Link was therefore not an eligible SDVO business. The necessary result of such a finding was that the joint-venture between Link and Rush (which is not itself a SDVO business) was also ineligible for the SDVO program pursuant to 13 C.F.R. § 125.15(b)(2)(ii).

Oddly, neither the DGC nor the OHA addressed the propriety of using 8(a) regulations to determine eligibility under the SDVO program. Therefore, going forward, participants in all the various SBA small business set-aside programs should be aware, not only that loans that result in restrictions on ownership rights might invalidate “ownership” for the purposes of eligibility, but also that regulations may be utilized and interpreted across programs to determine a business’ eligibility.

In addition to the above, SDVOSB Appeal of Rush-Link One Joint Venture, SBA No. VET-228 (2012) provided some interesting insights concerning how a company’s internal corporate structure might affect the “control” requirements relating to SDVO eligibility under 13 C.F.R. § 125.10(a). Stay tuned for an update on what an SDVO should and should not include in its corporate governance documents.

Edward T. DeLisle is a Partner in the firm and a member of the Federal Contracting Practice Group. Maria L. Panichelli is an Associate in the firm’s Federal Practice Group.