Hubzone Contracts Take Set-Aside Priority Over 8(a) Program

By Lynn Patton Thompson

In Mission Critical Solutions v. United States, COFC No. 09-864 C (March 2, 2010), the Court of Federal Claims has determined that the HUBZone program takes priority over the 8(a) program.

Mission Critical Solutions ("MCS") was certified as both an 8(a) and HUBZone small business. In 2008, the Department of the Army awarded MCS a one-year sole-source 8(a) contract for just under $3.5 million to provide information technology ("IT") services. For the follow-on requirement, which was valued (including options) at approximately $10.5 million (in excess of the applicable $3.5 million ceiling on sole-source contracts), the Army determined it could not make award to MCS. However, the Army decided it could make a sole-source 8(a) award to Copper River Information Technology, LLC ("Copper River"), an Alaska Native Corporation, if the SBA would approve Copper River as the IT provider for the requirement. SBA accepted the requirement on behalf of Copper River under its 8(a) program and the Army made the award.

MCS protested the sole-source 8(a) award to Copper River to the GAO. MCS argued that the Army was required to compete the requirement as a HUBZone business set-aside. The GAO sustained MCS’s protest. However, the Office of Management and Budget ordered that executive agencies disregard the GAO’s ruling until the Office of Legal Counsel of the United States Justice Department ("OLC") reviewed the matter. After the OLC declared its disagreement with GAO, the Army took the position that it had no authority to take any action inconsistent with the OLC’s position. Thus, MCS’s request for protest costs and a second protest against the award were denied by GAO as "academic", because the Army had stated its position that GAO recommendations could not be followed in the matter. MCS took its protest to the Court of Federal Claims.

Chief Judge Emily Hewitt sided with MCS and declared the Army’s award to Copper River under the 8(a) program not in accordance with law. The Army’s argument that there is parity between the 8(a) and HUBZone requirements was rejected. Judge Hewitt found that the HUBZone statute mandates set-asides for competition among HUBZone concerns whenever there is a reasonable expectation that at least 2 qualified HUBZone firms will submit offers and award can be made at a reasonable price. The plain language of the HUBZone statute at 15 USC § 657a(b)(2) requires such set-asides "[n]otwithstanding any other provision of law". Moreover, whereas contracting officers "may" decide to award contracts under the 8(a) program when the HUBZone statutory set-aside criteria are not met, there is no such discretion for contracting officers when the HUBZone statutory are met. Judge Hewitt enjoined the Army from awarding the IT support services contract without first determining whether the "rule of two" is met "such that the contract opportunity at issue in this case must be awarded on the basis of competition among qualified HUBZone small business concerns."