Every year or so, the U.S. Postal Service changes the standard Terms and Conditions that apply to its newly awarded Highway Contract Route (HCR) and Contract Delivery Service (CDS) contacts. When this occurs, the new terms only apply to newly awarded contracts–existing contracts are unaffected and retain the same terms as when awarded.

But this year, the Postal Service has sought to apply new Terms and Conditions to existing CDS contracts as well as newly awarded ones. In an email to its CDS contractors, the Postal Service asked them to sign, without any “alterations or additions,” a contract modification that incorporated the new terms. If the contractor did not so, the Postal Service’s email threatened contract termination:

“Because of the Postal Service’s interest in maintaining consistency across its many CDS contracts, please note that a failure to respond to this correspondence … may lead the Postal Service to consider termination of the subject contract.”

After receiving this email, many contractors asked me: “Can the Postal Service really do this?” In my opinion, several legal arguments, if upheld, would make the resulting modification unenforceable. For example, the modification might fail for lack of consideration, because it gave the Postal Service what it wanted without giving anything that contractors valued in return. And it might fail for violation of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, because it seeks to recapture benefits that were foreclosed at the time of contract award. But I think the best argument against its enforceability is based on the legal theory of coercion and duress. Normally, this is a difficult argument to make, but here the elements seem apparent from the Postal Service’s email itself.
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Retaliating against an employee for reporting safety violations, the U.S. Postal Service asserted baseless terrorism charges against him. As a result, the employee was dismissed from his job, arrested, detained, harassed, criminally charged with committing acts of terrorism, and subjected to an extended campaign of public disparagement. That sounds like the exaggerated ranting of a would-be whistleblower seeking to cash in on a big pay day. But it’s not. These are the allegations made by the U.S. Department of Labor in a lawsuit it filed against its sister agency, the U.S. Postal Service, in an action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Eastern Division, Case No. 4:14-cv-1233.
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