Postal hopefuls sue, charge discrimination

October 07, 1997


Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Fifty-three people claiming they were unfairly rejected for jobs at a U.S. Postal Service facility in Falling Waters, W.Va., have filed suit in U.S. District Court.

The individual suits were filed Monday by attorneys David M. Hammer and Harry P. Waddell. The plaintiffs are suing Postmaster General Marvin Runyon for lost wages, compensation and punitive damages.

In 1995, the applicants were rejected for data key entry jobs at the Remote Encoding Center in Falling Waters. Many of the people who filed suit had previously worked at Advanced Management Inc., which did mail bar coding for the Postal Service.


"Same building, same equipment, same job, same everything," Hammer said Tuesday of the jobs for which the people applied. Hammer said the Postal Service had contracted with private companies to do the bar coding, but the postal workers' union filed a grievance against the practice and won.

AMI's contract expired in 1995 and was not renewed, according to Hammer.

The attorneys for the applicants cited an e-mail from that year in which Dr. William Comer, a medical officer for the Postal Service, wrote that "there was a lot of `poor protoplasm' in this group."

"We cannot expect the worst quality workforce to deliver the best quality service," Comer wrote in the March 25, 1995, e-mail to a Postal Service official in Washington, D.C. Comer wrote it would be more cost-efficient to screen more applicants rather than "hire `warm bodies' and expect to swallow a few million $$ of OWCP costs starting in about six months (perhaps never ending)."

OWCP refers to workers' compensation, according to the attorneys.

The e-mail was in response to a message to Comer from the postal official that said "right now I'm in a state of shock over how many moderate- and high-risk applicants we have."

The attorneys cited the example of Margaret Newcomb of Martinsburg, rejected presumably because she had an arthritic knee operated on in 1990.

"There's one guy, for instance, that had a broken wrist in 1972 that was rejected," Waddell said.

Other ailments among plaintiffs included back problems, a history of headaches and high blood pressure, according to Waddell. They were examined by local physicians, whose records were then reviewed by Comer, whom Hammer said is based in Kentucky.

"Without exception, they were all medically approved by the doctors who examined them," Waddell said. He claimed Comer changed the applicants from no- or low-risk to moderate- to high-risk.

"The physical demands of these jobs are so minimal, if they couldn't do this job, they couldn't do any job," Waddell said. Key entry operators assign bar codes to computer images of mail transmitted to the center from a Postal Service facility in Harrisburg, Pa., Hammer said.

Comer never examined the applicants, Hammer said. He could not explain what Comer meant by "poor protoplasm." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines protoplasm as "a complex, jellylike colloidal substance conceived of as constituting the living matter of plant and animal cells."

A U.S. Justice Department official familiar with the case declined to comment on the suits.

Hammer and Waddell wanted the cases joined as a class-action suit, but that argument was rejected by U.S. District Judge W. Craig Broadwater. Wadell said the judge believed the court had to look individually at each person's disability or impairment.

"We disagree with that because none of these people are handicapped in the sense they can't work," Waddell said.

According to Hammer, many of the plaintiffs in this case were involved in an earlier class-action suit against AMI that was settled on May 9 for $1.27 million. In that suit, more than 600 former AMI employees claimed the company had failed to pay overtime, bonuses and training wages.

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