Ruling delivers job, not post office box

Recently, an administrative law judge had to decide whether a Postal Service employee who was on the verge of being fired should lose his right to rent a post office box.

The case involved Michael Sands, a Rochester, N.Y., postal employee since 1985. Sands had rented a post office box at the Downtown Station in Rochester, where he worked as a distribution clerk. Sands had a long history of disputes and confrontations with management and co-workers, with many accusations of improper conduct flowing in both directions.

On March 2, 1998, Sands brought an excess mail notice (too much mail to fit in the box) to the window where box clerk Ron Valinsky was working. There had been some discord between Sands and Valinsky in the past. Sands thought that Valinsky had intentionally delayed picking up Sands' mail.

Sands approached Valinsky and said in a raised voice, "Are you going to get my mail or not?" He continued to follow Valinsky closely and used some strong language. Disturbed by all of this, Valinsky left the area without getting Sands' mail. Sands then asked another clerk to get his mail. She told him to return to the window, which he did, and she retrieved his mail.

Valinsky complained to his supervisor, who also was Sands' supervisor, that Sands' actions were hostile and threatening. On March 23, 1998, the supervisor told Sands he intended to fire him and gave Sands a Notice of Proposed Removal. This notice listed two charges as the basis for the action. The first was labeled "obnoxious behavior" and described the March 2 incident with Valinsky. The second was labeled "failure to follow instructions" and stated that Sands had been cautioned and instructed "repeatedly" to stop harassing other employees.

The notice stated that the supervisor had considered Sands' history, which included a seven-day suspension and two 14-day suspensions for infractions between 1995 and 1997.

Sands also received a letter from the Rochester postmaster informing him that his post office box service was terminated due to his "abusive behavior."

Sands responded by filing a grievance, and he met with the Rochester postmaster on two occasions. On April 23, 1998, the postmaster issued a decision, which described the March 2 incident as well as several other examples of Sands' confrontational behavior. The postmaster concluded that the March 2 incident "if taken in isolation, would not warrant [Sands'] removal." But the decision added that Sands' "continuous obnoxious, disruptive behavior" had a negative effect on the efficiency of the Postal Service and warranted Sands' removal from the agency.

Sands decided to take his grievance to a higher level within the Postal Service and enlisted the help of his union. On May 13, 1998, Postal Service management and Sands' union signed a settlement agreement that reduced Sands' proposed removal to a suspension of 14 calendar days. It was also agreed that Sands would not be made to serve the suspension without pay.

In addition, Sands would be reassigned to another Postal Service unit but would be allowed 120 days to use his "bidding" seniority to bid for another position. Under a union agreement, workers compete for vacant positions by bidding. The agreement also said that during his interim assignment, Sands could not bid on any vacancies at the Downtown Station. If Sands failed to land a position within the 120-day period, he would be assigned to a vacant position in accordance with the "national agreement" between the Postal Service and the union.

So Sands made out pretty well. He wasn't fired and even had a chance to land a better job. But how about his post office box?

The Postal Service argued that postal regulations gave the postmaster the right to cancel post office box service "if a customer conducts himself or herself in a violent, threatening or otherwise abusive manner on postal premises."

For his part, Sands argued that his conduct on March 2 did not constitute "abusive behavior" and that Valinsky's version of what happened was not entirely true. He also cited the terms of the settlement agreement as proof that the incident was not sufficiently serious to justify canceling his box service. Sands argued that the provisions of the agreement precluded him from returning to work at the Downtown Station for only 120 days, after which he would then be permitted to work there again. So how could he be permitted to return to work but not rent a box?

The administrative law judge at the Postal Service didn't see it that way and sided with the postmaster (Michael M. Sands vs. U.S. Postal Service, Postal Service Docket No. POB 98-172, May 4, 1999). The judge said the record was sufficient to support the postmaster's decision to cancel Sands' box service. There were no criminal charges against Sands, so the postmaster was under no requirement to prove "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

Though Sands disputed some of the details in Valinsky's account of the March 2 incident, he never denied going after Valinsky into the work area, getting close to him and shouting at him. Sands' history of behavior problems in dealing with supervisors and co-workers also was considered.

The judge said he could understand Sands' reliance on the settlement agreement to show that the March 2 incident was not as serious as it was originally made out to be. After all, the agreement represented quite a change of heart for the Postal Service, which decreased the penalty from firing to a two-week suspension with pay.

Still, the judge ruled against Sands. He might ultimately be allowed to work at the downtown station but could not use a post office box there.

--Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who contributes regularly to Federal Computer Week.

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