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A room divided, Turmoil within Fargo post office leads to court fights

The sorting room in south Fargo's Prairiewood Station Post Office became a miserable place to work. That much letter carriers on opposite sides of a federal lawsuit seem to agree on when describing their workplace environment. Some letter carrier...

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The sorting room in south Fargo's Prairiewood Station Post Office became a miserable place to work.

That much letter carriers on opposite sides of a federal lawsuit seem to agree on when describing their workplace environment.

Some letter carriers say it was much worse.

"For me and some others, it became a very scary place," said Bonnie Jensen, a 20-year letter carrier who filed a lawsuit against the Postal Service and four fellow letter carriers nearly five years ago.

"I had an escape plan in case I needed to get out of there," she said, referring to the threat of workplace violence so commonly associated with the Postal Service. "You wouldn't believe it unless you lived through it."

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A jury is expected to decide if Jensen's claims have merit in a federal trial set to begin Dec. 6 in Fargo. Jensen, 56, filed her lawsuit on Nov. 17, 2000, claiming fellow letter carriers Karl Palloch, Gregg Sachow, Larry Ibach and Thomas Greene created a hostile work environment.

The lawsuit says the four carriers harassed Jensen and discriminated against her based on her sex and religious beliefs. Jensen further contends Postal Service managers led an ineffective investigation and failed to stop the workplace abuse despite her repeated complaints.

"I don't understand why the Post Office, in light of its past history of workers going postal, has not heeded my warnings about these four hostile carriers who have kept on after me for a solid seven months," Jensen said in a court affidavit.

In June 2001, U.S. District Judge Rodney Webb dismissed Ibach, Greene, Palloch and Sachow from Jensen's lawsuit.

Webb ruled that the letter carriers were protected from personal liability because they were acting in the scope of their federal employment.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling in December 2002. Only the Postal Service is now a defendant in the lawsuit.

Ibach, Sachow, Palloch and Greene declined to comment for this story. They continue to work at the Prairiewood Station, 1455 32nd St. S.W.

Palloch said only that Jensen's lawsuit is a "personal vendetta." He said he will gladly comment once the lawsuit is resolved.

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Jan Olson, manager of the Prairiewood Station, also declined comment.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Shon Hastings, who is defending the Postal Service, said the four letter carriers accused of harassing Jensen dispute most of her claims.

Hastings said Postal Service officials followed policy in dealing with complaints from both sides of the mailroom conflict.

"I can't say that it was a utopia, that it was a fun place to work," she said.

Olson investigated complaints, spoke to all letter carriers about harassment and the use of offensive language, contacted other Postal Service officials about the allegations and brought in a mediator to quell disputes between employees, Hastings said.

"There were a lot of resources devoted to this," Hastings said. "I think the facts at trial will be different than what Bonnie alleges."

Court records and interviews for this story offer a glimpse of the station's environment, mainly in 1999 and 2000 when some employees claim to have worked in a mailroom run amok.

Court records show the station's work atmosphere further declined after Jensen started complaining about the four letter carriers in May 1999.

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Mail carriers Jim Carriere and Randy Devitt said they, too, became the targets of harassment at the hands of Palloch, Sachow, Ibach and Greene after defending Jensen.

Carriers on both sides of the conflict routinely barraged supervisors with complaints -- sometimes with matters most people would categorize as petty or childish -- such as angry stares, name-calling and throwing candy wrappers.

Meanwhile, the mailroom turmoil worsened.

There were shouting matches. Letter carriers who worked side by side in the sorting room began suspecting co-workers of vandalizing their work stations and government vehicles.

Devitt said Palloch challenged him to a fist fight during a meeting with station manager Olson in December 1999.

Olson called the meeting in hopes of quelling problems between the two mail carriers, court records say.

Carriere said the address numbers on his home were stolen twice, and he suspects it's related to his mailroom situation.

And when a pipe bomb exploded in Carriere's residential mailbox in October 2002, sending metal bits into neighboring yards, the letter carrier told investigators he believed it was connected to his longstanding troubles with co-workers at the Prairiewood Station.

Fargo police arrested three Fargo South High School students in connection with the mailbox bombing and four others. Investigators determined the bombings were random.

Carriere and Devitt later filed their own federal lawsuits, claiming they were harassed and retaliated against for defending Jensen.

By then, the Postal Service had instituted a zero-tolerance policy for violence and harassment in the workplace in response to a series of workplace shooting across the country.

Posters detailing the policy were placed in high-traffic areas of the Prairiewood Station for all employees to see.

But the signs and management changed nothing, say Jensen, Devitt and Carriere.

Court records show Olson gave some of the carriers "job discussions" -- talks about what is appropriate workplace behavior -- but it's unclear if they received any other disciplinary action.

The Postal Service denied The Forum's request for information in the personnel files of Jensen, Olson, Ibach, Greene, Palloch, Sachow, Carriere, and Devitt.

"It has been a real mental and emotional roller coaster ride for us," Carriere said.

Jensen said her troubles with Sachow, Palloch, Ibach and Greene began when she was awarded a new mail route in May 1999.

Twenty years of handling heavy mail satchels on walking routes had taken a toll on Jensen, who underwent surgery on her right shoulder and left hand.

She had enough seniority to get the driving route and looked forward to her new assignment.

"You had to prove yourself, which is OK because I wanted to hold my end up," she said.

To accommodate the new route, Jensen's mail-sorting station was moved next to Sachow's.

Jensen, a self-described born-again Christian, said the four letter carriers ridiculed her for taking time off work to volunteer at Fargo's Bethel Evangelical Free Church.

They would shout "praise the Lord, brother" and "hallelujah" across the workroom, Jensen said.

The four shared dirty jokes, pictures of scantily clad women and raunchy conversation, intentionally speaking loud enough for Jensen to hear, she claimed.

Jensen said she first complained about the harassment a few days after getting her new route.

She asked then, and more than five times after, to have her sorting station moved. The request was denied for about two months.

Olson conceded on July 23, 1999, moving Jensen's work station near the mailroom's time clock.

The move changed nothing, Jensen said.

Palloch, Greene, Ibach and Sachow would hang out near the time clock and continue the harassment, she said.

"Being around these guys, I never heard that kind of talk before," she said. "I just didn't want to hear any more dirty jokes, any dirty talk or see any dirty pictures.

"But the more I complained, the worse it got," Jensen said.

Members of the National Association of Letter Carriers are entitled to union representation in grievances with co-workers or Postal Service management.

Jensen, Devitt and Carriere said they were denied impartial union help because Ibach and Palloch were union officials.

Palloch and Ibach have worked at the Prairiewood Station since it opened in 1985 and served as union stewards at the Prairiewood Station in 1999 and 2000. They have held just about every office within Local 205, including union president, court records show.

Devitt and Carriere said they quit the union in protest.

In searching for help, Jensen went over Olson's head and contacted other Postal Service officials in Fargo and Sioux Falls, S.D. She said her complaints changed nothing.

"They did nothing to help me," Jensen said. "Not my union, or management, nobody would help me."

Instead, the harassment escalated, she said.

The letter carriers began ridiculing her for complaining to management, Jensen said.

Jensen said she started having trouble concentrating and dreaded coming to work. She began seeing a doctor, who diagnosed her with severe anxiety.

She said the harassment continued for six months and didn't stop until Nov. 15, 1999, when she refused to return to work at the Prairiewood Station.

She hasn't been back since.

Three days after Jensen stopped going to work, she checked herself into Fargo MeritCare's psychiatric unit, where she began about two months of outpatient treatment for anxiety and depression, court records say.

She is still considered a federal employee -- and is receiving some pay and medical benefits -- although she hasn't worked for nearly five years.

"It really was my dream job before all the mess," she said. "The old folks on your route, they look forward to seeing you every day.

"I absolutely loved it."

In July 2000, Carriere and Devitt went outside the Postal Service for help.

They filed a petition in Cass County District Court seeking a restraining order against the four other carriers and Kenneth Severn, a mailroom supervisor.

Jensen also signed onto the petition and offered her story as evidence.

Supervisors "seemed to engage in deliberate delays in correcting and stopping the harassment," Carriere said in an affidavit he submitted with the petition. "I am afraid for my safety and my health because of the continual stress of these circumstances."

The U.S. Attorney's Office got the petition dismissed by filling a motion declaring the complaint a federal matter.

In 2001, Carriere and Devitt filed their own federal lawsuits against the Postal Service, the same carriers named in Jensen's suit and their union.

They claimed Ibach, Sachow, Palloch, Greene and the station managers harassed and retaliated against them for complaining about Jensen's treatment.

Carriere and Devitt said Postal Service supervisors started inspecting them on the routes more frequently after they got involved in Jensen's struggle.

The union failed to provide them with impartial representation, they said.

"We didn't want to sue the U.S. government," Devitt said. "It was the only option."

Judge Webb dismissed their complaints in November 2002, ruling in part that they failed to show the Postal Service retaliated against them.

They weren't demoted, given pay cuts or assigned to lesser jobs, Webb said.

The appeals court agreed.

Jensen's case was also dismissed once.

Webb ruled in June 2001 that Jensen failed to file her complaint with an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor within 45 days of the alleged misconduct.

Federal employees alleging job discrimination or harassment must first pursue remedies within the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected part of Webb's ruling in May 2002. It found that any failure by the Postal Service to remedy the alleged hostile workplace would have extended Jensen's filing deadline well beyond Dec. 30, 1999.

The appeals court reversed that part of Webb's ruling, but upheld his decision to drop Ibach, Sachow, Greene and Palloch from the lawsuit.

"She's not working and the Post Office hasn't been able to assure her that she's going to be able to return to a situation where these guys are not going to be," Appeals Court Judge Gerald Heaney is quoted saying in a court transcript. "It's about as flagrant a case of sexual abuse as I've ever seen."

Since Jensen stopped reporting for work, the government has paid her about $144,000 in lost-wage compensation and paid all expenses for medical treatment for work-related stress, court records show.

In late October 1999, about three weeks before Jensen stopped reporting for work, the Postal Service and her union agreed to contact other area postal stations in hopes of transferring Jensen, who had already agreed to a move, Hastings said.

When a route opened in Fargo's Trollwood station in late January 2000, about two months after Jensen stopped reporting for work, Postal Service officials offered the job to Jensen.

Since then, the Postal Service has offered Jensen six other job transfers in Fargo, but she rejected them all, Hastings said.

The Postal Service offered her three other mail routes from Trollwood and clerk positions at the Main Post Office in downtown Fargo.

Jensen said all of the jobs were substandard to her Prairiewood route. She said the Trollwood mail routes required more walking than the Prairiewood Station route she worked years to earn.

Because the Postal Service has not found a transfer acceptable to Jensen, the government has agreed to give her vocational training "after which she may find employment in the private sector," Hastings wrote in court documents.

Jensen's wage compensation benefits equal about two-thirds of what she would be paid if she still delivered mail. She can't work and collect the wage benefits.

"Some gift for destroying her life," said Dennis Fisher, Jensen's attorney.

Fisher said his client should not have to settle for a lesser job or less compensation.

In her suit, Jensen seeks full back pay, unspecified monetary damages and attorney fees.

Jensen said she has another reason for continuing her suit.

"Hopefully this will make a difference in somebody else's life," she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Zent at (701) 241-5526

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