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Inc. v. United States Postal Service

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 27, 2019

COINS N' THINGS, INC.
v.
UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE

          ORDER

          RYA W. ZOBEL SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Coins N' Things, Inc. (“plaintiff”), has sued the United States Postal Service (“defendant” or “USPS”) to set aside USPS's deficiency assessment against plaintiff for allegedly unpaid Registered Mail fees. Defendant has moved to dismiss Count I, a claim of equitable estoppel, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and (b)(6).[1] Docket #

         I. Factual Background[2]

         Plaintiff, a Massachusetts corporation, deals in precious metals. It regularly shipped its merchandise via USPS Registered Mail, at first from the Bridgewater, Massachusetts, Post Office and later from an “on-site satellite unit” that USPS established at plaintiff's facility. Docket # 1 at ¶ 2.

         The cost to ship Registered Mail correlates with the declared value of the item being shipped. Plaintiff alleges that USPS employees “at all levels ... consistently communicated” that the value required to be declared on packages was “based solely on the level of insurance coverage sought.” Docket # 1 at ¶ 15. Accordingly, plaintiff, prior to 2008, routinely declared values of $100 or $1, 000 when it shipped packages from the Bridgewater Post Office, even though the packages contained items worth significantly more. When plaintiff sought USPS insurance for the full value of a package, it declared the “higher actual value of the merchandise shipped” and paid a correspondingly higher rate. Docket # 1 at ¶ 19. Otherwise, plaintiff obtained insurance for its packages from a third party.

         According to the complaint, USPS was fully aware of this practice as well as the fact that the contents of plaintiff's packages were actually “worth millions of dollars.” Docket # 1 at ¶ 11-23. Indeed, it agreed to provide armed guards to secure the pickup and transport of packages from plaintiff's facility. During the negotiations over USPS's establishment of the on-site unit at plaintiff's place of business, USPS informed plaintiff that “declared values had to be at least” $1, 000 (and later $3, 000) for the arrangement to be profitable for USPS. Docket # 1 at ¶ 24, 26. On this basis and with this understanding regarding the rules for value declaration, plaintiff alleges that it agreed with USPS for on-site acceptance and use of USPS's services.

         In March 2009, a Postal Inspector issued a subpoena to plaintiff for records from December 1, 2007, through present regarding, inter alia, plaintiff's mailings, purchase orders, and billing statements related to Registered Mailings. On May 4, 2009, the USPS District Manager of the Southeast New England District sent plaintiff a letter to “stress the importance of declaring the actual value of the items being sent via Registered Mail.” Docket # 1, Exhibit G. The letter directed plaintiff to the Postal Domestic Mail Manual, which states that a mailer must declare the full value of the contents being shipped, “regardless of any insurance that may cover the article.” Docket # 1, Exhibit 6.

         More than four years later, on November 13, 2013, the Postal Service's Pricing Classification Service Center (“PCSC”) informed plaintiff of its determination that plaintiff had “not declar[ed] the actual value as required on the Registered Mail logs” and thus owed USPS a deficiency assessment of $225, 826.20. Docket # 1, Exhibit K. This amount represented USPS's calculation of its lost revenue from plaintiff's undervaluing of its packages from December 1, 2007 to February 28, 2009.

         On January 10, 2014, plaintiff properly appealed the deficiency assessment within USPS. Over a year and a half later, on July 27, 2015, USPS responded with an apology for its delay and a denial of plaintiff's appeal. USPS stated that “[a] mailer must comply with all applicable postal standards. Despite any statement in this document or by any USPS employee, the burden rests with the mailer to comply with the laws and standards governing domestic mail.” Docket # 1, Exhibit A. This letter closed by stating: “This is a final agency decision and concludes the appeal process.” Id.

         Having exhausted its administrative remedies, plaintiff filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts to set aside the assessment. See Coins N' Things, Inc. V. United States Postal Serv., No. 15-cv-13377-MPK (D. Mass. 2015). But on October 15, 2015, USPS rescinded the assessment, which rendered plaintiff's action moot; wherefore, plaintiff dismissed its suit without prejudice.

         More than two years passed and, on April 3, 2017, USPS contacted plaintiff to request additional documents and records to review before “issuing a final agency decision to the appeal.” Docket # 1, Exhibit D. Finally on November 9, 2017, USPS reinstated the original deficiency assessment of $225, 826.20, declared again that its decision was a “final agency decision, ” and informed plaintiff that payment was due within 10 days. Docket # 1, Exhibit E. Plaintiff responded with the instant lawsuit. Count I asserts equitable estoppel, Count II is an appeal from the administrative decision of the PCSC, and Count III claims unjust enrichment. USPS has counterclaimed for the deficiency plus interest under the Federal Debt Collection Procedure Act, 28 U.S.C. § 3001 (“FDCPA”) (Counterclaim I). It also asserts unjust enrichment (Counterclaim II) and requests declaratory relief under the Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201 (“DJA”) (Counterclaim III).

         II. Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction

         USPS moves, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), to dismiss Count I for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Under 39 U.S.C. § 409(a), “the United States district courts shall have original but not exclusive jurisdiction over all actions brought by or against the Postal Service.”[3] USPS argues, however, that the Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”) does not apply to USPS decisions and that non-statutory review of such decisions is limited to a determination as to whether USPS “exceeded its authority.” Docket # 28 at 2; see also Mittleman v. Postal Regulatory Comm'n, 757 F.3d 300, 305 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (collecting cases for the proposition that USPS is exempt from review under the APA). Because, according to USPS, plaintiff's complaint does not provide a basis for this court to conclude that USPS acted ultra vires in “resolving the underlying mail postage deficiency, ” USPS asserts that this court lacks jurisdiction to consider Count I. Docket # 28 at 2.

         As an initial matter, it is not clear that USPS's argument is properly labeled as jurisdictional. Moreover, it fails to address the fact that plaintiff's equitable estoppel claim would properly be before the court as a defense to USPS's counterclaims, making USPS's “jurisdictional” argument even less persuasive. See S. California Edison v. United States Postal Serv., 134 F.Supp.3d 311, 319 (D.D.C. 2015) (USPS's counterclaim to collect revenue deficiency implicated ‚Äúsame underlying disagreement about [plaintiff's] ...


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