About five years ago, a couple of male postal clerks at the downtown post office at 20th and Curtis streets started coming up with nicknames for some of their co-workers, who are mostly female. "Roly-poly ass," "big black cow," "horse teeth" and "black butt" are a few examples.
"Wackadoo," "Mack truck" and "lady with a big bootie" are a few more.
The female co-workers got fed up. So three years ago they turned to the authorities. First they complained to their supervisors. The managers recommended the women call a police detective, who wrote reports and filed charges that went to the district attorney, who took them to court.
As a result, two years ago the men, Billy Mullins and Garland Lewis, were fired from their jobs with the United States Postal Service for "unacceptable conduct."
Which is where this story begins. No one is sure when it will end.
Mullins began working for the post office in 1971; Lewis started a few years later. Mullins was fired on October 13, 1995; Lewis was canned on October 28, 1995. Both soon appealed their terminations. If measured in the subsequent time spent tying up various courts, lawyers, judges and postal supervisors, that was a very long time ago.
Before they were fired, both Garland Lewis and Billy Mullins were written up by their supervisors and the police for numerous incidents in 1994 and 1995. Once, a postal clerk named Trina Bell alerted the cops when Lewis "called me a roly-poly ass." Mullins, she also complained, yelled across the work floor that Bell had "big teeth, like a horse."
Another episode involved Lewis and a male co-worker. A later legal finding of the event recounts the confrontation: The co-worker "directed motions like a crying baby toward Lewis. The latter flipped him off...[Later] Lewis waited outside, called him a wimp, and said he was going to kick in his teeth. They exchanged inquiries as to why Mexicans and blacks were cowards."
A clerk named Carol Ware also called the police frequently to complain about Mullins and Lewis. She protested that, while in her hearing range, Lewis had declared, "There's a big black cow in here. Moo, moo, smell the stockyards."
As for Mullins, Ware noted that he sang lewd songs around her, which included non-work-related lyrics such as "Let's talk about sex" and "I want to lick you all over your body." She also stated that Mullins had a habit of catching her attention and then fondling himself "on a daily basis, every day, all day long, as long as he could catch my eye."
Another crucial encounter occurred on May 16, 1994. On that day, Mullins and his boss, Reggie Chapman, met in an office to discuss Mullins's work performance. They exchanged words, but after that, their versions of the event diverge. Mullins said Chapman slapped him in the face, knocking off his glasses.
Chapman responded that Mullins faked it--that he threw his own glasses on the floor and began screaming, "Why did you hit me, Reggie?" so as to make it appear as though he had been assaulted. Ware and Bell stepped forward as eyewitnesses and backed up Chapman's story. So the cops charged Mullins with filing a false police report.
As the police reports filed against them piled up and their internal Postal Service dossiers thickened, Mullins and Lewis denied being troublemakers. For instance, what Ware interpreted as his lewdly handling his genitals, Mullins explained, was really his attending to his jock itch. He supplied a doctor's note and a prescription as proof.
Lewis, too, complained that he was getting as much abuse as he was giving. Both men declared that they were being targeted by their co-workers as part of a conspiracy to get them fired.
To no avail. Two years ago this past May, both men were placed on off-duty status for unacceptable conduct. A couple of months later, in July 1995, their supervisor recommended that they be permanently canned. In October of that year, they were.
That's when the legal bickering between the men and women of the 20th Street Post Office really heated up.
Even though Mullins and Lewis had been fired, they still had plenty of occasion to run into Carol Ware, Trina Bell and other former co-workers from the 20th Street postal station. Most of the encounters were in court.
Some of the harassment complaints the women had filed against the men for the name-calling, for example, continued to ricochet through the justice system (none of the charges ever stuck, and neither man was ever convicted of anything). In late 1995, Lewis and Mullins filed a civil lawsuit against the women and the U. S. Postal Service in U.S. District Court. And with the postal union on their side, they appealed their firings.
Like a severed starfish limb that quickly grows into a new creature, each meeting between the postal men and women seemed to develop into a whole other living, breathing legal action.
One of those occasions happened last autumn. Ware, Lewis and their lawyers had gathered in Lewis's lawyer's office for a deposition. Tension filled the air. Ware didn't say anything at the time. But two and a half months later she reconsidered.
On January 9, 1997, Ware requested a restraining order against Lewis for his conduct at the deposition the previous October. The reason, Ware pleaded to the judge, was Lewis's "staring at me at this hearing."
Lewis's attorney, Richard Ott, protested. Lewis's alleged threat to Ware took place in an attorney's office, he noted, with at least four lawyers present. Where, he wondered, was the threat?
The judge, however, was sympathetic: Lewis was not to come within 100 yards of Ware. For his part, Mullins was already subject to a restraining order that prevented him from approaching Ware.
Meanwhile, a federal arbitrator began gathering evidence on the firings of Mullins and Lewis. He reached a decision this past June.
A big part of the reason Lewis had been fired from the post office was because of the "crybaby" confrontation; the co-worker later complained that he felt his life was in danger.
No dice, said arbitrator James Cronin.
"[The co-worker's] gestures toward Lewis depicting him as a crybaby, and his bantering with Lewis about ethnic cowards, is not indicative of an individual believing he is being physically threatened by someone much larger than he," he pointed out.
Garland Lewis, Cronin concluded, deserved his job back.
Cronin was also unimpressed with the case against Billy Mullins. For starters, he noted, "a great deal of testimony was ambiguous and unclear as to when things were alleged to have occurred."
At other times, Cronin simply seemed befuddled by the maze of charges and countercharges. "It is evident that [Carol] Ware's phone call to [the police] detective precipitated the dispute," he wrote at one point. "Beyond that, it is a bit murky why we got where we are today."
He was more definite in his criticism of one part of the case: When looking for witnesses to Mullins's "slap" confrontation with Chapman, the postal supervisors and cops relied on Carol Ware and Trina Bell--two people who had their own issues with Mullins. "It is not clear why any postal inspector or police detective would consider either one a witness," he wrote. "To have accepted their statements as being factual, without question, is itself incredulous."
In fact, Chapman eventually admitted under cross-examination that he had lied; he did strike Mullins. Worse, Chapman testified, not only did he fake the police report, but his supervisor knew about it. Naturally, Cronin pointed out, this didn't look good for the postal managers--or for Ware and Bell, both of whom had backed up Chapman's story that Mullins had faked getting hit.
"With respect to the issue of credibility in this case, the arbitrator is faced with a real dilemma, and he means that in a literal sense," Cronin wrote of himself. "In view of the earlier findings and conclusions, it is simply not necessary or desirable to explain all the reasons why, to one degree or another, the testimony of key witnesses in this case is incredible and unbelievable."
He concluded that Mullins deserved his job back, too.
Two years after losing their jobs, the two men now had them back. Unfortunately, the restraining orders prevented Lewis and Mullins from restarting their jobs at 20th and Curtis, where Carol Ware still worked: Staying 100 yards from Ware would leave both out on the street.
So last month Lewis and Mullins asked a judge to remove the restraining order, or at least change it. The request triggered the participation of a new party, the United States attorney.
"The United States is under a legal, contractual obligation to return [Mullins and Lewis] to their employment status," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Hagerty wrote to the judge on September 18. "The permanent restraining order violates [their] right to federal employment and interferes with the United States Postal Service's legal duty to move the mail."
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On September 23 the judge agreed to change the restraining order. Lewis and Mullins, he decided, had to stay 15 feet away from Carol Ware instead of 100 yards. That way, the judge reasoned, the men could work and Ware would not be bothered. End of story?
"Carol Ware and [another co-worker] made a statement after the court hearing on September 23, 1997, that they would make sure that I would come within 15 feet of Carol Ware so they could call the police and arrest me," Mullins wrote in his September 29 request for a restraining order against Ware. Lewis also demanded his own restraining order against Ware.
The judge denied both men's petitions. Meanwhile, Ware's lawyer has protested the change in the original restraining order that allows the two men to go back to work. Lewis and Mullins have been assigned to temporary duty in other postal stations until that issue is decided; both have requested permanent transfers out of the 20th Street station.
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