Photo of Kevin Barnett

Kevin Barnett represents clients in all aspects of government contracts law. He has represented contractors in litigating claims against the United States before the Court of Federal Claims, the boards of contract appeals, and against a foreign government in an international arbitration. He has counseled clients on GSA schedule contract compliance, Buy American Act and Trade Agreement Act issues, and the attorney-client privilege. Mr. Barnett also routinely assists clients of all sizes in navigating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process from drafting and negotiating requests through litigating in federal court.

A recent Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals decision serves as a timely reminder for contractors to carefully read and consider any release of claims before signing — especially when you may have otherwise-recoverable coronavirus-related cost increases.
Continue Reading Look Before You Release — ASBCA Enforces Release of Claims to Contractor’s Detriment

The Fourth Circuit recently rejected a trial court’s ruling that a contractor’s mandatory disclosure submission waived its attorney-client privilege over the underlying internal investigation. In re Fluor Intercontinental, Inc., No. 20-1241 (Mar. 25, 2020) (per curiam). The court granted Fluor’s mandamus petition and directed the district court to vacate its orders requiring Fluor to produce privileged information from its internal investigation relating to the subject matter of four statements in its mandatory disclosure submission. Id. at 1. In doing so, the Fourth Circuit confirmed that “Government contractors should not fear waiving attorney-client privilege” when making mandatory disclosures. It also curtailed an outlier ruling and provided reassurances to other corporations and individuals who routinely make similar disclosures and fact proffers to the government.
Continue Reading Have No Fear: Fourth Circuit Confirms Contractors Shouldn’t Fear Privilege Waivers When Making Mandatory Disclosures

Last month, the Department of Justice Office of Information Policy issued new guidance on the definition of confidential information under Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act. This new guidance addresses the meaning of “confidential” in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Food Mktg. Inst. v. Argus Leader Media, 139 S. Ct. 2356 (2019). While not determinative, this DOJ Guidance offers contractors critical insight into how agencies will respond in the first instance to FOIA requests for information that may be subject to Exemption 4. This exemption protects “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [that is] privileged or confidential.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4).

As covered in this space earlier this year, in Food Marketing Institute, the Supreme Court jettisoned 40 years of established FOIA case law on how agencies defined confidential under Exemption 4. It rejected the well-established “competitive harm” test from National Parks & Conservation Association v. Morton, 498 F.2d 765 (D.C. Cir. 1974) based on the lack of support in the statutory language. In its place, it adopted a “plain language” interpretation of confidential, finding two potential definitions: (1) information “customarily kept private, or at least closely held,” by the submitting party; and (2) information disclosed when the receiving party provides “some assurance that it will remain secret.” The Supreme Court held that the first condition was mandatory but expressly left open whether confidential information could lose that status if provided to the government “without assurances that the government will keep it private.” As a result, contractors and agencies alike were left without clear guidance as to whether, or when, a government “assurance” may be required.
Continue Reading DOJ Issues New Guidance for Treatment of Confidential Information Under Recent Supreme Court FOIA Decision

On Monday, the Supreme Court significantly altered how government agencies will treat confidential commercial information protected from disclosure by Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) — an issue that recurs repeatedly with respect to information submitted by contractors to government agencies.  Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media, No. 18-481 (U.S. June 24, 2019). The Court overturned 45 years of lower-court precedent requiring that the submitter show both that the information was not publicly disclosed, and that its release would cause substantial competitive harm.  The Court’s decision seemingly expands the scope of Exemption 4 by removing the “substantial competitive harm” requirement. However, the effect of this apparent expansion is unclear, because the Court suggested but did not resolve whether Exemption 4 also requires a new element: a showing that the submitter’s information was provided under an assurance by the government that it would keep the information confidential.

Notwithstanding the question left open by the Court, Food Marketing points the way to several steps that contractors can take to protect their commercial and financial information from release under the new interpretation of Exemption 4.


Continue Reading Supreme Court Shakes Up FOIA Exemption for Confidential Information

While you might not be able to fight City Hall, you can fight your CPARS rating. In a short opinion published last week, the ASBCA confirmed it has jurisdiction to annul an inaccurate and unfair government evaluation of a contractor’s performance. Cameron Bell Corporation d/b/a Government Solutions Group, ASBCA No. 61856 (May 1, 2019).  Though the ASBCA cannot require the government to issue a specific rating, it can remand the matter to the contracting officer with instructions to redo the evaluation ─ a perhaps imperfect, yet still potent form of relief available to contractors who believe the government has improperly rated their contract performance.
Continue Reading ASBCA Confirms Contractors May Challenge Unfavorable CPARS Ratings

Although the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows citizens to request agency records and thus keep a close eye on their government, proprietary information is exempt from disclosure under Exemption 4, which protects “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [that is] privileged or confidential.” A substantial body of case law has developed regarding what does and does not qualify as proprietary, and therefore exempt, under FOIA. For example, the total price paid under a government contract is rarely exempt, but a contractor’s line-item pricing often can be. However, there is no per se rule that line-item pricing is exempt from release under FOIA. Instead, contractors must show on a case-by-case basis that the disclosure of the line-item pricing would cause competitive harm.

On September 28, 2018, the D.C. District Court issued two noteworthy decisions holding that line-item pricing data and commission rates were exempt from release under FOIA Exemption 4. Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. v. NASA, No. 17-1902, 2018 WL 4681012 (D.D.C. Sept. 28, 2018); Hodes v. Treasury, No. 17-0219 (D.D.C. issued Sept. 28, 2018). Although these decisions do not break new ground, they are nonetheless significant as the latest examples of a court preventing the disclosure of pricing information. They suggest that courts are willing to apply a broad definition of confidential commercial or financial information where the contractor makes the necessary showing. They also reject common agency arguments for disclosing pricing information, such as the information is too old or not final. Thus, these opinions provide useful authority in defending against the public release of contractor pricing information.
Continue Reading New Cases Confirm that FOIA Exemption 4 Protects Line-Item Pricing Information

On February 22, 2018, the General Services Administration (GSA) issued a Final Rule to address common commercial supplier agreement terms that it contends are inconsistent with federal law. The purpose of this rule is to streamline negotiations over commercial supplier agreements (“CSAs”), end-user license agreements (“EULAs”), Terms of Sale (“TOSs”) or similar sets of standard terms and conditions. Significantly, the rule reverses several controversial provisions from the Proposed Rule and an earlier class deviation by reverting the order of precedence and eliminating the burdensome requirement of providing the full text of all provisions. Less controversially, but nonetheless important, the Final Rule also formalizes GSA’s longstanding position that certain terms and conditions are unenforceable under federal law.

Continue Reading GSA Issues Final Rule Governing Negotiations of Common Commercial Terms

On January 31, 2018, the Department of Defense (“DoD” or the “Department”) published a final rule regarding commercial item purchasing requirements.  Among other key amendments, the final rule modifies the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (“DFARS”) by:  (i) formalizing a presumption of commerciality for items that DoD previously treated as commercial; (ii) providing commercial item treatment to goods and services offered by nontraditional defense contractors; and (iii) prioritizing the types of information that the contracting officer (“CO”) can consider when determining price reasonableness in the absence of adequate competition.

The final rule adopts much of DoD’s August 2016 proposed rule, which itself was a revised version of a retracted August 2015 proposed version.  We discussed the August 2016 proposed rule on this subject (and linked to an article regarding the August 2015 version) in a prior post.  Despite receiving repeated input from industry and Congress, DoD’s final rule still provides little concrete guidance, and although these changes were made with the stated purpose of promoting consistency across purchasing components, it appears likely that inconsistencies will persist.  In particular, the final rule continues to leave the door open for individual contracting officers to make potentially burdensome requests for information to support the proposed pricing of commercial items.
Continue Reading Third Time Around: Inconsistencies Persist with Final DFARS Commercial Items Rule

Earlier this Fall, the Armed Service Board of Contract Appeals dismissed an appeal for lack of jurisdiction because the certified claim lacked a proper signature. Appeal of NileCo General Contracting LLC, ASBCA No. 60912 (Sept. 22, 2017). This simple oversight proved decisive. Although this case does not chart a new course in Contract Disputes Act (CDA) jurisprudence, it serves as a helpful reminder that the Board’s jurisdiction hinges on compliance with basic requirements. Failing to meet any of those requirements could have significant consequences.
Continue Reading Government Contracts 101 Reminder: Certified Claims Must Include a “Signature”

When must a party’s “defense” be asserted as a Contract Disputes Act (CDA) claim in order to raise that defense during a Court of Federal Claims or Board of Contract Appeals proceeding?

In Kansas City Power & Light Co. v. United States, the Court of Federal Claims moves us one step closer to solving this peculiar government contracts riddle called Maropakis.  In this decision, the court held that the government’s affirmative defense of offset was not a claim under the CDA, and therefore, did not need to be asserted through a contracting officer final decision before it could be raised before the court.  This decision is important because it further limits the applicability of the Maropakis doctrine and reinforces that Maropakis only applies to “defenses” that seek payment of money or the adjustment/interpretation of contract terms.


Continue Reading The Latest Clue to Solving the Maropakis Riddle: The Affirmative Defense of Offset