This all seems to be a surprise to the folks who craft and enforce postal regulations, as a federal judge pointed out last week.
Judge James E. Boasberg rejected the $7.6 million fine the U.S. Postal Service placed on Southern California Edison, in part because forcing the utility to follow USPS’s Move-Update regulations to the letter would create an “absurd consequence” that would put customers into a “Kafkaesque situation.”
“It would be an incoherent business practice for SCE to refuse to update a customer’s address at the customer’s own request simply because USPS had an outdated and conflicting address in its NCOALink [National Change of Address] database,” the judge wrote. “Yet such a practice was precisely what USPS required."
Boasberg had other criticisms of the Postal Service’s actions in the case, but his comments about SCE overriding USPS address data are worth quoting in full (with minimal editing):
Plaintiff asserted in its Amended Appeal, ‘SCE ha[d] independent business reasons of its own — reasons that are far stronger than those of the Postal Service — to make sure that SCE customer bills are sent to the most current and accurate addresses possible’ — to collect payment on its bills.
SCE only manually overrode Postal Service change-of-address information ‘when SCE had good reason to believe that the override would make the customer more likely to receive the mail’— i.e., ‘when requested by the customer.’ This seems entirely sensible, as it would be an incoherent business practice for SCE to refuse to update a customer’s address at the customer’s own request simply because USPS had an outdated and conflicting address in its NCOALink database.
Yet such a practice was precisely what USPS required, and despite the incomprehensible nature of this expectation, SCE recognized that its manual-override practices were in violation of the Move Update standard. As Plaintiff pointed out in an internal memorandum, this led to the absurd consequence that ‘customers that want to override the mailing address must discuss the details with the USPS directly and we cannot take action until the USPS notifies us through the monthly update process.’
Recognizing the Kafkaesque situation customers could find themselves in, the SCE memorandum also stated, ‘[W]e need to develop some responses to use when customers inquire about our inability to comply with their requests.’
Such inability to accommodate customers’ requests could potentially raise new problems for those people who — despite affirmatively contacting SCE to update their mailing address — would be unable to obtain billing statements in a timely fashion. Having to deal with the USPS change-of-address system and wait for the Service to notify SCE ‘through the monthly update process’ could even risk customers’ getting stuck with late fees and potential harm to credit reports if their bills were delayed in delivery through no fault of their own.
- Subtle Violations of Postal Regulations Can Cost Mailers Millions is Dead Tree Edition's 2014 article on the SCE case.
- People vs. Computers: What's the Best Way To Fix Bad Mailing Addresses?
- New Postal Hires Mean More 'Return to Sender' Mail