A trio of office furniture makers plan to appeal a federal judge’s ruling that tossed out their lawsuit which claimed the federal government illegally cut too far into their business with prison-made products.
Herman Miller Inc., Haworth Inc. and Pennsylvania-based Knoll Inc., as well as a coalition of firms that sell to the government, have decided to appeal the Aug. 8 ruling by Federal District Court Judge Robert Holmes Bell to the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. They’ll ask the appeals court to reinstate their case against Federal Prison Industries (FPI) and allow it to go forward.
“We and our allies in the industry involved in the case are putting our full efforts behind going forward with the legal challenge to FPI, and we’re confident the appeals court will agree with the merits of our case,” Herman Miller spokesman Mark Schurman said.
The three companies and the Coalition for Government Procurement sued FPI in late 1999, claiming the agency failed to go through a public-review process and conduct the proper market analyses required when it expanded production of office furniture between 1991 and 1996 beyond pre-set limits. Those limits are designed to prevent the government corporation from generating an undue burden on a particular industry in the private sector.
Bell on Aug. 8 granted the government’s motion to dismiss the case, accepting government arguments that FPI neither improperly expanded office furniture production nor represented an undue burden on the industry.
FPI is an arm of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons that teaches prisoners work skills they can use when released from custody. FPI employs more than 21,000 federal inmates to produce a myriad of products, including office furniture, that it markets under the Unicor brand name to federal agencies. FPI sold $546.3 million in goods in 2000, including $118.9 million in office furniture.
Bell also wrote in his ruling that Congress granted FPI broad authority to carry out its mission. Any grievance the industry has with FPI is best resolved legislatively, Bell said.
“The floor of the U.S. Congress, not the Court chambers, is the proper place to determine the balance between mutually exclusive public policies,” Bell wrote in his ruling.
In deciding to appeal the case, the Coalition for Government Procurement and the three companies involved said they “disagree that Judge Bell lacked authority to redress FPI’s unlawful conduct,” according to a prepared statement from attorney Stephen Ryan.
Ryan also takes issue with Bell’s decision not to follow the legal precedents in a similar case where makers of quarters and dorm furniture for the military successfully sued FPI in the late 1990s over the same issues.
In opting to appeal Judge Bell’s ruling and have the case reinstated, the litigants are hoping to “right a grave injustice,” said Thomas Walker, manager of government programs for Haworth Inc.
“There are some aspects of our lawsuit that we believe are very firm and justified,” Walker said.
The office furniture industry also is challenging FPI in Congress, where U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland, and U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, have bills pending to eliminate FPI’s mandatory-source status, a provision that requires federal agencies to buy from FPI, unless they’re granted a waiver. Office furniture makers contend that mandatory-source status unfairly prevents them from bidding government contracts.