In news that will be of interest to every federal contractor, including large and small businesses, universities, banks, and the health care industry, Executive Order 14042 (along with the related Task Force Guidance and contract clauses) has been ENJOINED in the states of Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee. U.S. District Court Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove of the Eastern District of Kentucky issued an order on November 30, 2021 granting Plaintiffs' (a group including the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio) motion for a preliminary injunction.
The decision most certainly will be appealed. In the meantime, contractors with employees performing in Kentucky, Ohio, or Tennessee are not required to comply with the Executive Order or FAR/DFARS clauses. Obviously, this creates a conundrum for federal contractors and subcontractors looking for a uniform way to implement the EO rules.
Plaintiffs Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky on November 4, 2021, and four days later filed for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction ("TRO/PI"). The TRO/PI motion asked the Court to enjoin the Government's enforcement of EO 14042. Plaintiffs challenged the EO on 10 separate grounds, including that it violated the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act ("FPASA"), the Competition in Contracting Act ("CICA"), the Administrative Procedures Act ("APA"), and the U.S. Constitution. The Court held a conference among the parties on November 9 and a hearing on November 18.
The District Court Decision
Regardless of whether one likes the outcome or not, Judge Van Tatenhove's decision is thoughtfully reasoned and well written. It is methodical and well cited. In sum, Judge Van Tatenhove enjoined the EO not because of the process by which the Administration implemented the mandate (i.e. not due to the lack of a meaningful notice-and-comment period or the unprecedented dynamic nature of the FAR clause), but rather because he found the Administration never had the authority to implement a vaccine mandate in the first place. In other words, the Court issued the injunction because the President of the United States purportedly lacks the statutory or constitutional authority to regulate public health via a contract clause issued pursuant to a procurement statute.
The decision, however, readily concedes that the Court's view is the beginning, not the end, of the story. "Once again," the Judge explained, "the Court is asked to wrestle with important constitutional values implicated in the midst of a pandemic that lingers. These questions will not be finally resolved in the shadows. Instead, the consideration will continue with the benefit of full briefing and appellate review. But right now, the enforcement of the contract provisions in this case must be paused."
The Practical Impact (and Scope) of Kentucky v. Biden
While the Court's decision is significant, it does NOT apply to all federal contractors. It enjoins the Government "from enforcing the vaccine mandate for federal contractors and subcontractors in all covered contracts in Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee." Sadly, Judge Van Tatenhove does not explain this sentence. Does he mean to enjoin all federal contracts performed in those states, all federal contracts held by contractors operating in those states, or maybe even all federal contracts issued by agencies based in those states? It's unclear. Adding to the confusion is his statement that the injunction "is properly limited to the parties before the Court" (i.e., the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio). Here again, we are left to guess what he means.
Subsequent to the Court's decision, GSA took prompt steps to notify its contractors of the late breaking news. Here is GSA's take on the scope of the injunction:
Update: On November 30, 2021, in response to a lawsuit filed in the United States District Court, Eastern District of Kentucky, a preliminary injunction was issued halting the Federal Government from enforcing the vaccine mandate for Federal contractors and subcontractors in all covered contracts in Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee.
GSA implemented the vaccine mandate stemming from Executive Order 14042 through Class Deviation CD-2021-13. Pursuant to the preliminary injunction, GSA will not take any action to enforce FAR clause 52.223-99 Ensuring Adequate COVID-19 Safety Protocols for Federal Contractors in all covered contracts or contract-like instruments being performed, in whole or in part, in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.
While GSA's formulation is a bit more useful than the Court's in that it focuses on contracts "being performed . . . in" the three states, it still does not answer the key question regarding scope.
We think the most common sense interpretation of the scope of the injunction is that it applies to covered employees performing work in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio. That being said, GSA's interpretation seems to indicate the analysis should be performed at the contract level, rather than the employee level (i.e., if you have even one employee performing on a contract in one of those three states, then the entire contract is exempt from enforcement).
We hope to receive updated Guidance from the Task Force providing a definitive answer to this question in the near future. Until then, Federal contractors and subcontractors are stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place – having to decide whether to continue marching ahead pursuant to the EO or navigate different rules in different states.
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