Is USPS mail an "essential service" for the purposes of tenant rights law?
August 11, 2011 9:39 PM   Subscribe

Is USPS mail an "essential service" for the purposes of tenant rights law?

I live in Chicago, Illinois. We have a fairly comprehensive renter's rights law.

Several months ago, my USPS carrier reported to my landlord, through his superiors, that his access key to my 6-unit rental building was gone, and therefore he was unable to access the vestibule area to continue delivering our mail.

My landlord responded by saying that they would not provide a replacement key unless the USPS paid them for it. The USPS refused, saying it wasn't their fault.

This continued for a month, during which I received no USPS service whatsoever. We tenants were never notified of this dispute or indeed of the interruption and obstruction of our mail service.

I found out because twice I had packages marked as "delivered" in USPS tacking that were not; after calling the post office multiple times, it turned out that they were sitting in a corner somewhere in the office, and after further followup I found out the above facts that I've laid out more logically. About a week after I directly pressured both sides, they finally resolved the matter and mail service resumed.

My actual monetary damages from his are minimal. One care package containing home-made food from my parents was never delivered as a result of this (it degraded enough that USPS threw it out). I could have suffered additional damages from e.g. being charged with mail fraud for reporting my paid-for packages as nonreceived, had I not been so aggressive in tracking them down.

US Code Title 18 Ch. 83 § 1701-1703 says that it's a midemeanor or felony to obstruct or delay the mail. I contacted the USPS prosecutors, but they were uninterested in pursuing criminal charges for a small case like this.

I am suing my landlord in civil court over this issue (among others); my court date is next week. In order to collect statutory damages under Chicago code 5-12-110(f) and 5-12-160, I need to convince the court that USPS service is an "essential service".

1. What other laws might support this, other than the federal criminal laws above against obstruction of mail?

2. What laws relate to the failure of both my landlord and the USPS to notify me that my mail service was interrupted?

3. The code provides for damages equal to "an amount that reasonably reflects the reduced value of the premises due to the material noncompliance or failure if the landlord fails to correct the condition within 24 hours after being notified by the tenant".

a) I only notified my landlord three weeks in, since I myself was not aware. Is there a good legal counter I can use to say that the USPS' notification is more than sufficient?

b) What is a good basis for determining the "reduced value" of a unit for lack of mail service? I intend to argue that it's 100% of the rent, in that it would be impossible to sell a unit if people knew it had no mail service.
posted by saizai to Law & Government (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You are asking strangers on the internet for highly specific, highly detailed legal advice. This does not bode well for your court case. You should really consider consulting a professional who is licensed to practice law in your jurisdiction.
posted by dersins at 9:59 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

You should really speak to an attorney.
posted by sanko at 10:17 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

IANAL and I'm not in your jurisdiction, but 5-12-110 f) appears to deal with actual dangers to the tenant and interruptions to a number of specified utilities, not other inconveniences such as delays in receiving mail. 5-12-160 seems to deal with deliberate and knowing actions by a landlord aimed at ousting a tenant from a property. Further, unless you have actually been ousted from the property, it seems to be a statutory matter that is enforced by the police, not by you in a civil court. I suspect neither provision is applicable to your case.

I understand that this might have been a bit distressing, and might have left you pissed off with the landlord. But you were not selling this unit, you didn't evict a tenant early and then suffer loss of rental income because you couldn't sell while the mail wasn't being delivered. That's just not the reality of your circumstances, and it would be a very strange legal system that let you claim damages based on a hypothetical presentation of someone else's circumstances.

Realistically, what did you actually lose? What's the financial value of the losses you suffered? Was it just the care package and a bit of time spent setting things right? If you intend to include your time in the claim, were you genuinely unable to make money doing other things during the time you wasted on this matter? At least at a moral level (and maybe also at a legal one) those are the questions that should be going towards assessing the value of your damages.

If you want it to be otherwise, you need to follow the advice of others who've answered this and get a lawyer.
posted by Ahab at 10:52 PM on August 11, 2011

ObDisclaimer: I'm seeking legal *information*, not legal *advice*.

I didn't ask "what should I do", I only asked "what are relevant laws". :-)
posted by saizai at 11:02 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ahab: Quoting the relevant portion of 5-12-110: "It is unlawful for any landlord … knowingly to oust or dispossess … any tenant … by interfering with the services to said unit; including but not limited to … telephone service"

There's no caveat of "intent"; it's a prima facia description that interfering with services such as *phone* constitutes a violation. Surely mail service is more strongly protected still, since it's a felony to delay or interfere mail, whereas that's not true (TTBOMK) of phone service. And phone service isn't (other than 911) an "actual danger" like you say, but it is specifically enumerated.

My suit is primarily for statutory damages of various kinds for infringement of tenant rights, not for monetary damages (except for an unrelated part that is for a tort that did cause me monetary damage).
posted by saizai at 11:07 PM on August 11, 2011

Also ahab, you misread 5-12-160. It provides both for police and civil damages. See the last paragraph. (Er, and s/110/160/ above, doh. My fault.)

5-12-110 refers to 5-12-070 and "essential services". The former is nice n' short: "The landlord shall maintain the premises in compliance with all applicable provisions of the municipal code and shall promptly make any and all repairs necessary to fulfill this obligation."

I expect that it's a violation of municipal code to fail to provide USPS access.
posted by saizai at 11:11 PM on August 11, 2011

The distinctions you are looking for are why people go to law school and charge money for researching and understanding said distinctions. You need to find a lawyer in your local area who will be able to tell you whether an actual law was violated, and if so, by whom.
posted by Etrigan at 5:11 AM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

I would be happy to research the answers to these questions for you. I charge $200 an hour. (IANYL, TINLA)

That said, I would begin by doing what you've begun with -- look for relevant statutes. Then look for statutes that deal with the intersection of postal law and tenant law. Then look for case law to address what the statutes don't. Most statutes are available for free on the internet, in searchable form. It will probably take you a few hours to figure out if what you're looking for exists. Whether it does or doesn't, throw your analysis at the judge or magistrate, and see if it sticks.
posted by freshwater at 5:46 AM on August 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm seeking legal *information*, not legal *advice*.

Distinction without a difference. Even telling you what statutes pertain to your situation involves the exercise of legal judgment. But you're asking us to interpret and apply statutes for you. That's the very definition of legal advice.

I'm with freshwater. This is really a request which can only be answered in the context of an attorney/client relationship, and those 1) don't happen on the internet, and 2) aren't free.
posted by valkyryn at 6:19 AM on August 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

There is almost certainly at least one Chicago Tenant's Rights organization. These can often provide free or low-cost professional legal advice. I would recommend getting in touch with these organizations.

Your landlord sounds like a total whackjob.
posted by padraigin at 7:47 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

If this is still a problem could you get a post office box and then add that to the costs?
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 9:25 AM on August 12, 2011

Are you seeking damages, or the resumption of mail service?

Have you filed a complaint with the USPS Postal Inspection Service? They take interference with the mail very seriously.

Have you contacted any media outlets about this, such as The Fixer at the Sun-Times? Lots of other places have consumer rights "beats" to some extent, because they make good copy/TV.

For any legal entanglement with the landlord, however, I would start with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (or the Illinois Tenants Union).

IANAL, IAALandlord, but suing just seems like a way to waste a lot of money fighting a stupid issue that could be resolved by putting the right kind of pressure on the problem area -- and of course, will permanently taint your relationship with this landlord, from whose premises you ought to be preparing to walk the day your lease is up. Alternatively, threaten to break your lease and have this explanation for the judge if they take you to court. It would be an excellent defense, if properly documented.
posted by dhartung at 2:58 PM on August 13, 2011

dhartung: Statutory damages. Mail resumed, as I said, a month after it was stopped, after my persistence in harassing both sides about getting their act together.

I did contact the USPS PIS; as I said, they were uninterested in such a small case.

I'm already prepared to walk. My lease ends at the end of the month.
posted by saizai at 3:05 PM on August 13, 2011

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