Postal officials immune from anthrax lawsuit, judge rules

Judge says employee allegations “shock the conscience,” but top postal officials do not bear civil liability.

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit last week brought by employees of the Brentwood postal facility in Washington who alleged that postal managers put their health in danger by failing to inform them about anthrax in the building.

District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer of the District of Columbia ruled Friday that the officials are immune to the charges in part because the workers have other avenues of recourse, including the Federal Employees' Compensation Act. The lawsuit named as defendants Postmaster General John E. Potter, Vice President of Engineering Thomas Day and Senior Plant Manager Timothy C. Haney.

In the suit, six workers, one of whom has died since it was filed, charged that postal managers jeopardized their health and safety in October 2001 by failing to share information indicating that that the plant was contaminated with anthrax, and by deliberately misleading employees. The plaintiffs also claimed that postal officials "threatened, coerced and intimidated" workers to discourage them from asking questions about their safety.

Two Brentwood workers, Joseph Curseen Jr. and Thomas Morris Jr., died of inhalation anthrax after a still-unknown person mailed the substance to the office of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.; the facility has since been renamed in their memory. Several other employees became ill.

The six workers filed the suit in October 2003. The Postal Service denied the charges. Collyer said the allegations "shock the conscience," but she did not rule on whether they were true. Rather, she determined that the employees cannot file the suit because the officials named in it do not bear a civil liability.

Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a watchdog group representing the workers, said they are considering an appeal. "We know that these postal workers have been severely harmed," Fitton said. "All of this could have been prevented if Postal Service supervisors were honest with their employees."

The plaintiffs alleged that postal officials suspected that anthrax had leaked into the plant on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2001, and knew for certain that the facility was dangerous by Thursday or Friday of that week. However, workers continued processing mail at the plant until around noon on Sunday, Oct. 21, and some employees were ordered to remove mail, shut down machinery and make other preparations to close the facility until 7 p.m.

The Postal Service issued emergency management instructions for dealing with anthrax contaminations in October 1999 that state, "it is management's responsibility to minimize potential exposures through quick isolation and evacuation until emergency response and law enforcement can arrive and take control of the incident." The workers said those guidelines were ignored.

The employees also alleged that managers held "false safety briefings" to reassure employees that the facility was safe, even after they learned it was not. One plaintiff, a supervisor, claimed he refused to give the briefing. Another plaintiff said his supervisor told him he would be fired for attending and attempting to ask questions at a press conference Potter held at the facility on Oct. 18. Yet another worker said he was expelled from the building and suspended for seven days after requesting a safety briefing.

The workers claimed that management's concern about keeping postal operations running trumped considerations of worker safety.

"If the facts are as alleged," Collyer wrote, "the conduct of USPS managers would appear commendable for their dedication to getting the mail out but deplorable for not recognizing the potential human risk involved."