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Pickens v. Runyon

November 4, 1997




Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division.

No. 95 C 5723 -- Harry D. Leinenweber, Judge.

Before CUMMINGS, COFFEY, and EVANS, Circuit Judges.

EVANS, Circuit Judge.



Julie A. Pickens sued the United States Post Office for race and sex discrimination, and a jury rejected her claim. The district court denied her motions for a new trial and for judgment as a matter of law. Pickens appeals.

Whether or not Ms. Pickens is reporting the truth about racial and sexual harassment at the United States Post Office in Chicago, she tells a sad story of medical and psychological traumas over the past several years. Pickens' allegations of harassment, however, are only a backdrop for this appeal which does not concern discrimination so much as it deals with whether she received a fair shake at trial. She says she didn't because the government failed, until the last minute, to produce critical discovery materials, and the absence of these materials robbed her of a chance to fairly present her best case to the jury.

Pickens and the Post Office present starkly different accounts of the facts underlying this case. Since the Post Office prevailed at trial, Pickens' story is suspect. For that reason, we would ordinarily, at this point, launch into a review of the facts from the Post Office's perspective because it won the battle at trial. But if the result -- a verdict for the Post Office -- can't be trusted because the jury didn't hear the full story, that's unfair to Ms. Pickens. So we will present facts from all perspectives so our ultimate decision can be better understood.

Pickens, white and in her late twenties, is a high school graduate, married, and the mother of three children. Apparently she has not led a happy life -- before beginning work as a full-time letter carrier in July of 1990 she attempted suicide twice. She has not enjoyed her career with the Chicago Post Office either. Because of fears for her safety as a letter carrier she transferred out of several postal stations during the early 1990's, eventually ending up at the Riverdale station in late 1993.

When Pickens arrived at Riverdale she was placed on light duty because she was pregnant. She was one of only two white employees (and the only white woman) assigned to the station. All other employees at the station were black, and Pickens says she faced harassment as soon as she arrived. A number of employees commented, she said, that as a white person she "didn't belong there."

Several alleged early incidents of harassment, according to Pickens, involved James Field, a co-worker. On one occasion Field asked Pickens, "Do you have any black in you?" She replied, "No, why?" He answered, "Let me give you some." Another time, Field said, "Why is it that white girls don't have any booty? You need a booty on your butt." Because of Field's comments, Pickens complained to her supervisor, Jeanette Wilson. Pickens claims that Wilson took no action regarding her complaints. At trial, Wilson testified that the other employees did not harass Pickens.

In September of 1994 Pickens returned from maternity leave and began full duty as a letter carrier. Upon her return, she alleges that a number of co-workers conspired to ensure that she had to take an undesirable route delivering mail at a housing project, Altgeld Gardens, predominantly occupied by blacks. According to Pickens, the black carriers, who had more seniority than she, bid on other routes in order to make the "white girl" cover Altgeld Gardens. Pickens learned of this plot, she said, during a phone call with Jewell Hightower, who said other employees pressured Hightower to bid on the only other route available to Pickens. Adding insult to injury, Pickens says her co-workers taunted her about how much fun the Altgeld residents would have with her. Glenda Ford, another co-worker, teased Pickens, saying that in the summer she would become "dark like her" and that the Altgeld residents would think Pickens and Ford were "sisters."

At trial, however, Hightower testified that she did not engage in any conspiracy. She claimed she bid on the route she wanted because of safety concerns, not because of racial pressure to do so. Furthermore, Hightower claimed that she later offered to trade routes with Pickens, who refused.

In October of 1994 Samuel Hankins arrived at Riverdale as the new supervisor. His arrival, according to Pickens, marked the beginning of a new round of harassment. Various co-workers reportedly referred to Pickens as Hankins' "white girlfriend," a charge, says Pickens, that was not true. In any event, by November of 1994 Pickens began ...

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