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Small Business Set-Asides: When The “Rule Of Two” Becomes The “Rule Of One”

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Koprince Law LLC

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An agency isn’t required to cancel a small business set-aside solicitation if the agency learns that one of the small businesses upon whom the set-aside decision rested is no longer small.

In a recent bid protest decision, the GAO confirmed that an agency need not redo its “rule of two” determination when a potential small business competitor outgrows its size standard–even if it could effectively convert a particular solicitation into a “rule of one.”

The GAO’s decision in Synchrogenix Information Strategies, LLC, B-414068.4 (Sept. 8, 2017) involved an FDA acquisition for software licenses, maintenance and support and related services.  Before issuing the solicitation, the agency issued a request for information on FedBizOpps, seeking information from businesses regarding their interest in the procurement.

The FDA received three responses to the RFI from small businesses.  After evaluating those responses, the FDA concluded that it was reasonably likely to receive at least two or more offers from responsible small businesses.  Accordingly, the FDA issued the solicitation as a total small business set-aside.

The agency received two proposals by the original closing date, August 10, 2016.  After evaluating those proposals, the FDA awarded the contract to Lorenz International.  The unsuccessful offeror, GlobalSummit, then filed a GAO bid protest challenging the award.

In response, the agency took voluntary corrective action.  It asked both offerors to submit “a new full proposal.”  New proposals were due on May 15, 2017.  The new proposals were to include “all certifications, technical and business information” required by the solicitation.

In March 2017, Synchrongenix Information Strategies, LLC “purchased substantially all of GlobalSummit’s assets.”  The purchase created an affiliation between GlobalSummit and Synchrogenix, a large business. As a result, GlobalSummit was no longer small.

GlobalSummit asked that the FDA remove the certification requirement.  It explained that, at the time of its original proposal in August 2016, it had qualified as a small business.  However, because of the affiliation with Synchrogenix, it would no longer qualify as small if forced to re-certify in May 2017.

The FDA declined to remove the requirement.

Synchrogenix (presumably acting as successor-in-interest to GlobalSummit) filed a GAO bid protest.  Synchrogenix argued that the FDA was required to cancel the small business set-aside and reissue the solicitation as unrestricted because there was no longer a reasonable expectation of receiving two or more offers from small businesses.  Instead, Synchrogenix contended, the agency could only expect to receive one offer–from Lorenz.  Synchrogenix argued that proceeding with the acquisition would be tantamount to a de facto sole source award to Lorenz.

The GAO sought the SBA’s opinion.  The SBA weighed in on the FDA’s side, stating:

There is no requirement in the Small Business Act, the FAR, or SBA regulations, that an agency must redo its market research regarding the “rule of two” prior to requesting revised or newly submitted proposals during the course of a procurement or altogether cancel the solicitation if it becomes aware that only one responsible small business offer will be received in response to an amended solicitation. 

The SBA further explained “it is not uncommon that an agency becomes aware, over the course of a procurement, that it will receive only one revised offer from a small business concern.”  The SBA pointed out that small businesses “may drop out of a competition for a variety of reasons . . . such that there is only one responsible small business offeror remaining.”  In such a case, “the agency may make award to that firm, provided award will be made at a fair market price.”

The GAO found the SBA’s reasoning persuasive.  “As SBA advised in response to this protest,” GAO wrote, “there is no requirement in law or regulation that an agency must revisit” its rule of two determination when it becomes aware that it will only receive one offer from an eligible small business.  GAO concluded: [t]he fact that, during the course of the procurement, one of the two small business offerors is no longer capable of submitting a revised proposal, does not mean the procurement should be viewed as a de facto sole source procurement.”

The GAO denied the protest.

The Synchrogenix case makes the point that if an agency’s market research is sufficient to justify a set-aside, the agency need not adjust its determination if it later comes to realize that it will only receive one offer from a qualified small business.  In other words, it can be permissible for a “rule of two” set-aside to effectively turn into a “rule of one” as the acquisition proceeds.

Interestingly, it’s not clear to me that Synchrogenix was ineligible for the FDA solicitation in the first place.  Under the SBA’s regulations, size ordinarily is determined as of the date of an initial offer; GlobalSummit met that requirement in August 2016.  While there used to be a provision in the regulations allowing contracting officers to require recertifications in connection with certain amendments, that rule was eliminated a few years ago.  And although SBA’s regulations do call for a company to recertify its size if it is acquired by another entity, the SBA Office of Hearings and Appeals held, in Size Appeal of W.I.N.N. Group, Inc., SBA No. SIZ-5360 (2012), that “[t]his provision does not deal with the date for determining size for contract award,” but instead merely addresses whether the agency can count the award toward its small business goals.

It’s a complex area of law, but Sychrogenix might have had better luck if it had protested the FDA’s authority to require a size recertification–or if Synchrogenix had simply submitted an offer and forced the Contracting Officer to go through the SBA size protest process to determine whether Synchrogenix was eligible.


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