Even though the federal government maintains an entire agency whose mission is purportedly to assist small businesses — the Small Business Administration (SBA) — regulators seem ever oblivious to their impact on entrepreneurs. The National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) effort to redefine who is an “employer” and the NLRB’s and the Department of Labor’s (DOL) enmity toward independent contracting are two current examples. A third is DOL’s so-called Fiduciary Rule, which hits sole-practitioner and small-business investment and insurance advisors especially hard.
Small businesses are also at a particular disadvantage when disputes with the government end up in court. A recent U.S. Court of Federal Claims decision, SUFI Network Services, Inc. v. US, exhibits government’s unfortunate willingness to exploit its power in disputes with a small business and the role courts can play in protecting entrepreneurs’ rights.
SUFI contracted with the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in 1996 to be the exclusive long-distance-call service provider for the guest lodging facilities on Air Force bases in Germany. Over the next 8 years, USAF personnel made it impossible for SUFI to successfully offer services.
For example, calling cards were provided to guests to circumvent SUFI’s service. Also, requests by SUFI that government phones be removed from the facilities were repeatedly ignored. SUFI declared that the USAF had committed a material breach of the contract and ceased services in August 2004. As required by the contract, SUFI filed a claim with its contracting officer for $130 million in damages. The officer awarded $133,000.
Obviously dissatisfied, SUFI appealed to the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals (hereinafter, Board), increasing its request to $163 million.