Recently, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued two advisory opinions relating to protests currently before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (COFC). See AECOM Mgmt. Servs., Inc.–Advisory Opinion, B-417506.12, Sept. 18, 2019; see also PAE-Parsons Global Logistics Servs., LLC–Advisory Opinion, B-417506.13, Oct. 18, 2019. The decisions themselves do not involve unique issues, but their procedural postures are noteworthy because the GAO does not often issue advisory opinions.
What is a GAO “Advisory Opinion?”
The GAO’s Bid Protest Regulations specifically permit the GAO to issue advisory opinions at the request of a court under its “Effect of Judicial Proceedings” rule:
GAO will dismiss any case where the matter involved is the subject of litigation before, or has been decided on the merits by, a court of competent jurisdiction. GAO may, at the request of a court, issue an advisory opinion on a bid protest issue that is before the court.
4 C.F.R. § 21.11(b). (emphasis added).
Generally, advisory opinions are not necessary because most bid protests that are adjudicated by both the GAO and COFC do not go to COFC unless and until the GAO has issued a written decision first. There are, however, exceptions, particularly in large, multi-party protests, where the decision by only one of several protesters to go to COFC can force all the other parties—other protesters, intervenors, and the government—to switch protest fora in mid-stream because of the GAO’s “Effect of Judicial Proceedings” rule.
The reason for the GAO rule allowing advisory opinions is, thus, one of simple efficiency. As a matter of long-standing practice, the GAO will not consider a protest where “the matter involved is the subject of litigation before a court of competent jurisdiction” because the court’s decision could render the GAO’s decision academic. See CDW Gov’t, LLC et al., B-414389.25, 2017 CPD ¶ 291 at 3. That rule traces its roots at least as far back as the GAO’s 1971 Interim Bid Protest Procedures and Standards, which stated, “The Comptroller General may refuse to rule on any protest where the matter involved is the subject of litigation before a court of competent jurisdiction.” See 36 Fed. Reg. 24,792 (Dec. 23, 1971).
In 1975, however, the GAO amended its Bid Protest Procedures to clarify that it did not need to dismiss a protest that was also the subject of court litigation “where the court requests, expects, or otherwise expresses interest in the Comptroller General’s decision.” 40 Fed. Reg. 17,980 (Apr. 24, 1975). In 1995, when updating its rules to implement the Federal Acquisition and Streamlining Act of 1994, the GAO named the process of giving its opinion to a court an “advisory opinion.” See 60 Fed. Reg. 5876 (Jan. 31, 1995).
What happened in AECOM and PAE-Parsons to make these advisory opinions noteworthy?
Both the AECOM and PAE-Parsons court cases involved multi-party protests at the GAO challenging U.S. Army awards of indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contracts and task orders under the LOGCAP V solicitation for multiple geographical combatant commands, Army service component commands, and Afghanistan. DynCorp International, LLC filed the first of the protests but, on July 31, 2019, the GAO denied it. DynCorp Int’l, LLC, B-417506 et al., July 31, 2019. Shortly thereafter, on August 5, DynCorp filed a complaint at COFC.
DynCorp filed its complaint four days before the GAO was due to issue decisions on August 9 in the other pending protests involving this same solicitation, which had been filed by AECOM, PAE-Parsons, and Fluor International, Inc. There is no reason to think that, in filing a complaint at COFC, DynCorp intended to put other protesters at a disadvantage. Nevertheless, the practical effect of its decision to go to COFC was that, on August 7, two days before the GAO’s decisions would have been due on August 9, the GAO dismissed the pending protests of AECOM, PAE-Parsons, and Fluor under the “Effect of Judicial Proceedings” rule. See AECOM Mgmt. Servs, Inc. et al., B-417506.2 et al., Aug. 7, 2019.
The GAO’s advisory opinion option, thus, softens the otherwise harsh effect of the dismissal rule by giving a court the option of asking the GAO to finish the job it had almost completed, i.e., writing opinions for the pending protests. COFC, of course, is not bound by the GAO’s opinions, but may nevertheless find its analysis persuasive.
Since the dismissal of their GAO protests, AECOM, PAE-Parsons, and Fluor have all filed protests at COFC. Rather than lose the benefit of the GAO’s analysis, the judge who is presiding over all the cases has requested advisory opinions in each company’s prior GAO protest, two of which the GAO has now issued, as noted above.
Why does GAO’s advisory opinion process matter?
Large, multiple-award IDIQ contracts are a fact of life now in federal procurement. As a result, a single disappointed offeror in a large, multi-party procurement dispute can force—either intentionally or not—all other parties to change venue at any time before the GAO has issued a final decision. To the degree that the GAO’s advisory opinion is persuasive, it can help the court and the parties avoid re-inventing the wheel entirely by re-arguing everything from scratch at significant additional expense and time.
For these reasons, any protester or intervenor forced by another party to litigate a nearly resolved GAO protest at the COFC should consider filing a motion to request the court seek an advisory opinion from the GAO for the unfinished protest. In addition, any protester hoping to avoid an unfavorable GAO decision by going to COFC before the GAO finishes its review should bear in mind that the other parties might ask COFC to request that the GAO finish the job.