Differing Site Conditions

In a case captioned as Ace Constructors, Inc. v. United States concerning a contract with the Corps of Engineers for the construction of a structure at Biggs Army Airfield, the Federal Circuit upheld a Court of Federal Claims ruling awarding an equitable adjustment to ACE Constructors (“ACE”) and the return of liquidated delay damages.  The Court had ruled that, due to unforeseen conditions and defective specifications that were incorporated into the contract, ACE was entitled to additional relief beyond that which was provided by the contracting officer.  In particular, the Court awarded ACE its additional costs for: 1) being required to use a more expensive concrete testing methodology than was required by the contract; 2) being required to use a more expensive method of concrete paving than was required by the contract; and, 3) a Type I differing site condition that required 129,000 additional cubic yards of fill dirt.

On appeal, the government argued that the award for concrete testing was erroneous because: 1) ACE had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies and, therefore, the Court did not have jurisdiction over the claim; 2) the contract required the more expensive testing method; and 3) ACE did not demonstrate that its bid was based on the less expensive method of testing.  The Federal Circuit held that the Court of Federal claims had jurisdiction because the claim presented to the contracting officer and the claim before the Court did not differ significantly.  The Circuit Court also upheld the lower court’s ruling that the specifications were defective and that ACE reasonably concluded that the more expensive testing was not required by the contract (a fact which the government had acknowledged during the course of performance of the contract).  Finally, the Circuit Court upheld the lower court’s ruling that ACE reasonably based its bid on the less expensive method of testing. Regarding the method of concrete paving required by the contract, the government again argued that the Court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the claim and additionally argued that ACE unreasonably relied on the defective contract specification when it calculated its bid based on the less expensive method of paving.  The Federal Circuit again found that the Court of Federal Claims had jurisdiction over the claim and upheld the Court’s ruling that when the government provides a contractor with defective specifications, it is deemed to have breached the implied warranty that satisfactory contract performance will result from adherence to the specifications. ACE’s reliance on the specifications was reasonable.


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A recent decision by the Court of Federal Claims, AAB Joint Venture v. United States, (January 26, 2007), illustrates some of the subtleties of the Contract Disputes Act of 1978.  The contractor was awarded a design-build contract for a military storage complex.  The government provided a geotechnical report in the solicitation for the contractor’s use in preparing its proposal and subsequent design.  The contractor discovered, during construction, that the actual subsurface conditions differed materially from those represented in the government’s geotechnical report. Specifically, the report stated that the material was “limy dolomite rock, mostly massive and hard.”  However, the contractor discovered that there was less hard rock and more expansive, clayey material.  The latter material adversely affected the contractor’s plan to use shorter piles and spread footings for the building foundations.

The contractor submitted a certified claim to the contracting officer for the impact of the differing site conditions on the length of piles required for the perimeter of the structures, contending that the softer material required longer pile lengths.  When the government failed to issue a contracting officer’s decision, the contractor appealed to the Court of Federal Claims on the basis of a deemed denial of its claim. 

In its complaint, the contractor included a claim for the removal of unsuitable subsurface material in the footprint of the structures and requested a $412,000 equitable adjustment. The government objected to that part of the claim, arguing that the claim had not been presented to the contracting officer and, consequently, had not been certified. The government sought dismissal of the unsuitable material claim because the Court lacks jurisdiction to hear a claim that has not been presented to the contracting officer and certified.
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Although a contractor encountered subsurface conditions in a dredging project that it may not have anticipated, it was unable to prove that the hard material was a differing site condition.   The contractor’s claim was that it had encountered a Type I differing site condition. The Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals denied the claim, stating