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Biden Judge Reverses Lower Court and Gives Black Property Owner the Chance to Prove that Postal Workers Caused Harm by Refusing to Deliver Mail

An image of handcuffs, a gavel, and Lady Justice.

Judge Dana Douglas, nominated by President Biden to the Fifth Circuit court of appeals, wrote a unanimous opinion that partly reversed a lower court ruling and gave a Black landowner the opportunity to recover damages against the US Postal Service (USPS) because several workers intentionally refused to deliver mail to her property. The lower court judge was nominated by President Trump. The March 2024 decision was in Konan v USPS.


What is the background of this case?

Lebene Konan, a Black woman, owns and leases two properties in Euless, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. She contends that for two years, USPS and several of its employees refused to deliver any mail to those properties. The reasons remain in dispute, but she contends that they intentionally refused delivery because they did not “like the idea that a black person own[ed]” the properties.

Konan filed a lawsuit for damages in federal district court. She sued under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which authorizes people to sue the federal government for damages under some circumstances. Even though the offending officials were federal, she also sued under 42 U.S. Code sec 1981 and 1985, which apply to racial discrimination by private parties or under color of state law.

The case was heard by Judge Karen Scheer, who was nominated to the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas by Donald Trump. Scheer dismissed the case as a matter  of law. Konan appealed to the Fifth Circuit.


How did Judge Douglas and the Fifth Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?

 Judge Douglas wrote a unanimous opinion that partly reversed the lower court ruling. The judges agreed that the federal civil rights laws did not apply. But in what she called an “issue of first impression” in the Fifth Circuit, Douglas ruled that USPS could be sued for intentional misconduct by its employees under the FTCA. She sent the case back to the district court so that Konan could proceed on her FTCA claims.

Specifically, the FTCA contains an exception that immunizes the USPS from liability for any “loss, miscarriage, or negligent transmission of mail.” Although some other courts have held that this exception applies to intentional misconduct, Douglas and the Fifth Circuit panel disagreed. She carefully reviewed the text of the statute and relevant case law. She explained that there was no “loss” of mail because it “was not destroyed or misplaced by unintentional action.” There was no “miscarriage,” she continued, because “there was no attempt at a carriage.” And according to Konan’s complaint, she went on, “the postal workers’ actions were intentional and thus cannot constitute a ‘negligent transmission.’”,

Judge Douglas’ opinion is obviously important to Lebene Konan, who will now have the opportunity to try to prove that the USPS should pay her damages for its employees’ intentional refusal to deliver mail. The decision also sets an important precedent concerning the responsibility of USPS for intentional misconduct by its employees in the Fifth Circuit, which includes Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In addition, the case serves as a reminder of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded nominees like Judge Douglas to our federal courts.