For federal contractors, it is not an exaggeration to say that performance evaluations are the lifeblood of the business. A less-than-satisfactory evaluation in the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System (CPARS) affects far more than just the agency’s assessment of performance on a particular project. A negative evaluation follows a contractor around – impacting the ability to obtain future contracts due to the specter negative past performance ratings.
The good news for contractors is that the ability to challenge and – if successful – reverse negative CPARS evaluations is a quickly developing area of government contracting law.
The first step in any successful CPARS challenge involves meaningful participation in the evaluation process. The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) Part 42.15 entitles contractors to submit comments and receive an agency review of a disputed performance evaluation. Specifically, contractors are entitled to submit comments, rebuttal statements, and/or other information in response to the agency’s evaluation. The agency must then review those comments at a level above the contracting officer and update the evaluation, if necessary.
If the review and comment process is unsuccessful in resolving the issues, both the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and Boards of Contract Appeals recognize that contractors may bring a lawsuit to address performance evaluation disputes. Generally speaking, in order to advance a performance evaluation dispute to the next level, the contractor must be prepared to prove that the agency’s evaluation is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law.
Although litigation over a performance evaluation dispute is a relatively new development – the law is now clear that a condition precedent to litigating the issue before a Court or Board is a certified claim. That is – just like a claim for damages based on (for example) delay or a differing site condition – the contractor must file a written claim in accordance with the Contract Disputes Act (CDA) and receive a denial or “deemed denial” of that claim in order to move forward.
In a recent decision, the Court of Federal Claims reinforced the notion that there is no substitute for a CDA claim. The case originated with a complaint filed by a contractor concerning an allegedly unreasonable negative performance evaluation issued by the United States Transportation Command. The contractor sought a declaratory judgment vacating the evaluation.
Before the contractor could even begin to prove its case, the government filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the contractor did not submit a CDA claim to the contracting officer. Without a claim (the government argued), the Court lacks jurisdiction to hear the case. In response, the contractor asserted that it engaged in a series of communications with the agency regarding the CPARS evaluation, but the agency would not change its allegedly improper position.
On review, the Court sided with the government and dismissed the contractor’s complaint. In this instance – far from proving a legitimate dispute that could substitute for a CDA claim – the Court relied on the contractor’s communications with the government as evidence its the lack of jurisdiction. The Court held that the on-going nature of the parties’ negotiations showed that the contracting officer had no notice that the contractor sought a “final decision” of any kind.
The takeaway for contractors is very simple – engage in the process and follow the required steps when disputing a CPARS evaluation. The contractor must participate in the review and comment procedure articulated in FAR 42.15 – but if that fails, the next logical step is to proceed with a CDA claim (or, perhaps as an intermediate step, a request for equitable adjustment). Before a performance evaluation dispute can escalate to litigation, the contractor must be armed with a denial or deemed denial of that claim.