A former contractor for a long standing firm client filed a class action suit in the Eastern District of Virginia (the famed “Rocket Docket”) based upon alleged tax and Fair Labor Standard Act infringement claims in connection with contract services purportedly provided by the plaintiff to our client in connection with a government contract for security services at an overseas military base.
Ifrah’s team, led by partner George Calhoun, first succeeded in attaining a swift dismissal of the class action tax claims based on the inapplicability of the tax statute at issue to purported employee misclassification. The plaintiff also was forced to amend its complaint to eliminate its employment law claims because the FLSA does not apply to contractors or employees based overseas. The client was thus relieved of the initial threat of a large scale and costly class action suit.
The plaintiff nonetheless continued to pursue the suit against our client based on an individual breach of contract claim. Through the effective discovery conducted by Ifrah’s litigation group, we were able to limit any possible claims by the plaintiff. Most tellingly, we established that the plaintiff had made – and was making – inconsistent claims in his discovery responses and in a lawsuit brought against a third party.
Based on these facts, Mr. Calhoun persuaded opposing counsel to dismiss all claims, ultimately relieving our client from any financial or legal liability.
A renewal for a Top Secret security clearance became career threatening for an Ifrah client’s CFO when the renewal application was denied due to foreign influences concerns. As the CFO of a defense contractor whose continued employment was a condition for the company’s line of credit, maintaining a security clearance was critical for both the CFO and the company. After the Statement of Reasons was issued, the CFO submitted his own letter challenging the decision but it was denied. The CFO then retained Ifrah Law who, on behalf of the client, drafted a written response and successfully mitigated the security concerns. This resulted in the withdrawal of the Statement of Reason and the ultimate renewal of the CFO’s security clearance.
Ifrah’s defense of its clients, Torres Advanced Enterprise Solutions LLC (“TAES”) and Scott Torres, who were charged in a retaliatory discharge case, not only turned out to be a victory for the defendants, but it was also a resounding victory for employers and the court system. The ruling, made in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, set important precedent regarding federal pre-emption in worker’s compensation issues overseas and retaliatory discharge charges.
Two former employees of Ifrah’s clients claimed that they were improperly discharged in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim under the Defense Base Act (“DBA”) and Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act. They were working for TAES at Forward Operating Base Shield in Iraq when they were discharged.
Ifrah argued that the DBA provided the exclusive remedy for the plaintiffs’ causes of action and otherwise preempted their case. In a 26-page opinion, the judge dismissed all four counts of the First-Amended Complaint, agreeing with Ifrah’s argument. She further held that plaintiffs’ remaining common-law causes of action, including breach of contract, were preempted under the DBA. Specifically, she noted in her opinion that federal courts across the country have found that the DBA expressly preempts other remedies state law affords to similarly-situated plaintiffs. Accordingly, the doctrine of conflict preemption barred plaintiffs’ common-law claims and mandated their dismissal.
Despite the lack of clear precedent on the issue, the opinion clearly establishes as the law of Washington, D.C. that employees subject to a federal workers’ compensation plan must exhaust their administrative remedies first before filing an action in court. The decision will result in the saving of time and expenses related to litigating complex retaliatory discharge claims that can otherwise be resolved more efficiently in the administrative context.
(Sickle et al v. TorresAdvanced Enterprise Solutions, LLC et al., Case No. 1:11-cv-02224 (U.S. District Court, District of Columbia))
Our client, a long-time government contractor, rightly turned to Ifrah Law when it suspected a competitor had violated FAR regulations. Our client submitted a proposal in response to a government RFP to provide seminars and library services to detainees at the U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay. The RFP stated that this would be a “lowest price technically available” (LPTA) contract.
Our client’s proposal was unsuccessful, and they moved to challenge the award. Our critical review of the record revealed that the successful bidder may have utilized unbalanced pricing. We successfully argued that our client’s pricing was balanced and potentially fairer to the government – a difficult argument to make in LPTA solicitations because of the discretion granted to contracting officers. Our challenge was successful and following the court’s order granting a preliminary injunction, the government was forced to take corrective action.
(Torres AES v. United States, 1:13-cv-00898 (Damich, J.))
Having spent over 30 years in the environmental and renewable energy industry, our client was dismayed when he received a Notice of Suspension and Proposed Debarment (the Notice) from the EPA. Facing the possibility of a three-year debarment, our client knew that such a black mark would mean not only the end of his company, but also the end of his career.
Ifrah Law set to work on contesting the Notice and addressing the mitigating and aggravating factors. While our written response was strong, the bold and clearly reasoned advocacy we provided during the oral argument had the biggest impact on the case. Ifrah argued that this was a one-time oversight during an alleged emergency situation, for which our client was truly remorseful. But we took the additional step of arguing that that our client never should have been prosecuted in the first place, and that he was the victim of an overzealous prosecutor.
After the record closed, we were told that a settlement of two years was feasible, but we refused to settle. When the decision was rendered, our client faced no debarment whatsoever, allowing him to resume his government contracting business immediately. The EPA legal counsel involved in this matter told us that the advocating we did on our client’s behalf was one of the best she has ever seen.
A government contractor was awarded a 100% small-business set-aside IDIQ contract, but its success was soon jeopardized. Shortly after contract award, a competitor filed a size protest that challenged the contract award and alleged the government contractor was not a small business because of its affiliation with a larger company. Because of the potentially crippling loss of the entire contract award, the government contractor quickly turned to the expertise and advocacy of Ifrah Law to represent the company before the SBA.
We successfully defended the company against the size protest and the SBA issued a determination that our client qualified as a small business. The outcome of the matter ensured that the contract award remained in place.
How long should your past haunt you? A client of Ifrah Law faced that question when it was confronted with a potentially crippling debarment from a federal agency.
The government contractor had participated in a conspiracy to bribe a public official for a contract award. However, it was the first to cooperate in the resulting federal investigation, which led to a successful conviction. Fast forward four years, and the Department of Defense moved to debar our client. The DoD had already placed the contractor on the Excluded Parties List System (EPLS) but wanted to go a step further. Debarment would have been devastating for our client’s business, resulting in an almost complete loss of revenue.
Presenting the client’s strong performance record since the bribery incident (we even got the prosecutor from the contract bribery case to write a letter to the court on our client’s behalf), Ifrah Lawyers successfully represented the contractor in the debarment proceeding. We obtained a decision of no debarment period at all.
A client contractor participated in a procurement competition over a multi-award contract with the Department of the Army that was valued at almost half a billion dollars. After submitting a proposal, our client (along with other bidders) was excluded from the competition because of a deficiency in a proposed labor rate. The other excluded parties protested to the Government Accountability Office, and the Army permitted five of the protesting parties to rejoin the bidding process.
With just a week left before the final proposal revisions were due, our client asked us for help. We filed a U.S. Court of Federal Claims protest asking to reverse the exclusion based on irregularities in the procurement process. We also asked for an injunction to prevent the bidding process from ending.
As a result of our filing and subsequent negotiations with the Department of Justice, our client was permitted to rejoin the bidding and to submit a revised bid.
(Platinum Business Corporation, et al. v. United States, 1:12-cv-00001, Court of Federal Claims, Bid Protest (2012))
The Federal Acquisition Regulation final rule implementing the “Fair Play and Safe Workplaces” Executive Order 13673 was issued on August 25, 2016, and the rule goes into effect on October 25, 2016. This new regulation presents a significant change – and potential challenge – for major government contractors.
President Obama signed Executive Order 13673, often referred to as the “Blacklisting” order, on July 31, 2014. The stated goal of the order is to “increase efficiency and cost savings in the work performed by parties who contract with the Federal Government by ensuring that they understand and comply with labor laws.” On their face, the Order and regulations provide new instructions for Federal contracting officers to consider a contractor’s compliance with certain Federal and State labor laws as a part of the determination of contractor “responsibility” that contracting officers must undertake before awarding a Federal contract. But what do the Blacklisting Order and the final rule really do?
Mandatory Reporting of Labor Law Violations
The new rule imposes significant reporting obligations on federal contractors during the procurement process. Ultimately, contractors and subcontractors will need to report three years of labor law violations once the rule is fully in effect. Labor law violations encompass violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and ten other federal laws and orders. According to the final rule, there are three types of actions that constitute reportable violations: “administrative merits determinations,” arbitral awards or decisions, and civil judgments. Contractors must supply basic information about the violation, including the nature of the violation and identifying information, and also have the option of submitting evidence of mitigating factors and remedial measures. This information will be stored on a publicly available, searchable website.
Acknowledging this reporting is a significant burden, there is a phase-in period to allow companies to get up to speed. When the rule becomes effective on October 25, 2016, the reporting requirements will only be effective for procurements of $50 million or more and only for prime contractors. But after six months, on April 25, 2017, contractors bidding on prime contracts of $500,000 or more will need to make the relevant disclosures. On October 25, 2017, subcontractors become subject to the rule as well. Additionally, while the reporting time frame is ultimately the three preceding years, for the first year the rule is in effect, reporting will only reach back for one year. The reporting window will be expanded by a year each year thereafter, until the three-year reporting period is completely phased in on October 25, 2018.
New Paycheck Transparency Requirements
The Blacklisting Order and final rule also institutes requirements for contractors in how they communicate wage information to workers. As of January 1, 2017, contractors and subcontractors must provide a detailed wage statement, including hours worked, overtime hours, rate of pay, and any additions made or deductions taken, to every worker performing under a federal contract. Additionally, prior to beginning work, the contractor must indicate to the worker whether they will be considered an employee or an independent contractor, and if an employee, whether they are exempt or non-exempt. These notifications must be provided to workers in English and any other language used by a “significant portion” of the workforce.
Restrictions on Pre-dispute Arbitration
On the same date the reporting requirements begin the phase-in process – October 25, 2016, the requirements surrounding arbitration agreements will go into full effect. Companies with federal contracts or subcontracts of $1 million or more may not require workers to enter into pre-dispute arbitration agreements for disputes based on Title VII claims or torts related to sexual assault or harassment. The only exception will be for employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement that has negotiated the contract with an agreement to arbitrate prior to the contractor bidding on the covered contract.
The Government’s Obligations Under the New Rule
Under the new rules, the Government has obligations as well. Each agency must designate an Agency Labor Compliance Advisor (“ALCA”) to implement the reporting program. The ALCA will be the central point of contact for the agency and all matters related to Blacklisting reporting. This includes helping contractors achieve compliance with the rules and recommending labor compliance agreements. On the date the rule goes into effect, the Department of Labor will release a list of the ALCAs and their contact information.
Not the First Attempt at Blacklisting
President Bill Clinton has tried this once before. On December 20, 2000, just weeks before the end of his final term, he issued similar blacklisting rules. These rules would have required federal contractors to certify whether they violated any federal, state, or foreign labor, employment, tax, environmental, antitrust, or consumer protection law in the prior three years. A violation was defined as any incident running afoul of the various laws supported by “pervasive evidence.” That is, no formal ruling or determination of liability had to have been made to create a reportable violation. Further, contracting officers would have had complete authority to determine if the violations disqualified the contractor from reporting and were not obligated to allow bidding contractors an opportunity to respond to potentially disqualifying violations.
While the temporal element is the same as the current rule, the list of reportable violations far exceeded the list of labor law violations as contemplated now. Contractors and various industry groups aggressively opposed the 2000 proposed rule, and several lawsuits were filed in an attempt to block implementation. Nonetheless, the rule went into effect on January 19, 2001 – the day before President Clinton left office. However, in March 2001, President George W. Bush ordered suspension of the rule and began the process for overturning it. By the end of 2001, the Bush Administration had successfully revoked this rule.
Next Steps for Contractors
Contractors shouldn’t expect the 2016 rule to meet the same fate as the 2000 version. While both rules bear some similarities, the current rule is much narrower and better defines what constitutes a reportable violation. Some industry groups have publicly contemplated lawsuits against the 2016 rule, none have been filed yet. With the looming deadline, contractors should start making plans to establish a compliance regime.
While compliance with labor laws is a worthy goal, the new regulation also will have significant costs. It reduces an employers’ ability to require arbitration, which likely will result in increased, costly litigation and possibly class action litigation if future labor disputes arise. Similarly, for existing disputes decided in arbitration, it eliminates the benefit of confidentiality by requiring public disclosure concerning any adverse award.
The new regulation does provide some additional compliance options for contractors in advance of official implementation. Companies may undergo a voluntary preassessment by the Department of Labor. Beyond helping companies become acquainted with the rules, participation in this program will be considered a mitigating factor in future acquisitions. The preassessment, however, the DOL may require companies to enter into labor compliance agreements.
Federal contractors should start taking internal steps to ensure compliance in advance of the effective dates. Companies should work with their internal teams, including legal, human resources, and IT support, to ensure that the necessary records are being kept and to design a reporting and monitoring program for the future. Companies should also review their new hire policies, to ensure that proper notifications are made to all workers in the required languages.
While this is a final rule and set to go into effect in the coming weeks, the matter is far from settled. Legal challenges to the rule once implemented may arise in the courts. And, as with any new rule, the devil is always in the details, so companies will likely not know the full impact of the rule until attempting compliance during the procurement process.
Public schools and libraries in the U.S. can save a lot of money on Internet service by applying for the Schools and Libraries Program, a federal subsidy better known as E-Rate.
E-Rate funding, capped yearly at $3.9 billion, helps eligible institutions cover costs of Internet service. Participants can save anywhere from twenty to ninety percent of their Internet expenses—the precise amount being dictated by the economic standing of both the participating institution and the school district where it is located.
E-Rate and three other programs are part of the Universal Service Fund (USF), a system of subsidies born out of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as a way to ensure affordable telecom rates across the country. Although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversees the USF, the fund is managed by a nonprofit corporation called the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC).
Detailed information on how to apply for E-Rate can be found in the Schools and Libraries Program overview. Basically it works as a bidding process. An applicant fills out FCC Form 470, requesting specific services, and submits it to the USAC. The USAC then issues an RFP for telecom providers who want to bid for the requested services. After 28 days, the applicant can study the bids. When it selects one, it requests E-Rate funding by filing FCC Form 471 within a deadline set by the FCC (for FY2016 it is May 26).
The discount rate is generally determined by the size of the population, in the applicant’s school district, that qualifies for the National School Lunch Program. The applicant must also file Form 486, listing services for which funds are requested and ensuring compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act.
There are limits to what E-Rate can cover. The applicant is solely responsible for end-user equipment, like hardware and software, and also for any non-discounted portions of Internet services.
While it is a great opportunity to save money, E-Rate isn’t a free-for-all. To discourage abuse and misuse of the program, the FCC requires applicants to comply with a series of rules, notably:
- Compliance with state and local law. It’s not enough to follow the FCC standards only.
- Applicants cannot seek discounts for services not requested. In other words, services listed on Form 471 must match (or not exceed) services requested on Form 470.
- Fair, competitive bidding. Applicants are responsible for ensuring an open, fair, and competitive bidding process to select the most cost-effective provider.
- Document retention. Applicants must save all competing bids for services to demonstrate they selected the most cost-effective bid, with price being the primary consideration. Records should be kept for at least ten years after the last date of service delivered.
- CIPA compliance. Applicants must confirm compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires schools and libraries that receive federal funding to employ Internet filters that protect children from harmful content.
In spite of these rules, the wealth of funds in the E-Rate program can attract abuse. In response, the FCC created the USF Strike Force in 2014 and tasked it with combatting waste, fraud, and abuse of the USF programs. Federal agents have shown that they are serious about investigating alleged abuses. One widely publicized case in Ramapo, NY, recently led to several raids. We will look at that case and others like it in upcoming posts.
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Many small business government contractors may have to rethink the way they do business. The Small Business Administration issued a proposed rule at the end of December to implement provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013. The NDAA, which was signed into law in January 2013, requires several significant modifications to the rules for small business concerns, including changes to the Limitations on Subcontracting Rule (13 C.F.R. 125.6).
The proposed rule suggests a number of changes that would impact small businesses qualifying under one or more of the size or socioeconomic categories for set-aside contracts. These changes would (1) require companies to change how they determine compliance under §125.6, (2) require them to certify compliance in the bidding process, and (3) impose steep monetary penalties for delinquencies.
The Limitations on Subcontracting rule limits the extent to which prime contractors may subcontract obligations to outside entities, say to large companies that would not themselves qualify for a government set-aside. Under the current rule, a cost-based metric controls what prime contractors on set-aside contracts can subcontract to other entities: the prime must incur a certain percentage of the contract costs. For instance, for services contracts, a prime contractor must “perform at least 50 percent of the cost of the contract incurred for personnel with its own employees.” Section 125.6 currently provides different cost-base ratios based upon the type of contract (e.g., services, supplies, construction) and the type of set-aside (e.g., 8(a), SDVOB, HUBZone).
The proposed rule, if implemented, would alter how limitations are calculated, using an income-based, as opposed to a cost-based, metric. Under the proposed rule, prime contractors on set-aside contracts would be required to keep in-house a certain percentage of income—including passive income—paid by the government. For services and supply contracts, no more than fifty percent of the amount paid under the contract could be passed on to subcontractors; for construction no more than eighty-five percent; and for specialty trade, no more than seventy-five percent. (note that these are the same ratios used under the current cost-based metric, but now apply to the income-based metric). There no longer would be a distinction in ratios based upon type of set-aside, however.
An important exception to the rule would exist for “similarly situated entities.” Maintaining the philosophy behind the set-aside program, the proposed rule would allow prime contractors to contract out to companies who also qualify under their set-aside category without that relationship counting towards the income limit. In other words, the entities would be treated the same for purposes of the Limitations on Subcontracting rule. For instance, an SDVOB could subcontract out a services contract to another SDVOB and that contract relationship would not count towards the fifty percent income limit. However, the subcontractor must qualify under the same set-aside category as the prime in order to take advantage of this exception.
Another exception is that the rule would not apply to contracts valued under $150,000.
Closing a former loophole, the revised §125.6 would count all levels of subcontractor relationship, not just to the first prime-sub relationship. So companies could not get around the subcontract limitation through subcontracting out under the subcontractor.
In order to satisfy the new Limitations on Subcontracting rule, companies would need to address the rule in their contract bids for set-aside contracts. They would be required to certify that they can satisfy the rule. They would further be required to identify any similarly situated entities they planned to subcontract with and to what extent (percentage) they planned to subcontract with them. Any post-award changes would need to be presented to the contracting officer.
Unlike in the past, the proposed rule would institute steep penalties for non-compliance with the Limitations on Subcontracting rule. Companies found violating the rule would be subject to fines “the greater of either $500,000 or the dollar amount spent in excess of the permitted levels for subcontracting.”
The SBA’s proposed changes may seem staggering to small businesses that have carefully defined their business relationships to remain compliant under the current cost-based regime. But the changes could ultimately help to ensure the viability of the SBA’s set-aside programs. When small and disadvantaged prime contractors subcontract the bulk of their work to large businesses, they call into question the purpose of the set-aside structure. Those interested in presenting comments on this proposed change may submit their comments through regulations.gov by February 27, 2015.
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When it comes to a conviction, or even an arrest, the collateral consequences that are sometimes overlooked by client and counsel can be extremely damaging, especially when dealing with government agencies and programs.
One such set of consequences is unique to contractors who do business with federal or state governments. Because even a plea to a criminal conviction represents a person’s affirmative statement of the underlying facts, that can lead to a proceeding to suspend or debar (that is, prohibit) the contractor from federal or state business. A government agency may issue a notice of suspension or debarment based on the criminal conviction alone, if the statute provides for such a basis of debarment. Moreover, in some circumstances, a government agency may issue a notice of suspension or debarment based on the underlying conduct (which the plea or conviction affirms as true) that poses a risk to the integrity of government contractors. Thus, even if a government contractor facing serious charges and a lengthy trial enters a plea to a less serious charge, that plea may cause the debarment of the government contractor and possibly deal a fatal blow to its business based on the conduct on which it was based.
Another example of an unforeseen consequence is when a person applies for one of the various government programs that are a “privilege” and not a right. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has implemented Trusted Traveler Programs, such as the Global Entry program, which allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States. There is no right to participate in that program; rather, it is a privilege granted to individuals upon acceptance by the CBP. There is an application process for entry into the program, and, the CBP explicitly warns that applicants may not qualify if they have been convicted of any criminal offense or have pending criminal charges or outstanding warrants. Notably, as with similar statutes or prohibitions, there is no end date for when the CBP will stop considering the criminal conviction. Therefore, the criminal conviction will likely act as a lifetime bar to gaining acceptance into this program and into similar types of programs.
Collateral consequences are increasingly becoming an important area of law due to the fact that the total number of collateral consequences has increased tremendously in recent years. This requires a broad understanding of many areas, which is contrary to the trend in law practice of specialization in niche practice areas. Unfortunately, counsel are often completely unaware of the potential collateral consequences in practice areas outside their scope of practice. With funding provided by a DOJ grant and other sources, the ABA has developed an interactive tool called the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction (available at www.abacollateralconsequences.org), which provides a database of the sanctions and restrictions in each state. This is a useful tool for both counsel and client in understanding the full gamut of collateral consequences resulting from a criminal conviction.
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Career Education Corporation, like a host of other for-profit education companies, has found itself spinning on the courthouse revolving door. The latest legal challenge for CEC: a False Claims Act suit filed in federal court in New Jersey on May 16. The lawsuit alleges that CEC defrauded the federal government by (1) falsifying job placement statistics to exaggerate the number of graduates working in their fields of study, (2) misrepresenting accreditation status of some of its programs to remain eligible for federal funding, (3) admitting students who did not have high school diplomas or GEDs, could not speak English, or were mentally handicapped, and (4) paying bonuses to admissions staff based on enrollment numbers. Many of these allegations are familiar to CEC as well as others in the industry. Unfortunately CEC – like many other for-profit education companies – just can’t seem to free itself from the yoke of enforcement agencies and plaintiffs’ attorneys.
Last August, CEC entered a settlement agreement with the New York Attorney General’s office following an investigation into allegations of inflated job placement rates and allegations of inadequate disclosures regarding accreditation status. That agreement cost CEC $10.25 million and imposed significant reporting requirements.
The allegation of inappropriate incentive compensation for college recruiters is a popular basis for lawsuits against the for-profit education industry. In May, the Department of Justice filed a False Claims Act suit against Stevens-Henager College, Inc. for allegedly illegally compensating recruiters. These suits follow similar False Claims Act suits filed against the University of Phoenix (which settled in 2009 for a whopping $67.5 million, plus $11 million in attorneys’ fees) and Oakland City University (which settled in 2007 for $5.3 million) for their incentive compensation structures. There is also a pending False Claims Act case against Education Management Corporation with claims that largely mirror those faced by CEC.
Unfortunately for CEC and its fellow for-profit educators, settling with one entity does not necessarily mean freedom from future suits by other regulators or supposed whistleblowers. The more common scenario follows the camel under the tent: once an investigation is initiated – and publicly announced – follow-on actions ensue. The host of False Claims Act cases against the industry is a perfect example.
Part of the problem is the nature of False Claims Act cases. These suits, which are brought on behalf of the federal government by private plaintiffs (known as “relators”), are intended to help root out fraud against the government. Whistleblower relators are given incentive to file claims as they can receive significant compensation should the lawsuit succeed (or settle). For instance, the whistleblowers in the U. Phoenix settlement received $19 million in compensation; the whistleblower in the Oakland City U. settlement received $1.4 million.
The concept of False Claims Act cases seems laudable – the government cannot possibly keep track of all fraudulent claims it pays out to government contractors and other recipients of federal funds; having private actors with personal knowledge come forward to help address the problem should save the government significant sums. But the host of False Claims Act cases against the for-profit education industry defendants has produced little new or damnable information. When False Claims Act cases are brought after the news of alleged problems breaks, or after an investigation is launched, the benefit to the government is substantially diminished. The lawsuits become more about economic opportunity for enterprising litigators and relators.