Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testifies during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Aug. 24.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testifies during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Aug. 24. Tom Williams/Pool via AP

Court Losses Mount for USPS as Agency Management, DeJoy Weigh Options

A second judge on Monday ordered the Postal Service to walk back controversial reforms.

The Postal Service suffered a second consecutive setback in federal court to its new initiatives that have led to mail delays and is facing renewed orders to walk back its controversial reforms. 

USPS management has yet to say if it will comply with the court orders, however, stating in both cases it is weighing its legal options. Monday’s decision in the U.S. Court for the Southern District of New York followed a similar ruling in Washington state last week, with federal judges in both cases saying the Postal Service was at risk of disenfranchising voters. 

The judges specifically ruled that USPS should unwind changes instituted by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy that stressed keeping deliveries on a strict schedule and curtailing late and extra trips between postal facilities. DeJoy has conceded the changes have led to delays, as they led to postal employees leaving mail behind in order to run their trucks and deliveries on a set schedule. The cases in New York and Washington were just two of several lawsuits USPS is facing in response to DeJoy’s efforts and other initiatives plaintiffs say have led to mail delays. 

In Jones v. USPS, Judge Victor Marrero questioned whether the Postal Service was committed to ensuring all ballots are delivered on time for the upcoming election, which promises an unprecedented wave of mailed ballots. 

“Conflicting, vague, and ambivalent managerial signals could also sow substantial doubt about whether the USPS is up to the task, whether it possesses the institutional will power and commitment to its historical mission, and so to handle the exceptional burden associated with a profoundly critical task in our democratic system, that of collecting and delivering election mail a few weeks from now,” Marrero said. 

Marti Johnson, a USPS spokesperson, said the agency is still reviewing the court's decision. 

“There should be no doubt, however, that the Postal Service is ready and fully committed to handling expected increased volumes of election mail between now and the conclusion of the November 3rd election,” Johnson said. “Our number one priority is to deliver the nation’s election mail securely and in a timely fashion.”

Unless the plaintiffs—who are primarily politicians in New York City—and USPS reach an alternate agreement, the court ordered the agency to treat all election mail as first-class mail for the purposes of expedited delivery, pre-approve all overtime from Oct. 26 though Nov. 6, identify and take all steps necessary to restore on-time delivery to its 2020 high point, and tell employees that late and extra trips are allowed and facilitate the prompt delivery of mail. The court plans to take steps to ensure all of its mandates are followed. 

In a statement on the Washington case, Dave Partenheimer, another USPS spokesman, reiterated the Postal Service is committed to delivering election mail quickly and securely. 

“While we are exploring our legal options, there should be no doubt that the Postal Service is ready and committed to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives,” Partenheimer said. 

Lee Moak, who chairs the election mail committee on the USPS board of governors, called any suggestion that reforms at USPS are politically motivated—as the judge in the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of Washington suggested—"completely and utterly without merit."

Marrero, the judge in Jones, said any reforms leading to mail delivery delays risked disenfranchising voters. He added the mail delays will spur some voters to vote in person and risk exposure to COVID-19. While USPS has said it will continue its practice of prioritizing election mail to ensure its timely delivery, the judge faulted the agency for not setting a specific policy that will be carried out uniformly across the country. 

“Taken together, these delays have a direct bearing on the fundamental voting rights issues now before the court,” he said. “Specifically, if the Postal Service’s mail delivery levels remain at current levels or continue to decline, under operational policies apparently still in place, such curtailed performance would put the ability of voters to timely cast their ballots at risk.”

Postal officials argued, as they have in several lawsuits, that mail delays resulted from local supervisors misinterpreting and misapplying DeJoy’s reforms and that mail should have never been left behind. Marrero said, however, it was clear USPS management communications led to “conflicting signals or confusion” and messages local leaders gave to employees reflected how they “perceived the content of DeJoy’s expectations.”

“This demonstrates a stunning lack of uniformity and a high level of confusion at various points in the USPS hierarchy regarding the standards to be followed by USPS employees on the ground,” the judge said, later adding, “The court is left with little reason to believe that the USPS policy and operational picture will be any clearer for postal employees as the November election approaches.”

Front-line supervisors and employees have said they were simply following direction from headquarters when running trucks from processing plants on a set schedule, even if that meant leaving mail behind. It seems unlikely, some have said, that employees on the ground all misinterpreted DeJoy’s changes in the same way at the same time. Marrero specifically suggested the blame fell on management’s shoulders.

“Now, more than ever, the Postal Service’s status as a symbol of national unity must be validated by the demonstrated degree of its commitment to utmost effectiveness of election mail service,” he said. “And while the court has no doubts that the Postal Service’s workforce comprises hardworking and dedicated public servants, multiple managerial failures have undermined the postal employees’ ability to fulfill their vital mission.”

In granting the injunction, Marrero said the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their Fifth Amendment equal protection argument as it broke with long standing “one person, one vote” precedent, as well as a First Amendment argument. The judge also said that while USPS has claimed “nearly all” of the practices with which the plaintiffs raised issue are no longer operative—referring to DeJoy’s announcement he would pause the removal of collection boxes and processing equipment, while allowing overtime—there remains the possibility that the “difference between nearly and all” could disenfranchise many voters. 

“The controversy plaintiffs raise remains very much alive,” the judge said.