New Federal Circuit Guidance Regarding Patent and Latent Ambiguities
Ambiguities in a solicitation or contract have long been one of the greatest traps for unwary contractors. At the solicitation phase, a failure to identify a “patent” (i.e., obvious) ambiguity often results in the contractor losing the competition with no viable bid protest challenge. This is because such ambiguities are construed in the agency’s favor. A contractor seeking to recover added costs based upon an ambiguous contract term will be unable to recover such costs if the ambiguity is “patent” and the Government disagrees with the contractor’s interpretation.
Traditional Test for Patent vs. Latent Ambiguities
So how does one distinguish between “patent” and “latent” ambiguities? Numerous Federal Circuit authorities tell us that a patent ambiguity arises where there is “an obvious omission, inconsistency or discrepancy of significance” that “could have been discovered by reasonable and customary care.” E.g., Per Aarsleff A/S v. United States, 829 F.3d 1303, 1312-13 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (internal quotations omitted). By contrast, a latent ambiguity is a “hidden or concealed defect which is not apparent on the face of the document, could not be discovered by reasonable and customary care, and is not so patent and glaring as to impose an affirmative duty on plaintiff to seek clarification.” Id. (internal quotations omitted).
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