Resolving Disputes Under Federal Grant Programs

Publication Date
June 17, 1982

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Federal grants to governments, public service institutions and other non-profit organizations have been conspicuous instruments of federal policy since the 1930s. During the past two decades the growth in the number of federal grant programs, and the level of resources distributed through grants, has evidenced the expanded influence of the federal government on the activities of these entities.

Ensuring proper conduct of federal assistance programs has assumed increasing importance as these extraordinarily varied programs have proliferated. Federal domestic grant spending, which now exceeds $100 billion annually, promotes major social goals. Grants, and the activities they assist, often are crucial to beneficiaries whom Congress intends to aid and to recipients who carry out program goals. For instance, over one-quarter of all expenditures by state and local governments now come from federal grants, and thousands of smaller institutions depend on these funds for their very existence.

Each of these grants represents an understanding on the part of the federal government and the grantee that is in the nature of a contractual commitment. The number and intensity of disputes over grants have risen in recent years, following both the increased reliance on federal grants by other institutions and a growing federal budget stringency that has decreased the generosity of federal funding and increased the rigor of audit review. These disputes run the gamut from those that involve nearly pure questions of federal policy and agency discretion to those that affect substantial grantee expectations or involve particularized adverse determinations about individuals.

Disputes may arise initially over the making or withholding of a grant, the amount of funds committed, or the terms and conditions imposed. Once the grantee has undertaken the project, controversies may occur over what actions the grantee has been funded or authorized to take, the grantee’s relationships with program beneficiaries, subgrantees, or subcontractors, and other incidents of ongoing project administration, including grantee compliance with the terms and conditions of the grant. Disputes may arise in the form of audit disallowances. Finally, an agency may choose to terminate or debar a grantee or refuse to provide continued funding based on the agency’s belief about the adequacy of a grantee’s performance of previous projects.

In prior recommendations, the Administrative Conference has called on all federal grantmaking agencies to adopt informal procedures for hearing and resolving complaints by the public that a recipient’s administration of a grant fails to meet federal standards (Recommendations 71-9 and 74-2). While some agencies have carried out these recommendations, many still do not afford grantees or other persons affected by the operation of federal domestic grant programs any channels for impartial consideration of their complaints. Congress has provided few directives in this area, except as to a few agencies like the Departments of Education and Labor, and actual agency practices in handling grant disputes have varied considerably.

This recommendation goes beyond the Conference’s prior statements to focus on the rights that agencies should provide to grantees and applicants for grant funds. Few agencies afforded grant recipients any substantial appeal rights until the mid-1970′s; some still fail to do so. In recent years, several agencies have begun to create processes to resolve some types of disputes with grantees and certain types of grant applicants. Their experience indicates that these appeal procedures, while sometimes flawed, have been useful for protecting grantees’ rights and for helping agencies to avert needless and troublesome litigation, improve oversight of significant administrative problems, ensure that policies are applied fairly and consistently, and make decisions on a rational, justifiable basis.

Given the importance of these programs, the nature of the interests involved, public policy factors, and considerations of fairness enunciated in recent constitutional decisions, the Administrative Conference believes that all grantmaking agencies should maintain procedures to hear appeals regarding certain kinds of agency actions. For example, grantees generally have a special interest in debarment, termination, suspension, or certain kinds of renewal or entitlement situations. Also, disputes regarding some expenditure disallowances arising from audits, or other cost and cost rate determinations, may be crucial to a grantee, requiring payback of large sums. Because of the potential significance of these types of action, and their relative infrequency, agencies should establish appeals procedures for them. On the other hand, thousands of applications for competitive discretionary grants are denied each year, and the imposition of any broad appeal hearing requirement for this type of action could be quite burdensome to some agencies.

While the variety and complexity of federal domestic grant programs (and grant disputes) ultimately renders uniform procedural prescriptions inappropriate, this recommendation sets forth some general considerations that agencies should find useful to guide them in assessing the adequacy of their present methods of resolving grant appeals. The Conference believes that an agency should have considerable latitude to tailor procedures to the characteristics of its programs and grantees, and in the great bulk of appeals agencies need not match the protections required in adjudications governed by the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. 554-557. The recommendation begins with, and centers on, the notion that informal action—including opportunities for conversations with relevant program officials and their superiors, mediation or ombudsman services, and similar devices—should form the core of the resolution process. Still, agencies should be aware that at least some disputes may arise, especially in post-award cases involving contested issues with substantial funds at stake, in which some kind of more formal agency review should be made available.

In making this recommendation, the Conference is aware that some agencies maintain appeal procedures which are more elaborate than those described below but provide equal or greater safeguards and protective measures. This recommendation is not intended to cast any doubt on the propriety of such procedures, or to assess the need therefor in light of specific programs or agency goals and concerns.


I. Scope and Intent of the Recommendations

The recommendations in Part II concern procedures for disputes involving domestic “grantees” and “vested applicants.”  A “grantee” may be a non-profit or community service organization, a unit of state or local government, a school, corporation or an individual who has executed a grant agreement or cooperative agreement with a federal agency.  A “vested applicant” is one who is entitled by statute to receive funds, provided the applicant meets certain minimal requirements; or one who applies for a noncompetitive continuation grant, and has been designated in some manner as the service deliverer for a designated area or is operating within a designated multi-year project period.  Part III deals with agency-level processes for handling complaints by disappointed applicants for discretionary grant funds. The procedures recommended herein are not intended to displace existing hearing mechanisms already required by law in some programs. They apply only to grant programs carried on primarily within the United States.

II. Complaints by Grantees and Vested Applicants

A.Informal Review and Dispute Resolution Procedures 

1. Each federal grantmaking agency should provide informal procedures under which the agency may attempt to review and resolve complaints by grantees and vested applicants without resort to formal, adjudicatory procedures. The informal procedure could take several forms, including, for example, advance notice of adverse action and the reasons for the action, opportunity to meet with the federal officials involved in the dispute, review by another or higher-level agency official, or use of an ombudsman or mediator. Attempts to resolve disputes under these informal procedures should be pursued expeditiously by the agency within a definite time frame. Notwithstanding these time limits, a complainant’s invocation of more formal appeal procedures should not prevent further efforts to settle, mediate, or otherwise resolve the dispute informally.

2. The existence of informal review procedures should be made known to affected grantees and vested applicants in the manner described in paragraphs 3 and 12, below. Agencies should encourage their program and decisional officials to resolve grievances informally, and provide training to improve their abilities to do so. In undertaking such training, agencies should work with those agencies that already have begun to make use of mediation and other conciliatory approaches, such as the Departmental Grant Appeals Board in the Department of Health and Human Services, and existing groups with expertise in these methods of dispute resolution.

B. Notice of Agency Action

3. Upon issuance of an agency decision which (if not appealed) represents final agency action, each grantmaking agency should provide prompt notice of its action to the affected grantee or vested applicant. If the action is adverse to a grantee or vested applicant, the agency’s notice, at a minimum, should provide a brief statement of the legal or factual basis for the action; state the nature of any sanctions to be imposed; and describe any available appeal procedures, including applicable deadlines and the name and address of the agency official to be contacted in the initial stages of an appeal.

C. Administrative Appeal Procedures

4. Each federal grantmaking agency should provide the additional opportunity for some type of administrative appeal in at least certain kinds of grant-related disputes. This appeal may be conducted orally or in writing, depending on the nature of the dispute, and may be expedited where appropriate. In determining whether an administrative appeal should be afforded and the form of any such appeal for particular classes of disputes, agencies should consider the probable impact of the adverse action on the complainant, the importance of procedural safeguards to accurate decisionmaking in each class of dispute, the probable nature and complexity of the factual and legal issues, the financial and administrative burden that would be imposed upon the agency, the need for a perception of the government’s fairness in dealing with grantees and vested applicants, and the usefulness of appeal procedures to give feedback on administrative problems.

5. In light of the factors described in paragraph 4, each federal grantmaking agency should provide the opportunity for some kind of administrative appeal with regard to adverse actions involving:

a. The performance of an existing grant, including disputes involving debarment, termination, suspension, voiding of a grant agreement, cost disallowances, denials of cost authorizations, and cost rate determinations;

b. The denial of funding to applicants for entitlement grants, including disputes involving the applicant’s eligibility, amount of funding to be received, and application of award criteria or pre-established review procedures; and

c. The denial of applications for noncompetitive continuation awards where the denial is for failure to comply with the terms of a previous award.

6. Where an opportunity for an administrative appeal is afforded, the agency should take into account the factors set forth in paragraph 4 and select from among the following forms of proceedings to provide the one most appropriate to the particular case:

a. Decision based on written submissions only;

b. Decision based on oral presentations;

c. Decision on written submissions plus an informal conference or oral presentation; or

d. Full evidentiary hearing.

Where a hearing or conference is useful to resolve certain issues, the agency may limit the hearing to those issues and treat remaining questions less formally. In addition, the agency should provide some form of discretionary expedited appeal process for disputes. In such proceedings, the agency may, for example, shorten time deadlines, curtail record requirements, or simplify procedures for oral or written presentations.

7. At a minimum, these administrative appeal procedures should afford grantees and vested applicants the following:

a. Written notice of the adverse decision (see paragraphs 3 and 12);

b. An impartial decisionmaker (for instance, a grant appeals board member, a high level agency official, a person from outside the agency, an administrative law judge, or certain other agency personnel from outside the program office), with authority to conduct the proceedings in a timely and orderly fashion;

c. Opportunity for the agency, complainant, and any other parties to the appeal promptly to obtain information from each other, and to present and rebut significant evidence and arguments;

d. Development of a record sufficient to reflect accurately all significant factual submissions to the decisionmaker and provide a basis for a fair decision; and

e. Prompt issuance of a written decision stating briefly the underlying factual and legal basis.

8. Each federal grantmaking agency should determine in advance, and specify by rule or order, the scope of the authority delegated to the decisionmaker in administrative appeals. For example, agencies should specify in advance whether the decisionmaker has the authority to review the validity of agency regulations or the consistency of agency actions with governing statutes.

9. Agencies should accord finality to the appeal decision, unless further review is conducted promptly pursuant to narrowly drawn exceptions and in accordance with preestablished procedures, criteria, and standards of review. If the decisionmaker is delegated, or asserts, authority to review the validity of agency regulations, the agency head should retain an option for prompt final review of the decision in accordance with applicable procedures.

10. Once these administrative appeal procedures are invoked, the decisionmaker should discourage all ex parte communications on the appeal unless the parties consent to such communications. Any ex parte communications that do occur should be disclosed promptly, and placed in the appeal record.

11. Agencies should encourage prompt decision of appeals by creating time limits or other guidelines for processing grant disputes, and should pay particular attention to resolving appeals over decisions regarding renewal and continuation grants in a timely manner. These timetables might be fixed generically or in accordance with the complexity of particular cases. Decisionmakers’ compliance should be monitored by the agency pursuant to a regular caseload management system.

D. Public Notice

12. Grantmaking agencies should give advance notice and afford an opportunity for public comment in developing informal review and administrative appeal procedures. Agencies should ensure that available procedures are made known to grantees and vested applicants. Notice of such procedures should be published in the Federal Register, codified in the Code of Federal Regulations, and included in grant agreements and other appropriate documents, in addition to the individual notice described in paragraph 3.

13. Agencies should collect in a central location, and index, those written decisions made in administrative appeals. These decisions should be made available to the public except to the extent that their disclosure is prohibited by law. Whenever a grantee or vested applicant cites a previous written decision as a precedent for the agency to follow in its case, the agency should either do so, distinguish the two cases, or explain its reasons for not following the prior decision.

III. Complaints by Discretionary Grant Applicants

A. Informal Review Procedures

The Conference previously has called on agencies to develop criteria for judging discretionary grant applications and to adopt at least informal complaint mechanisms to ensure compliance with these criteria and other federal standards. (See Recommendations 71-9 and 74-2.) The Conference reiterates its belief that these procedures can benefit agency performance.

B. Public Notice

Each federal grantmaking agency should ensure that available informal review procedures and administrative appeal procedures are made known to grant applicants. Notice of such procedures should be published in the Federal Register, codified in the Code of Federal Regulations, and included in application materials and other appropriate documents. (See also Recommendations 71-4 and 71-9.)

IV. Implementation of Recommendation

Each federal grantmaking agency should, within one year of the adoption of this recommendation, report in writing to the Administrative Conference the steps the agency intends to take, consistent with the above guidelines, to improve its dispute resolution process.



47 FR 30704 (July 15, 1982)

1982 ACUS 9 (vol 1)

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