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P.O.'ed

Mark Todd

Jean Sandberg kept a diary when she worked at the central post office in St. Paul. One of the first entries is dated March 4, 1995, 2:45 p.m. "So he came back with a zerox copy of 'This is your brain--this is mine. Any questions?' Of course, the female brain was the size of a pea. And the male brain was the size of a grapefruit. He put a copy into my mailbox."

The handwriting is large and rounded, peppered with phrases in capital letters, underlined sections, exclamation points. Sometimes the words are precise and separate. Sometimes they're misspelled. Sometimes they blur into each other, extensions of a frenetic, scribbling hand. Hundreds of pages detailing the harassment, shouting, profanity, and sexual comments that she says buzzed around her desk. Hundreds of pages describing events at work that whittled away at her confidence and her sanity, every day for ten years.

April 4, 1995, 10:55 p.m.: "Here, why don't you enter this Wet Tea-Shirt contest," Sandberg wrote after a female co-worker handed her a card advertising a contest at a St. Paul bar. "Her remarks were harassing--sarcastic undertones regarding my body and appearance."

April 6, 1995, 8:15 p.m.: A co-worker asks a supervisor if he has a cure for the rash on Sandberg's face. The supervisor turns to Sandberg and says, "JISSM!...LOT'S OF IT! ...SMEAR IT ALL OVER YOUR FACE!" He "continued to go on and on about 'squirting it all over,' as he was rubbing his body all over." All of these allegations would later turn up in a lawsuit Sandberg filed.

The St. Paul post office was part of Sandberg's life long before she took a job there. In 1975 she married a postal-service employee, and over time she came to know some of his co-workers. In 1987 one of them, Mary Alt, suggested that Sandberg try to transfer to the U.S. Postal Service from the investigations division of the Internal Revenue Service, where she worked at the time. Despite her limited education--a high school diploma and only a few college credits--a job at the postal service would offer security, a respectable paycheck, the protection of a labor union, and good benefits. On top of that, Alt said, Sandberg's computer skills would make her an excellent candidate for promotion. On July 29, 1989 Sandberg made the move. She was hopeful, eager to impress. Perhaps if all went well she would end up working in postal inspections--a job she saw as a plum.

Things didn't go well, though, and 11 years later it's clear that hope has drained from Sandberg's ashen face. At 44, she is just over five feet tall, stocky and overweight. She pulls back long, straight blond hair into a ponytail, away from her plain, heart-shaped face. A gentleness resides in her blue eyes, hidden behind wire-rimmed glasses. But her smile has been eroded by years of angry stares and stony silences from her co-workers, the endless red tape accompanying the complaints she filed, the depositions, the psychological examinations she was ordered to undergo, the lawsuit she carried through to trial. Though she won that suit, she looks more victim than victor.

For years she reported lewd and disruptive behavior to her managers, only to find herself ostracized by her co-workers and branded a troublemaker by her bosses. Eventually she took her complaints to the postal-service division responsible for investigating discrimination complaints. But because the post office is a government bureaucracy, she discovered that the watchdogs have little power to help its employees. Her complaints languished, she says, while her supervisors took her to task for lodging them.

After nearly a decade of the ordeal, Sandberg had grown so shaky and fearful that her doctor told her to take a medical leave. When she was able to return to work in December 1998, the post office's doctors recommended that she not be made to work in her old department because of the stress. Although she qualified for several other postal-service positions, she wasn't offered a transfer. After a while, Sandberg stopped going to work and on December 11, 1999, the post office fired her for not showing up. Her grievances, meanwhile, were making their way through the federal court system, and in March a jury found that the post office had illegally retaliated against Sandberg for complaining about her working conditions. The postal service is considering appealing the decision.

The jury awarded Sandberg less than $81,000 in damages--a far cry from the multimillion-dollar jackpots won by fictional victims in the movies and on TV legal dramas. The check--if she ever sees it--will barely cover the debt she has incurred since she lost her $41,000-a-year job, much of it the expense of pursuing her lawsuit. It's certainly not the kind of windfall that will enable her to launch a different career; in fact, Sandberg says it probably won't even help her stave off bankruptcy. For now, her losses--her career, her marriage, her home, her smile--still overwhelm her.

 

Almost two months after the end of her trial, Sandberg sits in the living room of her Maplewood town home, holding a newsletter from the American Postal Workers Union. In it there's an article about sexual harassment, explaining that if employees experience it, they should report it to a supervisor, they should document the incident. Sandberg scoffs at the words. "The second you report in this system, they identify you and you become the victim," she says, her voice an angry tremble. "They can publish it, post it, but the reality is, I did all of this and more--and more--and I only became a victim of management. It's not worth the paper it's printed on, because there's no enforcement."

As she talks, Sandberg tugs at the charms on a long gold chain around her neck: a cross, and a pendant in the shape of theatrical masks--one laughing, one crying. "This is my belief in life," she explains. "A lot of faith, and comedy and tragedy."

 

Perched above the Mississippi River on Kellogg Boulevard, the central post office in downtown St. Paul is an imposing old stone building. Rickety elevators lead up to a maze of little offices and dank passageways on the sixth floor, passing doors that open only with a keycard. Behind one of them is the maintenance department. When Jean Sandberg first started working there in 1989, the department was just one large, windowless room with neither cubicles nor partitions.

On her first day, Sandberg recalls, she was given a desk, and her boss plopped a pile of papers in front of her and told her to get to work--without explaining the intricate system of codes for the documents. She dug up all the manuals she could find and taught herself the procedures. A year passed before she received any formal training. "They handed me a bunch of paperwork and expected by osmosis I could do it," she says.

As a maintenance operations support clerk, Sandberg was to process work orders within the post office--for machinery that needed repairs, or building facilities that needed cleaning. Most of the employees there were men. And within weeks Sandberg had seen enough to worry. "I knew this was a disaster," she recalls. "Every day I went in there, I never knew what to expect. I'd seen things so volatile in there. People face to face," she says, holding up her hands, palms facing, an inch apart, "screaming at each other. I'd have to leave the room. My hands would shake." People would throw things--sometimes typewriters--or physically fight, she says. They'd shout, they'd curse. And they'd talk about sex.

When Sandberg talks, one thing quickly becomes remarkably clear: She has a hyperdeveloped sense of right and wrong. Perhaps it's due to the hardships and abuses she says she suffered as a small child, but she doesn't seem like the kind of person who compromises, even to protect herself. In other words, she was not about to try to find a way to blend into a work culture that she found disgusting and unfair.

Neither postal-service managers nor the agency's attorneys would answer questions about the Sandberg case or the working conditions at the St. Paul post office. But the boxes of documents that make up her case chronicle years of problems.

Sandberg claims she first told her bosses about problems in the workplace in 1993. She says she took her concerns to her immediate supervisor, maintenance operations support manager Mary Alt, and to Alt's supervisor, maintenance manager Tom Roth-Yousey. (Alt refused to comment for this story, and Roth-Yousey did not return City Pages' calls.) Sandberg believed one cause of the hostile work environment was a female colleague, who she said had a penchant for throwing furniture, calling people vulgar names, picking fights, and arguing with co-workers. Some of the woman's remarks to Sandberg were sexual, she alleged. It was her, for example, who suggested she enter a wet T-shirt contest.

(Sandberg wasn't the only one bothered. In a deposition before her trial, a co-worker named Bruce Prigge testified that he had contemplated filing a harassment complaint against the woman because of her behavior. "I was talked out of it," he said under oath, explaining that he had been persuaded not to file the complaint.)

Supervisors eventually moved Sandberg to another shift so that she wouldn't run into the woman.

In the spring of 1994, according to her suit, Sandberg again complained after a supervisor allegedly struck up a conversation with her about penile implants and insisted he was able to maintain 45-minute erections. (That same supervisor would later make the comment about using semen as facial cream.) She reported the conversation to Alt but says her boss replied that she herself had been referred to as a "pre-menopausal bitch" in a staff meeting, and that at the same meeting another male employee had regaled co-workers with a story about the best sex he'd had with his wife. "It was a situation of, 'You'll get used to it,'" Sandberg says.

 

Over the next year, Sandberg repeatedly complained about behavior that she considered offensive. "It would take everything I had to gear up to go to work," she recounts. "When I left there at night, I had a feeling of total disgust. After all these things happened, I don't know if I became numb. I just sort of shut down. It was a long process of shutting down because of the fear I was experiencing and the stress of being in that environment." But she was too stubborn to be forced out of her job.

Her higher-ups, most of whom were men, seemed far from sympathetic. "If you walk into the post office, you might as well walk backwards 150 years if you're a woman," Sandberg asserts. "It's a good-old-boy network. They wanted me to be the 110-pound blonde who would flirt with them. I was professional and I didn't curse at people and I refused to be treated that way."

According to Sandberg's legal complaint, on April 6, 1995, Alt's supervisor, Tom Roth-Yousey, told Sandberg that no matter how much she complained, things would not change. Fed up, she took the matter to William Watczak, the plant manager. Sandberg's suit says he accused her of instigating the problem.

Those two conversations marked a turning point for Sandberg. For a year and a half she had aggressively sought to change her work environment, to no avail. Shortly after the discussions, she told Roth-Yousey that if the harassment didn't stop she'd file a formal complaint with the postal service's Equal Employment Opportunity office, which investigates discrimination and harassment claims. (Unlike most employees who believe they have experienced discrimination, federal workers aren't permitted to take their complaints directly to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Instead, they lodge them with so-called EEO counselors within the agency they work for.)

Sandberg says her supervisors urged her not to take her concerns higher up. Roth-Yousey, she recalls, told her that such claims are expensive, and that she would have to carry the burden of proof. "They were very bold in letting me know that it ain't going nowhere," she says now. "They feel totally protected in what they do. There's a sense of being above the law. I hate to say it, but in most cases they are."

Employers are not supposed to discourage employees from filing complaints, explains Michael Jordan, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law. Rather, they are required to investigate employees' complaints and deal with any problems they find. "Take them seriously and investigate," Jordan says. "Take whatever action you think is necessary, including no action. But if you say, 'Go home, it'll all go away,' you're asking for trouble."

On May 1, 1995, Sandberg filed the first of several complaints with the postal service's EEO department. She immediately ran into difficulties. Investigators demanded that she come up with witnesses to corroborate her allegations, but she could find no one who was willing to step forward. Fear of recrimination keeps people from speaking out, Sandberg insists: "You're a victim of the silence of people who know what happened to you but are too afraid to come forward."

At about that same time, Sandberg became convinced she was being punished her for having filed her complaint. Sandberg says management denied her overtime, changed her hours, and disciplined her. After a time, she began carrying a tape recorder to document incidents as they occurred. At one point she taped Roth-Yousey as he explained to her that the treatment she was getting was because of her EEO complaints.

On at least three occasions, she complied with her managers' requests that she meet with psychologists who assessed her "fitness for duty." They asked about her childhood, her sex drive, her eating habits. They hypothesized whether she was lashing out at her co-workers about abusive incidents she experienced as a child.

Her managers, meanwhile, accused her of being paranoid for documenting incidents and hauling around a tape recorder--this despite the fact that EEO counselors had instructed her to document her concerns.

Finally Sandberg asked for a transfer from the department. In the summer of 1997, she got a temporary reassignment to the motor-vehicles division, which she says was a breath of fresh air compared to maintenance. But in October that same year she was ordered back to her old job. Six months later a nervous breakdown forced her to take a medical leave.

 

By November 1998 she felt ready to return to work. Post office doctors who examined her said she shouldn't go back to the maintenance department. She applied for other jobs, and she passed tests to make her eligible for eight positions. But the transfer never came. (She contends it was blocked because of anger over her EEO complaints.) Sandberg felt trapped, and eventually she just quit going to work. As a consequence, she was fired in December 1999.

 

Willie Mellen is the president of the St. Paul Area Local of the American Postal Workers Union. Sandberg often came to him, asking that he get involved in her efforts to make her workplace bearable. Although many of the issues she brought to him fell outside the scope of the union's authority, he investigated many others and ultimately concluded that she was indeed being targeted.

"They're not going to give her a chance because they don't like her," says Mellen. "They wanted to screw with her. Here's a woman who basically challenged the male authority figures."

The postal service today is a unique entity, a strange amalgam of government agency and private company. Up until 1970 it was a federal cabinet department. But following the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, it took on the status of quasi-government organization. Today the postal service is overseen by Congress, by a board of governors appointed by the president, and by the U.S. Treasury and Transportation departments and the Office of Personnel Management. Tax dollars no longer subsidize mail delivery; the office is economically self-sufficient.

Reorganization notwithstanding, Willie Mellen says, the culture of the postal service dates back decades, to before the time when postal employees were unionized, when working conditions were worse than they are today. The way the system worked in the 1960s, employees could work up to half an hour and not receive pay. After 29 minutes, the boss could just send you home. Once an employee had put in 30 minutes, he or she was guaranteed two hours of work--within a 12-hour period. The offices were equipped with something called a "swing room," Mellen explains, where employees might have to sit for up to ten hours, waiting for more work. And that was the full-time staff. Part-timers would be told they were needed Tuesday, for instance, but not at what time. They'd have to stay at home all day and wait to be called. "The postal service is basically a society of harassment," the union leader declares.

Even when Mellen began working for the postal service in 1980, many supervisors were still left over from the old days, or else they were the sons, daughters, husbands, or wives of those from the previous era, and manners were gruff. "They would call for bodies; they didn't know your name," Mellen says. "It's very militaristic," he continues, noting that the postal service tends to attract veterans of the armed forces. "There are direct orders. If you violate a direct order, you'll be fired. If you oversleep, you're 'AWOL.'"

Mellen's union, the APWU, represents postal workers in four divisions, or crafts. The clerk craft works at the counter and sorts the mail; the motor-vehicle-services craft takes care of postal cars and trucks; the support-services craft writes the checks; and the maintenance craft "fix or clean things," as Mellen puts it. Maintenance is the most male-dominated department, he says, and those men usually stick together and observe a code of silence.

 

Employment-law cases require months--sometimes years--of investigation and are notoriously expensive for attorneys. And the potential payoff at the end of a successful discrimination or harassment suit is often based on lost wages or lost earning potential. That means that people like Jean Sandberg don't usually stand to win big judgments. Often the damages an individual stands to walk away with won't even cover the cost of taking his or her case to trial--a trial she might well lose.

In theory, it doesn't cost a penny to take a complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that investigates workplace discrimination claims. But the process of shepherding a case through the EEOC is becoming increasingly difficult. As the number of claims received by the agency has skyrocketed, the bureaucracy has reacted by taking on fewer cases. Of those cases the agency believes merit investigation, the agency concludes discrimination probably occurred in just 17 percent.

Those conclusions--and the investigations behind them--are the reason many cases eventually find their way into a courtroom. Typically people can't sue their employers for discrimination until the EEOC, or a similar state or local agency, gives the go-ahead. That happens either when the agency finds fault or when it simply decides not to investigate a particular case. If the bureaucracy is taking too long to probe a claim, the victim can also ask that the EEOC close its file and give him or her the right to go directly to court.

 

If the usual process for probing a discrimination complaint is daunting, Sandberg's case was doubly so. Before becoming eligible to file a federal EEOC complaint, she had to have her claim investigated by the postal service's in-house EEO department, and then wait for that office to issue a finding. If the agency were to conclude that her complaint was groundless, she would have the option of either asking the federal EEOC to grant her a hearing, or take her case to court.

"It's far more difficult when you're suing a federal agency," says Stephen Cooper, founder of his own civil rights law firm and a former Minnesota human rights commissioner. "It is a pain in the butt. You can't get to federal court until you jump through all these hoops." The process, in other words, is slow, cumbersome, and expensive. It can drag on for a dozen years.

It's a system aimed at discouraging victims, Cooper explains. "It's designed with "the intent to dissuade many, many people from bringing valid claims," he says, adding that government employers justify the setup by saying that it allows them to deal with problems internally and resolve them through mediation, without bogging down the legal system. "It's nice rhetoric, but there's not a word of truth to that."

The system discourages lawyers, too. Because they can't build their cases on evidence amassed by EEOC investigations, attorneys representing federal employees have to do all kinds of expensive legwork themselves, even though the potential payoff is uncertain.

All of which, notes union leader Willie Mellen, adds up to the fact that management has no incentive to change. "Why do you think management treats these guys like crap?" he asks rhetorically. "They know if you go to EEOC, what's going to happen? They know there's no attorneys to take it."

And what of the victim? For years Sandberg drove into work each day from her home in East Bethel, 40 miles from downtown St. Paul. She'd use the time to steel herself for the eight hours to come, praying that her situation would improve, knowing that it wouldn't.

The toll on her psyche was obvious. One co-worker says she watched as Sandberg changed over the years. "She said, 'If you associate with me, then you're going to have a high price to pay,'" recalls the friend, who still works at the post office and asked not to be named in this story for fear of the potential repercussions. "'It's going to cost you to befriend me.' I saw her change from a friendly, outgoing people-person into a scared, paranoid, frightened person that was just going downhill."

That downward spiral is not unusual, according to employment-law attorneys. "The most important thing...is closure with vindication," says Cooper. "If you have to fight forever for closure, the person has to relive it and relive it and relive it." Only when the case is over does the butterfly emerge from the cocoon. "The person is now free from the baggage," Cooper explains. "To delay that five or ten or three or four years is terribly unfair. People are not set loose from the circumstances that were so hurtful to them. Yes, it's debilitating and unfair. But it's better than the alternative, which is letting them get away with it."

 

Reino Paaso looks more like Sancho Panza than Don Quixote. At any rate, he doesn't look at all like the kind of suave, steam-pressed attorney you'd expect to tilt at the behemoth windmill of the United States Postal Service. A personal-injury lawyer, Paaso isn't a suit-and-tie, opulent-office kind of guy. He suggests a meeting at the McDonald's in Dinkytown, because it's got a convenient parking lot and is within walking distance from his Como neighborhood home, where he recently moved his practice. He wears Bermuda shorts and a straw hat. Before Sandberg's lawsuit, he had never tried a case before a jury.

Paaso opened his law practice in March 1995, renting office space from another firm in exchange for a 50-50 split of his fees. In July of that year, he met Sandberg. He had just left a job with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, and he knew--and cared--a lot about discrimination cases. He agreed to shepherd her case through the postal service's EEO maze; she paid him a $2,500 nonrefundable retainer, half of which went to Paaso, half to his landlords.

 

"Jean Sandberg's case was intimidating from the very beginning," he says now. "The woman documented everything and had a lot of stuff. I both believed in Jean's case and wondered whether it was worth it at the same time. It seemed like an awful lot of work."

It was an awful lot of work, and an awful lot of hurry-up-and-wait. Sandberg had filed numerous complaints, all of which were slowly wending their way through the postal service bureaucracy. And the agency had to render an official decision before he could file a lawsuit on any one of them.

In mid-1998, the postal service rejected Sandberg's main complaint--the one regarding the vulgar jokes and crass signs. That July Paaso filed suit in St. Paul's U.S. District Court, alleging that Sandberg had been the victim of sexual harassment, sex discrimination, intentional infliction of emotional distress, reprisal, interference with economic prospects, and slander.

"At first they didn't take us very seriously," Paaso recalls. And why would they? He was a solo practitioner, in a tiny office in the Flour Exchange Building, who didn't even have a receptionist. The post office had at its disposal the U.S. Attorney's Office, its own postal lawyer, and, at any given time, a half-dozen law clerks and interns for research.

But Paaso was convinced he had a strong case. "What Jean was telling me was backed up," he says. And indeed, the record of her EEO case fills four thick folders, not counting an accordion file filled with depositions and exhibits. It contains evaluations from psychiatrists who examined Sandberg to assess her fitness for work. It contains pages of transcripts of comments from witnesses. It contains copies of numerous jokes and cartoons that Sandberg claims were floating around the office. Blonde jokes, a postcard from Mexico picturing women in thong bikinis. A sign that had hung on the wall proclaiming, "Notice: Sexual Harassment will not be reported. However, it will be graded." A page from a "While you were out fucking off" message pad, with an image of a man and woman having sex. "Here Kitty, Kitty, Kitty...," printed on a cartoon of a mouse with an enormous erect penis. The cartoon character Wile E. Coyote depicted with an erection, about to sodomize Road Runner ("Now 'Beep Beep' you son of a bitch!").

But the question remained: How would those pieces fit together in the eyes of a jury? "It's no easy matter to go and prove sexual harassment," says civil rights attorney Cooper. "With juries there's a level of unpredictability." What looks like sexual harassment to one might be a misunderstanding to another, he explains. "There are very few areas that people talk more about and have less understanding of than sex." The number of sexual-harassment cases grows by about ten percent each year, Cooper goes on, and the vast majority are won by the plaintiff. But most of those, he hastens to add, are egregious examples of harassment.

"The threshold is pretty high before people will do anything," says Michael Jordan, the William Mitchell law professor. Sandberg went through layer upon layer of postal bureaucracy to register her complaints. With each passing year, her anxiety and despair escalated. Her expenses ballooned even as her spirits sagged. The job she found after she was fired paid only $10 an hour, roughly half the $41,000 she was earning when she left the postal service. And she probably owed Paaso that same amount.

Though he occasionally doubted that it was worth all the time and effort, Paaso stuck with Sandberg. "I took $1,250 from this woman," he says. "What she really wanted was somebody to take her case to completion."

On March 16 of this year, seven years after Sandberg began complaining about the postal service, she had her day in court.

 

Reino Paaso was nervous. "Don't start stuttering and drooling," he told himself. In his first trial before a jury, the only tonic for his angst was the fact that the jurors seemed to him like regular folk. "I just knew I needed to remain calm," he recalls. A man whose sentences have a tendency to cascade into tangent after tangent, Paaso "really wanted to be able to keep focused."

Paaso and Sandberg sat at the plaintiff's table. On the defense side sat Patricia Cangemi, assistant U.S. Attorney; Barbara Frazier, the postal service's St. Louis-based in-house lawyer; a law clerk; and a manager in the maintenance department.

In the months before the trial began, the defense had systematically and successfully chipped away at Sandberg's claims. By the time the case came to trial in St. Paul, U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank had tossed out all of her allegations of sexual harassment on the grounds that the incidents were usually one-on-one situations, without witnesses. All that remained were Sandberg's harrowing allegations of the reprisals against her after she began reporting harassment in her workplace. Though a person can sue for unfair retaliation even if her original harassment claim has been dismissed, Sandberg likens the experience to "trying to prove a story with the last page of a book."

 

The crux of Sandberg's case was her charge that once she'd begun filing formal complaints, her superiors systematically denied her lucrative overtime hours and training opportunities that other colleagues routinely received. Paaso presented evidence that in 1993 and 1994 Sandberg was given as many overtime hours as her co-workers. But starting in 1995--the year she filed her first complaint--her overtime hours dropped off dramatically.

The defense argued that Sandberg's hypersensitivity to her work environment made her a difficult employee; she overreacted to harmless workplace conduct. To bolster this claim, the attorneys used the psychological evaluations Sandberg's managers had required her to undergo, pointing to her history of abuse as a child. "They were trying to paint a picture of Jean as a person who was unable to get along with anybody, unable to perform in any work situation," Paaso explains. "It was totally preposterous."

It's also a typical defense tactic, and Paaso had prepared his client for it. "They pulled up everything in my life and put it out for the jury to hear," Sandberg says. "Talk about humiliation." They brought up the death of her identical twin in a burning incident when she was three. They brought up her allegations of abuse. They brought up her divorce. They brought up the therapy she'd had over the years.

Perhaps the most nerve-racking point in the trial came when Cangemi cross-examined Sandberg. "She knew from [Sandberg's] deposition she might be able to provoke an emotional response," Paaso surmises. "That's what she went for." When Cangemi drilled Sandberg in a clipped cadence, Sandberg responded angrily. Cangemi asked if Sandberg's tone matched the one she used to talk to her supervisors at work.

Paaso called for a short break. "I told Jean to remain calm, that I didn't want her to buy into the baiting," he remembers. "It's hard when someone's doing that to you." When he got his next chance to question his client on the witness stand, he turned the situation around, asking Sandberg whether the type of question Cangemi had posed was similar to the comments her supervisors had made.

Paaso says several specific moments resonated with the jury. One was a statement by Sandberg's co-worker Bruce Prigge, who, in his deposition, remembered "telling Jean that I thought the organization was pretty much going to close in around her and she was going to become the enemy because of her lawsuit."

Another was the correlation between Sandberg's EEO complaints and the reduction of her overtime hours. Paaso also played the tape-recording Sandberg had made of her conversation with Tom Roth-Yousey, the one in which he explained to her that the reason she was being reprimanded unusually harshly "is because of your EEOs."

Sandberg vividly recalls the moment on March 31 at the end of the trial, when the judge polled the jurors for their individual verdicts. "Each of the jurors looked right at me and gave their answers," she recounts. "That was very empowering." The jury awarded her $7,550 in lost wages, $8,200 for medical costs, and $65,000 for emotional suffering.

Sandberg is thankful for the victory. But in real terms, it means little. Since she lost her postal job, she has incurred at least $50,000 in debt--with more than $26,000 in legal expenses on top of it. "I'll probably end up going bankrupt. I'm barely making ends meet," she says. "They took my quality of life. They took my happiness. They took it all. It will take me years, if ever, to recoup the losses I've had."

Paaso didn't get rich either. Certainly the jury could have given Sandberg a bigger award, he notes. "It was really hard to say how much more overtime she should have gotten," he says. "And if the jury had wanted to, they could have found much more in the way of mental anguish."

After the trial, the St. Paul post office offered a terse comment on the case. "Prior to trial, the court dismissed the plaintiff's claims alleging a sexually hostile environment and sex discrimination, finding no merit to those claims," the statement reads. "The court did find in favor of the Postal Service on those claims. At trial, the jury found in favor of the plaintiff on her retaliation claim. The Postal Service is currently reviewing the matter. The Postal Service remains committed to a safe, productive workplace that honors and respects all employees."

 

But employees, including the friend of Sandberg's who asked not to be named in this story, say the opposite is true. Conditions are perhaps even worse now, in the wake of Sandberg's victory. "Where does that leave us?" asks Sandberg's friend. "Not even the federal court system can correct the problems. They are truly untouchable. It's getting worse instead of better."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Cangemi says the postal service has not decided whether to appeal the jury's verdict. If the agency does appeal, resolution could be years away.

Jean Sandberg is rocking back and forth in a recliner. On her lap is Bella Rosa, the miniature red Doberman pinscher she got as a companion during the trial. With her cat-size body, angular snout, and nervous energy, the strange little dog sometimes manages to bring a smile to Sandberg's face. But she isn't smiling now.

Though she won her retaliation claim, she has yet to receive any benefit from it. Her current job pays just half of what she was making before. Those she accused of harassment are still working for the post office and in some cases have been promoted. For now, Sandberg says, she's taking one day at a time. "Some days it's only half a day at a time," she says without mirth, but "I'm still standing, and that's what's important to me." She plans to enroll in nursing courses to jump-start a new career. And eventually she'd like to study law.

In the meantime, she is also contemplating another lawsuit--this one to get her job back. "Yes, I want my job back," she asserts. "I have to have enough dignity in me to walk through that building again and say, 'You know what? You did this to me and I won. And I'm back.'"

But will the post office change? Paaso and other attorneys note that additional complaints about the St. Paul post office are slowly making their way to court. Having heard from his share of those alleged victims, union president Willie Mellen, too, expects more lawsuits in the near future. He also thinks Sandberg's case "sent some shock waves. They're not as aggressive as they were," he says of the post office. "They're not as willing to treat people that way....If we can fine them, they're going to stop. We've got a big stick now. This is the only way they're going to stop.

"I think it's a changeable culture," Mellen concludes. "Management hasn't figured out they can do things to have happy workers and still get productive value. People up above understand it, but it gets mucked up as it works down the system."

But Jean Sandberg retains little hope that her case will spark any lasting changes in the system. "I don't think they can fix the post office. It's grandiose to think my lawsuit will be a catalyst for change. I'd be surprised. Shocked is a better word. I'm just one person against a mammoth.

"If I had one big huge wish," she adds. "It's that postal people stand up and tell the truth, be heard, and demand that this would stop."


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