Postal Worker Loses Lawsuit Claiming USPS Violated Privacy Act And Fraud On the Court

The following is PostalReporter’s summary of several cases related to the same issue:

Darrell Coburn sued the United States Postal Service claiming that the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, was violated when records from the file on his administrative complaint of discrimination were disclosed internally to several management employees. USPS was seeking evidence of a management employee representing a craft employee which is against postal policy. After a bench trial the district court found that the Postal Service did not make any unauthorized disclosure and entered judgment against Coburn. Coburn appealed to the Court of Appeals which upheld the District Court’s decision. Coburn filed again arguing that the Postal Service committed fraud by submitting an alleged “bogus” document to the court. The court ruled that Coburn was untimely and therefore the Court of Appeals decision stands.

This legal saga started when Darrell Coburn a 19-year Forest Park, IL letter carrier was placed on Emergency Off-Duty status on January 27, 2004.

On February 9, 2004, Coburn was issued a Letter Of Warning for conduct unbecoming of a postal employee which occurred on January 27, 2004.

On February 11, 2004 Coburn filed National Labor Charges against the Postal Service and Former Forest Park Postmaster Migna Sanchez for unfair labor practices and whistle-blowing activity..

On February 12, 2004, Coburn was issued a 14-day suspension for “Failure to Properly Secure A Postal Vehicle.”

On February 19, 2004, Coburn was told that on February 23, 2004, he was being sent for letter carrier re-training at another Post Office.

In 2005, Coburn filed  an administrative complaint alleging employment discrimination. Coburn was told that he could select another employee to represent him during the administrative process. However, Postal Service policy precludes management employees from representing craft employees like Coburn, a letter carrier. In spite of the policy, Coburn enlisted his friend Cecil Watson, a management employee, who knew about the policy from his supervisor. When the supervisor later heard that Watson had served a summons on the United States Attorney in a lawsuit filed by Coburn against the Postal Service, he asked a postal official to investigate whether Watson was violating the policy against representing craft employees.

The postal official  contacted  the personnel employee with custody over the file from Coburn’s administrative complaint, who turned the file over to the postal official. From that file the postal official culled six documents referring to Watson as Coburn’s personal representative.

The postal official  turned those documents over to Watson’s supervisor, who cited them in a proposal to his supervisor that Watson be fired. It is these disclosures that Coburn alleged USPS violated the Privacy Act.

In September 2008, after a bench trial on Coburn’s claims, the district court granted judgment for the Postal Service. It found that the employees lawfully viewed Coburn’s records under an exception to the Privacy Act that permits access when employees have a “need for the record[s] in the performance of their duties.”

The Privacy Act generally precludes an agency from disclosing records pertaining to an individual who has not consented in writing to the disclosure. 5 U.S.C. § 552a(b). But several categories of disclosures are explicitly authorized in the statute, including disclosures “to those officers and employees of the agency which maintains the record who have a need for the record in the performance of their duties.” The district court found that the disclosures here fit this exception.

Coburn countered that his records were disclosed to persons who did not maintain them, and thus the disclosures fell outside the “need to know” exception. But the court said that Coburn misread subsection (b)(I). It is enough that the persons to whom disclosure is made are employees of the agency that maintains the records and that those employees have a need for access; disclosure under this subsection is not limited to the employees responsible for maintaining the records.

Coburn also argued that the Postal Service employees who obtained his records did not need to access those records in the course of their duties. To show this, he cites a vacancy announcement for the position held by the postal official, who obtained the file from the personnel employee and passed along six documents to Watson’s supervisor after first clearing that action with agency counsel. Coburn correctly notes that the vacancy announcement does not mention as a job duty investigating allegations of employment discrimination. But a vacancy announcement would not be comprehensive, and, regardless, the employees to whom the records were disclosed testified that their duties did include investigating alleged misconduct by management employees. The district court believed them, and our job on appeal is not to reweigh the credibility of trial witnesses. Coburn does not otherwise fault the scope or manner of the disclosures, so our analysis may end here.

In February 2010, nearly 17 months after the district court entered its judgment, Coburn filed a motion to vacate in light of new evidence suggesting that the Postal Service and its counsel engaged in fraud on the court.  The Postal Service committed fraud, Coburn argued, by using a misleading memo at his bench trial to justify accessing his file. The memo explains that Postal-Service policy bars management employees (such as Watson) from representing craft workers (such as Coburn) in administrative proceedings against the Postal Service. But such memos, Coburn contended, are informational only and should not be treated as official policy of the Postal Service, and in support he pointed to a 1989 employee manual that he characterizes as newly discovered evidence. He also cited a 1996 employee handbook listing five conflicts of interest for employee representation, none of which stated that management employees could not represent craft employees. Therefore, he concluded, Watson did not engage in wrongdoing by assisting him with his complaint, and Postal-Service employees had no need to access his administrative file. The district court denied Coburn’s motion, determining that the one-year statute of limitations under Rule 60(b)(3) had passed and that Coburn did not allege the egregious fraud on the court necessary to succeed under Rule 60(d)(3).

Coburn does not challenge the district court’s finding that his motion under Rule 60(b)(3) was time-barred. Such motions must be brought within one year of the judgment the party seeks to vacate, and Coburn was untimely in waiting almost 17 months after the judgment to file his motion.

Coburn argues that the district court erred in finding that the Postal Service did not defraud the court because, he contends, it overlooked the Postal Service’s “bogus document”—the memo regarding Postal-Service policy. Fraud on the court, which is not subject to the one-year statute of limitations, may include inserting fraudulent documents into the record,  but Coburn has not pointed to any evidence to suggest that the memo itself—or the way the Postal Service used it at trial—was fraudulent. Nor has he explained how the mere existence of the 1989 manual undermines the memo’s authenticity.

Coburn also asserts for the first time on appeal that counsel for the Postal Service engaged in fraud by allowing witnesses to perjure themselves through testimony about the memo. But he waived that argument when he did not present it to the district court. And even if he had not, his argument would still fail because here too he does not point to anything in the record to support his claim. Because the purported fraud was not “conduct that might be thought to corrupt the judicial process itself,” the district court properly denied the motion.

We add, however, that a plaintiff can win a Privacy Act suit for damages only if he demonstrates that the violation was intentional or willful. See 5 U.S.C. 552a(g)(4); Jacobs v. Nat’l Drug Intelligence Ctr., 423 F.3d 512, 522 (10th Cir. 2005); Moskiewicz v. U.S. Dep’t of Agric., 791 F.2d 561, 564 (7th Cir. 1986). Even if the disclosures had been unauthorized, the employees who were involved reasonably believed that they were allowed access to Coburn’s file as necessary to investigate possible misconduct by Watson. The district court,in its findings of fact, made clear that it believed there was no intent to violate the Privacy Act, and that finding is not clearly erroneous. See Remapp Int’l Corp. v. Comfort Keyboard Co.,No. 08 3282, 2009 WL 750222, at *3 (7th Cir. Mar. 24, 2009). Accordingly, even if there had been a technical violation, Coburn still would not recover.

2 thoughts on “Postal Worker Loses Lawsuit Claiming USPS Violated Privacy Act And Fraud On the Court

  1. I know this EEO filing joke of a man. He has been trying for years to get free money from the Service. Im glad the Judge saw that and ruled in favor of the company.

  2. Of course the court will side with the USPS. So many people have lost confidence in our courts because of their corruption and this includes all the courts up to and including the US Supreme Court. We have the best judicial system that money can buy.

Comments are closed.