An agency must use-it or lose-it under a fixed-priced contract. When an agency makes it impossible to receive a contractor’s service under a fixed-priced contract, it must still pay the full contract price. So long as the contractor is willing to live up to its end of the bargain, the contractor is entitled to payment regardless of whether it provided any service. And the agency’s failure to tender work does not itself serve as a constructive termination, so the contract remains in effect until actually terminated.
Those are the lessons of Olbeter Enterprises, Inc., PSBCA No. 6543, January 12, 2016, involving a point-to-point mail transportation contract. During the course of the contract, the Postal Service closed one of its facilities, making it impossible for Olbeter to provide the contracted service. The Postal Service, however, did not issue a termination notice or contract modification. Instead, it allowed the contract to remain in force and continued to make full payment, occasionally ordering other work for which Olbeter was paid separately.
Nine months after the facility closure, the parties agreed to a convenience termination. Later, the Postal Service decided that the payments it had made during the nine-month closure period were over-payments. The Postal Service recovered those amounts by withholding payments under a different contract. Olbeter appealed the withholdings to the Postal Service Board of Contract Appeals.
At the PSBCA, the Postal Service contended that Olbeter knew the facility had been closed, that this made performance impossible, and that the Postal Service intended to terminate the contract. The Postal Service thus argued that the facility closure itself served to constructively terminate the contract. The Board disagreed. Whatever the Postal Service’s intentions may have been, and regardless of Olbeter’s knowledge of those intentions, the agency had not taken action to terminate the contract. In addition, the parties had agreed to a termination nine months after the facility closed and the Board would not supplant that agreement with a constructive retroactive termination.
The Postal Service next contended that it had breached the contract itself by not tendering any mail. Since it had breached the contract, the Postal Service argued, Olbeter was limited to recovering its expectancy damages, which were much less than nine months of payments. The Board rejected this argument, holding that the agency’s failure to tender mail was not a breach.
Finally, the Postal Service contended that allowing Olbeter to retain nine months of payments for service it did not perform would unjustly enrich Olbeter or constitute a windfall. The Board denied this argument as well, noting that unjust enrichment is an equitable doctrine that applies when parties do not have an express contract, and here an express contract existed. That contract simply did not provide the Postal Service a mechanism to withhold payment for service that the agency had made impossible to perform. Olbeter was thus entitled to retain the payments it had received for the nine-month closure period.
The principle underlying the Olbeter decision would apply equally to any fixed-priced contract where the government made performance impossible or waived its right to receive performance. If the contract does not have a clause that directly addresses such events, and if no contemporaneous action is taken to terminate it, the agency remains obligated to pay the full contract price.