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Coburn v. Potter

September 24, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Robert M. Dow, Jr.


Plaintiff Darrell Coburn filed a complaint alleging violations of provisions of the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, and the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 ("FOIA"), by certain employees of the United States Postal Service ("USPS"). Prior to the transfer of this case to this Court's docket, Judge Coar denied Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment. This case therefore proceeded to a bench trial that was held on March 25, 2008. At that trial, the Court heard the testimony of Plaintiff and a number of witnesses called by both parties. The parties subsequently submitted proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law.

In this memorandum opinion and order, the Court sets forth (i) its findings of fact concerning to the matters before the Court for decision and (ii) its conclusions of law. The Court notes that its factual findings are based on the stipulations of the parties and the documentary evidence and testimony presented at trial, at which time the Court had the opportunity to observe and evaluate the credibility of the witnesses. On the basis of the findings of fact and conclusions of law stated below, the Court enters judgment for Defendant on both counts of Plaintiff's complaint.

I. Findings of Fact

Plaintiff Darrell Coburn is a letter carrier at the Forest Park, Illinois post office. Tr. at 161. In 2005, Plaintiff filed both an EEO discrimination complaint and a civil lawsuit against Defendant. Tr. at 161, 165. After filing his EEO complaint, Plaintiff was notified of his right to select a representative of his choice at any stage of the complaint process. Tr. at 43, 161.*fn1

While Plaintiff's actions were pending, Jeffrey Moore, a labor relations specialist for the USPS, had a conversation with Yvonne Owens, a USPS attorney, during which Moore learned that a USPS manager named Cecil Watson had served a summons on behalf of Plaintiff in his civil lawsuit. Tr. at 136. Moore subsequently received a copy of the summons and showed it to Watson's immediate supervisor, Schaumburg Postmaster Kenneth Michalowski. Tr. at 138-39, 142-43. Moore and Michalowski suspected that Watson might have been violating a USPS rule that prohibits management employees from representing craft employees in EEO actions against the USPS. Tr. at 46, 96, 107-08, 145, 151. Accordingly, Michalowski asked Moore to further investigate the matter. Tr. at 108, 151.

Moore does not "maintain" EEO records in the normal course of his duties. Tr. at 135. However, as a labor relations specialist, Moore's duties include acting as a liaison with the USPS law department and investigating whether management employees have violated any USPS regulations. Tr. at 79-81 (testimony of Labor Relations Department Manager Carol Dellutri).*fn2

In carrying out Michalowski's request, Moore requested that Julie Rodriguez, an EEO dispute resolution specialist with the USPS, provide Moore with access to the file containing documents relating to Plaintiff's EEO complaint and advised Moore of the reason why he wanted access to that file. Tr. at 46-47, 142-43. Rodriguez's office maintains EEO records in a system of records as described in the Privacy Act, and Rodriguez is authorized to use and disclose EEO records in the performance of her duties. Tr. at 27, 33. Although Plaintiff had not provided written authorization to release his EEO file, Rodriguez believed that disclosure of the file and the records in it was proper under the Privacy Act, and thus she provided Plaintiff's EEO file to Moore. Tr. at 36, 39-41.

Before accessing Plaintiff's file, Moore read the Privacy Act and believed that he had a right to review the file in the performance of his duties as a labor relations specialist. Tr. at 149-50, 157-58. In Plaintiff's EEO file, Moore found six documents that he felt were pertinent to his investigation: (1) a Dispute Resolution Specialist's Inquiry Report, dated December 27, 2005; (2) a letter from an EEO Compliance and Appeals Specialist, dated December 30, 2005; (3) two letters with a cover sheet from Plaintiff to an EEO Specialist, dated January 4, 2006; (4) an Acknowledgment of Amendment from an EEO Specialist, dated January 11, 2006; (5) a letter from Plaintiff to an EEO Manager, dated January 10, 2006; and (6) a letter from an EEO Specialist, dated January 12, 2006. Tr. Ex. 4, at 3-4; Tr. Exs. 6-11. Those documents list Watson as Plaintiff's "representative," show Watson on the "cc" line of correspondence as Plaintiff's "representative," and/or reflect that a document was served on Watson as Plaintiff's "representative." See Tr. Exs. 6-11.

After consulting with the USPS legal department, Moore provided the six documents referenced above from Plaintiff's EEO file to Michalowski. Tr. at 107-09, 142, 149-50. Michalowski reviewed those documents in order to determine whether Watson had violated USPS rules and regulations, as well as Michalowski's instructions. Tr. at 107-08, 116.*fn3 On or about April 1, 2006, Watson informed Plaintiff that Plaintiff's EEO records were referenced in Watson's notice of removal from the USPS. Tr. at 21. There is no evidence that Plaintiff was aware of the release of his EEO records prior to his conversation with Watson, and the parties have stipulated [Dkt. 59] that Plaintiff did not provide written consent to the disclosure of his EEO records to Moore or Michalowski.*fn4

Plaintiff then filed an EEO complaint, alleging that the release of his Restricted EEO records violated the Privacy Act and the FOIA. After that EEO complaint was dismissed, Plaintiff commenced this lawsuit, alleging that USPS employees*fn5 violated his rights to privacy under the Privacy Act (Count I) and the FOIA (Count II).

II. Conclusions of Law

A. Privacy Act

"The Privacy Act of 1974 limits the circumstances under which government agencies * * * may disclose information contained in their records." Pippinger v. Rubin, 129 F.3d 519, 528 (10th Cir. 1997). The specific provision of the Privacy Act at issue in this case provides in general that "[n]o agency shall disclose any record which is contained in a system of records by any means of communication to any person, or to another agency, except pursuant to a written request by, or with the prior written consent of, the individual to whom the record pertains." 5 U.S.C. ยง 552a(b). The Act contains numerous exceptions, including one that permits disclosure "to those ...

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