Herrera set to sue U.S. Postal Service over mail delivery to SRO tenants

Demand letter requested by U.S. Attorney’s Office details causes of action and heart-rending hardships; sets May 1 deadline for federal lawsuit

SAN FRANCISCO (Apr. 16, 2009) — City Attorney Dennis Herrera today sent a formal demand letter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office outlining the bases for his intended lawsuit against the U.S. Postal Service for unconstitutionally depriving tenants of single room occupancy hotels, or SROs, equal and adequate mail delivery in San Francisco. In the five-page letter — requested in advance of litigation by Deputy Chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Civil Division Andrew Y.S. Cheng — Herrera set a two-week deadline for the postal service to bring its mail delivery policy at SROs into conformance with that for other residential apartment buildings, as required by postal regulations. Otherwise, Herrera said, he will file suit in federal court on May 1, 2009, challenging a new legal interpretation by the San Francisco postmaster that directs local letter carriers to drop unsecured mail for SRO residents near building entryways and at front desks instead of delivering it to individual locked boxes.

“Mail service is not a privilege for the wealthy, and the San Francisco Postmaster’s decision to cut costs by treating SRO tenants differently than other City residents is unfair and cruel,” Herrera said. “When an economically vulnerable population is deprived of reliable mail delivery, the results can be devastating. My office’s investigation has documented heart-rending hardships to SRO residents because of undelivered checks, medical notices, appointment information, personal letters and official correspondence. There is no basis in the law or in postal regulations for this discriminatory practice, and I’m confident the federal courts will agree. I am encouraged that the U.S. Attorney’s Office has requested a preliminary demand letter in advance of our lawsuit, and I hope that SRO tenants here in San Francisco will soon get the mail service to which they are entitled without the need for litigation.”

In addition to causes of action that would form the basis of the City’s complaint, Herrera’s demand letter provides a representative sampling of the extraordinary adversity inflicted on one of San Francisco’s most at-risk populations. Unreliable mail delivery has been devastating to many SRO residents, who have lost financial and medical benefits, faced eviction proceedings, been forced into homelessness, and grown estranged from family and friends as a result. One resident infected with Hepatitis C did not learn of his diagnosis until more than a year later, when he discovered a copy of the long-undelivered letter in his Department of Public Health medical file informing him he had tested positive for the life-threatening blood-borne pathogen. Apart from being unaware of precautions that would avoid spreading the disease to others, the DPH patient lost the advantage that would have accompanied early diagnosis and treatment. Another long-term SRO resident who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer missed appointment notices and even lost Medi-Cal coverage because of the Postal Service’s discriminatory mail delivery policy. Still more SRO tenants lost opportunities to receive timely state and federal benefits as Section 8 housing and SSI because they did not receive notices informing them of their eligibility until after key deadlines had passed. In many cases, the City and its taxpayers provided the economic safety net that the state and federal government should and would have provided if mail had been securely delivered by the U.S. Postal Service to SRO tenants.

Herrera charges that the discriminatory mail delivery practice in San Francisco is outlawed by the U.S. Postal Service’s own regulations and violates a number of constitutional guarantees, including residents’ First Amendment right to receive their mail, and the City’s First Amendment right to communicate with its residents. The practice additionally implicates equal protection guarantees to be free from irrational discrimination as a class, according to Herrera, and the right to freedom of association and privacy.

In 2006, the City enacted the Residential Hotel Mail Receptacle Ordinance in response to concerns that tenants at SROs were not receiving their mail in a safe, secure and timely manner. The ordinance requires SRO owners to make arrangements with the U.S. Postal Service for the installation of approved receptacles for mail delivery. However, a December 18, 2008 letter from San Francisco Postmaster Noemi Luna informed the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection that the U.S. Postal Service would no longer deliver mail to individual mail receptacles in SROs, citing fiscal shortages that required service cut backs. According to Luna’s interpretation, mail delivery to individual SRO residents was contrary to USPS regulations, and the City’s ordinance was preempted by federal law to the extent it attempts to frustrate or interfere with postal service operations.