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Can a CO update the clauses in an existing contract when the FAR changes or when exercising options?

Vern Edwards

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Two of my students, who work for a very large government contractor, told me that the contracting officers (COs) who administer their contracts unilaterally update contract clauses from time to time when they add funds to the contract or when they exercise options. They wondered if that was okay.

It's not okay.

More than a few people believe that the government must update contract clauses when the government changes the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). Some of them think that the government may do so unilaterally. Others believe that contracts are “automatically” updated when the government changes the FAR. Those beliefs are false.

Once the government and a contractor enter into a contract a deal is a deal, and the government and the contractor are bound by the clauses in the awarded contracts until the contracts are completed. Nothing in FAR and no standard FAR clause authorizes a CO to unilaterally update, add, or delete clauses in a contract after award. None of the five Changes clauses, FAR 52.243-1 through -5, empower a CO to do that.

Thus, with a few exceptions, which are discussed below, changes to FAR clauses — revisions, additions, and deletions — must be accomplished through supplemental agreement [(bilateral modification). See FAR 43.103(a)(3). Any such supplemental agreement must be supported by consideration in order to be contractually enforceable.

In this blog entry I will address two questions:

1. What FAR clauses must COs insert in their contracts and purchase orders?

2. What happens after contract award when a Federal Acquisition Circular (FAC) revises, adds, or deletes a clause that is applicable to a contract of the type awarded, or changes a portion of FAR that has been incorporated into the contract by a clause?

FAR contract clauses

The FAR and agency FAR supplements prescribe the use of standard contract clauses to implement the statutes, regulations, and policies that apply to government contracts. FAR clauses implement the statutes, regulations, and policies that are in effect on (1) the date the solicitation for the contract was issued, (2) the date of contract award, or (3) some other date, depending on the terms of the clause. See, e.g., FAR 52.202-1, “Definitions (JAN 2012),” which incorporates into contracts the FAR definitions in effect “at the time the solicitation was issued.” See also FAR 52.216-7, “Allowable Cost and Payment (JUN 2011),” subparagraph (a)(1), which incorporates the text of FAR Subpart 31.2 that is in effect “on the date of this contract.” And see FAR 52.227-11, “Patent Rights—Ownership by the Contractor (DEC 2007), which incorporates the procedures in 37 C.F.R. § 401.6 and agency supplements in effect “on the date of contract award.” The language in those clauses fixes the version of the statute, regulation, or policy for the duration of the contract, unless the contract expressly provides otherwise.

What FAR clauses must COs insert in purchase orders and solicitations?

A purchase order or solicitation states the government’s terms, and quoters or offerors are expected to base their quotes and proposals on those terms. A purchase order or a solicitation for a contract must include the clauses prescribed by the various parts of the FAR. See, generally:

For commercial items, FAR 12.301(a):

12.301 Solicitation provisions and contract clauses for the acquisition of commercial items.

(a) In accordance with Section 8002 of Public Law 103-355 (41 U.S.C. 264, note), contracts for the acquisition of commercial items shall, to the maximum extent practicable, include only those clauses—(1)
Required to implement provisions of law or executive orders
applicable to the acquisition of commercial items

For purchase orders issued pursuant to simplified acquisition procedures, FAR 13.302-5:

13.302-5 Clauses.

(a) Each purchase order (and each purchase order modification (see 13.302-3)) shall incorporate
all clauses prescribed
for the particular acquisition.

For acquisitions conducted using sealed bidding, FAR 14.201-3:

14.201-3 Part II—Contract clauses.

Section I, Contract clauses. The contracting officer shall include in this section
the clauses required by law
or by this regulation and any additional clauses expected to apply to any resulting contract, if these clauses are not required to be included in any other section of the uniform contract format.

For acquisitions conducted by negotiation, FAR 15.204-3:

15.204-3 Part II—Contract Clauses.

Section I, Contract clauses.
The contracting officer shall include in this section
the clauses required by law
or by this regulation and any additional clauses expected to be included in any resulting contract, if these clauses are not required in any other section of the uniform contract format. An index may be inserted if this section’s format is particularly complex.

Emphasis added.

What does all of that mean? It means that a CO must include in a purchase order or solicitation all clauses that FAR prescribes for a prospective contract and that are in effect on the date the solicitation is issued. When an offeror bases its offer on the solicitation, and the government accepts that offer, the contract includes the clauses that were in the solicitation and the parties are bound by those clauses. A CO cannot change (revise, add, or delete) any clauses in a contract document after the offeror has signed it without the agreement of the offeror. Any such agreement would constitute a new offer.

What happens when a Federal Acquisition Circular (FAC) containing a clause change is issued before or after a solicitation is released, but the change does not take effect until after the solicitation has been released?

Suppose that a CO is preparing a solicitation for a firm-fixed-price supply contract that is expected to exceed $10 million and that the CO plans to issue the solicitation on June 1 and award the contract on December 1. Now suppose that on May 15, a Federal Acquisition Circular (FAC) comes out that adds a new clause to FAR that must be inserted in all FFP contracts that will exceed $5 million. The FAC states that the new clause will become applicable on August 15. Now suppose further that the agency office reviewing the solicitation before its release insists that since the prospective contract will be awarded after the clause becomes applicable the CO should include the new clause in the solicitation. According to FAR 1.108(d)(1), the new clause does not apply to the solicitation and need not be included, but according to FAR 1.108(d)(2) the CO may include it in the solicitation as long as the contract will be awarded after the new clause becomes applicable.

Thus, purchase orders and solicitations must include the contract clauses that are applicable on the date the solicitation is issued, and they may include any clauses that become applicable after that date as long as they are expected to be applicable on or after the date of contract award.

What happens when a clause change takes effect after contract award?

Assuming that the CO included all applicable clauses when soliciting offers, after contract award the government and the contractor are bound by the clauses in their contract throughout the period of performance. In the absence of a contract clause that expressly authorizes the CO to revise, add, or delete a clause without the contractor’s consent, any attempt to bind a contractor to a unilateral clause change would be a breach of contract. See General Dynamics Corp. v. U.S., 47 Fed. Cl. 514, 544 - 547 (2000) and United States v. Winstar Corp., 518 U.S. 839 (1996).

However, FAR 1.108(d)(3) permits COs to include FAR changes in existing contracts “with appropriate consideration.” Thus, changes to the contract clauses must be on the basis of supplemental agreement (bilateral modification), not unilateral action by the CO. The consideration would flow from the party seeking inclusion of the clause to the party agreeing to the inclusion. The amount of the consideration is negotiable.*

Automatic Updating Of Clauses?

There are some contract clauses that provide for automatic updating of contract terms following a change in law or regulation. For example, FAR 52.222-43, “Fair Labor Standards Act and Service Contract Act — Price Adjustment (Multiple Year and Option Contracts) (SEP 2009)” and 52.222-44, “Fair Labor Standards Act and Service Contract Act — Price Adjustment (SEP 2009) provide for automatic updating in response to a change in the minimum wage pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. FAR 52.230-2, “Cost Accounting Standards (May 2012),” 52.230-5, “Cost Accounting Standards—Educational Institution (May 2012),” and 52.230-6, “Administration of Cost Accounting Standards (JUN 2010)” provide for automatic updating following a change to the Cost Accounting Standards. All such changes apply prospectively, not retroactively. See FAR 52.230-2:

(a) Unless the contract is exempt under 48 CFR 9903.201-1 and 9903.201-2, the provisions of 48 CFR Part 9903 are incorporated herein by reference and the Contractor, in connection with this contract, shall…

* * *

(3) Comply with all CAS, including any modifications and interpretations indicated thereto contained in 48 CFR Part 9904, in effect on the date of award of this contract or, if the Contractor has submitted certified cost or pricing data, on the date of final agreement on price as shown on the Contractor’s signed certificate of current cost or pricing data. The Contractor shall also comply with any CAS (or modifications to CAS) which hereafter become applicable to a contract or subcontract of the Contractor. Such compliance shall be required prospectively from the date of applicability to such contract or subcontract.

(4)(i) (Agree to an equitable adjustment as provided in the Changes clause of this contract if the contract cost is affected by a change which, pursuant to paragraph (a)(3) of this clause, the Contractor is required to make to the Contractor’s established cost accounting practices.

(ii) Negotiate with the Contracting Officer to determine the terms and conditions under which a change may be made to a cost accounting practice, other than a change made under other provisions of paragraph (a)(4) of this clause; provided that no agreement may be made under this provision that will increase costs paid by the United States.

(iii) When the parties agree to a change to a cost accounting practice, other than a change under subdivision (a)(4)(i) of this clause, negotiate an equitable adjustment as provided in the Changes clause of this contract.

May COs unilaterally update contract clauses when exercising options?

No. The clauses that apply to option periods are locked in at the time of contract award. FAR does not require that COs update clauses when exercising options. Moreover, the law of contracts does not permit COs to unilaterally change the terms of an option once they have been set. Absent express agreement to the contrary, the government must exercise options in strict accord with their terms. See Chemical Technology, Inc., ASBCA No. 21863, 80-2 BCA ¶ 14728:

The general rule governing the exercise of an option has been clearly stated by this Board in
General Dynamics Corporation
, ASBCA No. 20882, 77–1 BCA ¶ 12,504 at 60,622:

An option is an offer couched in specific terms, the acceptance of which must be unconditional and in exact accord with the terms offered. The general attitude of the courts is to construe strictly this legal requirement
Williston on Contracts
, Third Edition, Secs. 61B; 61D;
United States v. T. W. Corder, Inc.
, 208 F.2d 411, 413 (1953);
International Telephone and Telegraph, ITT Defense Communications Division v. The United States
, [17 CCF ¶81,071], 197 Ct. Cl. 11 (1972).

See also,
McArthur et al. v. Rosenbaum Company of Pittsburg
, 180 F.2d 617, 620 (3rd Cir., 1950). Even substantial compliance with the terms of an option is insufficient. See 17 CJS, Contracts, Section 42, n. 83(2) at 676.

Any attempt by the government to impose new terms on a contractor when exercising an option would be breach of contract and would invalidate the option. See New England Tank Industries of New Hampshire, Inc. v. U.S., 861 F. 2d 685 (Fed. Cir. 1988):

It is well-settled that to properly exercise [an] option, the government’s acceptance of the offer [must] be unconditional and in exact accord with the terms of the contract being renewed.

* * *

The dispositive question is whether the government's exercise of its option to renew the contract was valid or invalid. As above noted, the board recognized that an attempt to alter the contract terms would “render ineffective the purported exercise of an option,” and that insertion of an “availability of funds” clause renders the option exercise “invalid”, see 88–1 BCA at 103,166, and neither party quarrels with those statements of the law.

The rule that exercise of an option must be in accordance with the terms of the option as awarded is reflected in FAR 17.207(e), which requires that before exercising an option the CO must make a written determination that the exercise “is in accordance with the terms of the option….” Thus, unless a contract contains an express term to the contrary, COs have no authority to unilaterally update contract clauses when exercising options.**

What is the effect of changes to parts of the FAR that were incorporated into a contract by reference?

Several FAR contract clauses incorporate parts of the FAR into contracts by reference. See e.g., FAR 52.202-1, which incorporates FAR definitions “in effect at the time the solicitation was issued,” and 52.216-7(a)(1), which incorporates the version of FAR Subpart 31.2 “in effect on the date of this contract.” In those examples, the terms of the FAR are fixed in time and cannot be altered without mutual agreement of the parties and consideration.

But what if the clause does not fix the terms of the FAR? See e.g., FAR 52.211-15, “Defense Priority and Allocation Requirements (APR 2008).” It requires the contractor to comply with “15 C.F.R. 700,” without further qualification. See also the various small business clauses that require the contractor to comply with Title 19 of the C.F.R., and the labor law clauses that require the contractor to comply with Title 29. If those regulations change after contract award the contractor is always bound by the current regulation. In such cases the updating is automatic and does not require a contract modification unless the clause provides for an adjustment of some kind, equitable or otherwise.

As I mentioned above, some clauses, such as the Cost Accounting Standards clause, provide for automatic updating with price adjustment.

Can Congress enact a law that changes existing contracts?

Yes, but they might breach the contract if they do. That was the holding of the Supreme Court in United States v. Winstar Corp., cited above, in which Congress changed a law, and the agency changed its regulations accordingly, after entering into contracts with financial institutions:

When the law as to capital requirements changed in the present instance, the Government was unable to perform its promise and, therefore, became liable for breach. We accept the Federal Circuit's conclusion that the Government breached these contracts when, pursuant to the new regulatory capital requirements imposed by FIRREA [Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989], 12 U.S.C. § 1464(t), the federal regulatory agencies limited the use of supervisory goodwill and capital credits in calculating respondents' net worth. 64 F.3d, at 1545. In the case of Winstar and Statesman, the Government exacerbated its breach when it seized and liquidated respondents' thrifts for regulatory noncompliance.
Ibid
.

In Winstar, the court quoted its decision in Sinking Fund Cases, 99 U.S. 700 (1879):

The United States are as much bound by their contracts as are individuals. If they repudiate their obligations, it is as much repudiation, with all the wrong and reproach that terms implies, as it would be if the repudiator had been a State or a municipality or a citizen.

Conclusion

Getting back to my two students, absent express language in the contract to the contrary, a CO may not unilaterally change the clauses in a contract when funding the contract or exercising an option. He or she may change clauses only with the assent of the contractor and with consideration for the change.

I asked my two students how they responded when their COs unilaterally updated the clauses in their contracts. They said that they went along with it, because so far none of the changes had much if any effect. That is too bad, because they are teaching the COs in question that what they are doing is okay. It is not okay. And it is not wise for one party to a contract to let the other party violate its rights by unilaterally imposing new terms.

NOTES

*Note that “consideration” is not the same as an “equitable adjustment.” An equitable adjustment is a fair increase or decrease in the contract price or estimated cost and fee and the time required for contract performance, as required by a contract clause, such as a Changes clause or Differing Site Conditions clause. The amount of the equitable adjustment is based on the estimated or actual effect of the change on the cost or time required for performance. When the parties to a contract agree to modify it on the basis of mutual agreement, and not in accordance with a contract clause that provides for equitable adjustment, the parties are making a new bargain and the bargain must be supported by consideration in order to be enforceable in court. Consideration is necessary whether or not there is any effect on cost or time. The amount of the consideration is not determined or limited on the basis of the effect on cost or time, but is determined through bargaining. The consideration would flow from the party that will benefit from inclusion of the clause to the party that agrees to its inclusion.

**However, the parties may change the terms of a future option period pursuant to the terms of contract clauses, such as the Changes clause, or pursuant to a justification for other than full and open competition.




4 Comments


Vern,

Regarding consideration, you wrote "The consideration would flow from the party that will benefit from inclusion of the clause to the party that agrees to its inclusion."

What if both parties would benefit from the inclusion of the new clause? For example, the pre-Aug 1998 version of the Subcontracts clause (then FAR 52.244-2) was more administratively burdensome than the Aug 1998 version. Including the new clause reduced the administrative burden on both parties, as the contractor didn't have to request consent as often and the Govt. didn't have to assess consent requests/grant consent as often.

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I agree that you should not be able to unilaterally update the clauses because the contract you enter, without a bilateral mod with consideration, is the contract you keep (paraphrasing for brevity).

However, what about clauses tied to appropriations? More specifically, clauses tied to appropriations that do not auto-update, such as 'Reporting Executive Compensation and First-Tier Subcontract Awards' (52.204-10). Seeing as the courts have generally held that no Congress can bind a future Congress, especially with regard to appropriations, how can a present Congress dictate the terms under which future appropriations may be used (as would be the case if the clause were not updated)?

That being said, if a future Congress changes a clause tied to an annual appropriation, and one exercises an option based on an annual appropriation, AND one cannot change unilaterally change the clause (and let's say the government desperately needs the services, cannot let them lapse, cannot get them elsewhere, and the contractor refuses the bilateral mod): what does one do?

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The issue of updating clauses is one of contract law, not regulation. What does one do in a situation like you describe? Figure something out. There is no pat solution. Just because Congress passes a law doesn't mean you have the contractual authority to do something in accordance with that law. Congress isn't all-powerful. Read the Supreme Court's Winstar decision.

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