Federal District Court Opinions

Defendant. Civil No. 05-4429 (JBS). United States District
Court, D. New Jersey. December 21, 2005

Mr. Marvin Ames, 11 Harrowgate Drive, Cherry Hill, New
Jersey, Plaintiff Pro Se.

CHRISTOPHER J. CHRISTIE, United States Attorney By: Paul
A. Blaine, Assistant United States Attorney, Camden, New
Jersey, Attorneys for Defendant United States Postal



Plaintiff pro se, Marvin Ames, filed this
“straight-forward breach of contract case” (Pl. Opp. Br. at
4) against the U.S. Postal Service on August 5, 2005,
seeking indemnification for a pair of earrings lost in the
mail en route to French Polynesia on January 26, 2004.[fn1]
The matter is currently before the Court upon the motion
for summary judgment by Defendant United States Postal
Page 2 Service (“Defendant” or “USPS”). Because the
explicit terms of the contract between Mr. Ames and
Defendant denies insurance coverage for jewelry sent to
French Polynesia, Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim must
be denied as a matter of law and Defendant’s motion will be


Although the record does not indicate when, it is
undisputed that at some time prior to January 13, 2004,
Plaintiff purchased a pair of Tahitian cultured pearl
earrings from the Polynesian Office of Expertise and
Commercialization of Tahiti Cultured Pearls in Bora-Bora.
Apparently, though, Mr. Ames was not satisfied with his
purchase and complained, via a series of letters and
e-mails, to OPEC. In response, Pierre L?©rig?©, General
Manager of OPEC, advised Plaintiff to return the earrings
to OPEC in French Polynesia, at which time his bank account
would be credited the full purchase price. On January 26,
2004, several days after Mr. Ames received OPEC’s response,
Plaintiff went to the United States Post Office in Cherry
Hill, New Jersey to mail the earrings.

According to Plaintiff, the postal clerk advised him,
after consulting the U.S. Postal Service’s International
Mail Manual Page 3 (“IMM”), that the IMM prohibits the
mailing of jewelry to French Polynesia.[fn3] The postal
clerk was correct. According to the IMM’s Individual
Country Listing for French Polynesia, precious stones and
jewelry are nonmailable items. IMM § 131.32.
According to the relevant controlling provisions of the
IMM, indemnity payments for insured nonmailable parcels
will not be paid in the event of a claims loss. IMM
§ 932c. The burden remains on the mailer to ensure
compliance with international and individual country rules
and regulations for mailability. IMM § 131.4.

Despite the foregoing, the postal clerk accepted
Plaintiff’s parcel for mailing and allowed him to purchase,
for $12.60, $1015.00 worth of insurance coverage for the
earrings. According to Mr. Ames, the clerk informed
Plaintiff that she accepted the package and permitted him
to purchase the insurance coverage despite the IMM’s
explicit prohibition, because “the earrings were
manufactured in French Polynesia and were being returned at
the written request of the manufacturer.”[fn4] (Compl.; Pl.
Opp. Br. at 5.) The postal clerk then issued Mr. Ames an
insured mail receipt for his parcel (# VE 199 553 901 US).
(Def. Ex. 2.) The back of the receipt states: Page 4

Insurance [for international shipments] is provided only
in accordance with . . . the International Mail Manual
(IMM). The . . . IMM set[s] forth the specific types of
losses that are covered, the limitations on coverage,
terms of insurance, and conditions of payment. Copies of
the . . . IMM are available for inspection at any post

The parcel was mailed and later arrived to French Polynesia.
The contents of the package, however, were absent.

Subsequently, on or about April 6, 2004, Mr. Ames submitted
an indemnification claim to the USPS. By letter dated
August 2, 2004, Plaintiff was notified that his claim was
denied. The letter informed Plaintiff that the package he
sent was prohibited by French Polynesia under the IMM.
Then, on March 4, 2005, Plaintiff mailed a letter to the
Postmaster General concerning the denial of coverage. By
letter dated March 25, 2005, Margaret Falwell, USPS Program
Manager, International Indemnity Claims, responded to
Plaintiff’s inquiry, explaining in detail the reasons for
the denial of coverage.

On August 5, 2005, Plaintiff commenced this action pro se
in Superior Court, New Jersey, seeking indemnification for
the insured value of the earrings under a breach of
contract theory. Defendant removed the action to this Court
on September 12, 2005. On September 15, 2005, Defendant
filed the instant motion.


Summary judgment is appropriate when the materials of
record “show that there is no genuine issue as to any
material fact and Page 5 that the moving party is entitled
to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).[fn5]
In deciding whether there is a disputed issue of material
fact, the court must view the evidence in favor of the
non-moving party by extending any reasonable favorable
inference to that party; in other words, “the nonmoving
party’s evidence `is to be believed, and all justifiable
inferences are to be drawn in [that party’s] favor.'” Hunt
v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 552 (1999) (quoting Anderson v.
Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)). The
threshold inquiry is whether there are “any genuine factual
issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of
fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of
either party.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 250; Brewer v.
Quaker State Oil Refining Corp., 72 F.3d 326, 329-30 (3d
Cir. 1995) (citations omitted).


This is a claim for breach of contract. (Compl.) The terms
of the contract, incorporated by reference in the insured
mail receipt, are unambiguous. They state that the mailing
of jewelry to French Polynesia is prohibited and, thus,
that indemnity Page 6 payments for such insured
nonmailable parcels will not be paid in the event of a
claims loss. To resolve any doubt, Mr. Ames concedes that
the postal clerk actually informed him “that the IMM
prohibited the mailing of jewelry to French Polynesia. . .
.” (Compl.) “Thus, Plaintiff was provided with information
that there would be no indemnity for the type[] of
article[] he wished to send. Defendant[‘s] refusal to pay
on Plaintiff’s claim is in accordance with the terms
provided to Plaintiff upon mailing and, therefore, is not a
breach of contract.” Gildor v. U.S. Postal Service, 376 F.
Supp. 2d 284, 289 (N.D.N.Y. 2005).

[T]he [postal] clerk’s oral statement was not a separate
agreement, but purported to describe the USPS’s
undertaking. Whether is could have served to permit
plaintiff to rescind because of mutual mistake is not at
issue. By elementary application of the parol evidence
rule, the unambiguous limitation in the writing could not
be orally contradicted.

A.E. Alie & Sons, Inc. v. U.S. Postal Service, 897 F.2d
591, 593 (1st Cir. 1990). “Manifestly the postal clerk’s
contrary interpretation could not prevail over the
instrument itself.” Id. at 592. Accordingly, the Court
holds that Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim is without
merit as a matter of law.

Additionally, to the extent Plaintiff argues that
Defendant should be equitably estopped from denying
coverage (in light of the postal clerk’s oral
representations and because she issued insurance coverage
for the parcel) that argument too is without merit. The
hallmarks of estoppel are reasonable reliance on a Page 7
misrepresentation of fact that induces the injured party to
change his position for the worse. S & H Hardware & Supply
Co. v. Yellow Transport, Inc., 2005 U.S. App. LEXIS 28036,
at *14 (3d Cir. Dec. 19, 2005) (precedential) (citing
Heckler v. Cmty. Health Servs., 467 U.S. 51, 59 (1984)).
Here, Plaintiff’s reliance on the postal clerk’s oral
representations was not reasonable and, thus, the Court
will not apply estoppel against the USPS.[fn6]

In Gildor, 376 F. Supp. 2d 284, 289, the plaintiff asserted
a breach of contract claim against the USPS arising out of
the postal service’s loss of a package containing gold
rings. At the time of delivery, the plaintiff inquired of
the postal clerk whether the package could be insured if
shipped by Global Express Mail to France. The clerk advised
him that it could, the plaintiff paid shipping and
insurance fees, and the clerk accepted the package for
delivery. Contrary to the postal clerk’s oral
representations, though, the IMM expressly restricts Page
8 indemnity on claims concerning the shipment of jewelry by
Global Express Mail to France. Ultimately, the package was
returned empty to the plaintiff, who then filed a claim
with the USPS for indemnity. The USPS denied that claim,
and the plaintiff filed a breach of contract action.

The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the
government should be equitably estopped from denying
coverage because of the postal employee’s
misrepresentations concerning the availability of insurance
coverage and because the notices containing the relevant
IMM provisions were not visible on the plaintiff’s delivery
receipt. In so doing, the court held as a matter of law
that the plaintiff could not have reasonably relied on the
postal clerk’s misrepresentations. “This is primarily
because Plaintiff had the means by which, with reasonable
diligence, he could have learned the restrictions of
insurability. Had Plaintiff read the reverse side of the
Express Mail label, he would have learned that indemnity
was not available for gold and jewelry notwithstanding any
statements by Postal Service employees.” Id. at 290-91
(citing A.E. Alie & Sons, 897 F.2d at 592-93). Accordingly,
the court rejected the plaintiff’s estoppel argument and
granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant on the
plaintiff’s breach of contract claim. Page 9

The facts of the instant case are even less favorable to
Plaintiff than those in Gildor. Here, unlike Gildor,
Plaintiff had actual knowledge of the relevant IMM
provisions denying the availability of coverage for jewelry
shipped to French Polynesia. Indeed, as already noted,
Plaintiff concedes that the postal clerk actually informed
him “that the IMM prohibited the mailing of jewelry to
French Polynesia. . . .” (Compl.) In light of that
statement, Plaintiff could not have reasonably relied on
the postal clerk’s representation that insurance coverage
would be available.

Similarly, in A.E. Alie & Sons, 897 F.2d 591, the court
held that the plaintiff’s reliance on two postal clerks’
misstatements was not reasonable. In that case, the
plaintiff jeweler inquired of a postal clerk whether the
shipment in one package of a number of pieces of jewelry,
totaling $60,000 in value, could be insured. According to
the court, the reason for the plaintiff’s doubt was the
language on the registered mail receipt stating that the
insurance limit was $25,000. Despite that explicit
limitation, though, the postal clerk assured the plaintiff
that it could pay an additional fee to cover the full
amount of the shipment. The plaintiff accepted that
representation and proceeded accordingly.

The package was lost, and the plaintiff filed a breach of
contract claim against the USPS. In upholding the grant of
Page 10 summary judgment in favor of the USPS on that
claim, the court “decline[d] to recognize the
reasonableness of relying on the oral representation of a
postal worker that a statement on an official receipt is
meaningless.” Id. at 593. In so holding, the court

All estoppel, at a minimum, calls for reasonable
reliance. The USPS is an enterprise with, undoubtedly,
thousands of postal clerks. Such low-level employees must
be known to have minimum authority. If it could be found
reasonable to think they had authority to expose the
Service to unlimited obligations, as in this case, it
would seem apparent that the Service could face

Id. (citations omitted); see Federal Crop Ins. Co. v.
Merrill, 332 U.S. 380, 384 (1947) (“Whatever the form in
which the Government functions, anyone entering into an
arrangement with the Government takes the risk of having
accurately ascertained that he who purports to act for the
Government stays within the bounds of his authority. . . .
And this is so even though, as here, the agent himself may
have been unaware of the limitations upon his

As in Gildor and A.E. Alie & Sons, Plaintiff’s reliance on
the postal clerk’s representations in this case, especially
in light of Plaintiff’s actual knowledge of the IMM
restrictions on coverage, are as a matter of law
unreasonable.[fn7] See also Moody v. Page 11 United
States, 783 F.2d 1244, 1247 (5th Cir. 1986) (holding no
reasonable reliance by plaintiff where postal clerk failed
to inform plaintiff of relevant restrictions on coverage);
Persick v. U.S. Post Office, 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1938, at
*8 (E.D.Pa. Feb. 23, 2001) (holding no reasonable reliance
where postal employee failed to describe to plaintiff the
limitations of liability that were clearly referenced on
the Express Mail label). But see Azar v. U.S. Postal
Service, 777 F.2d 1265 (7th Cir. 1985) (upholding
determination by district court that plaintiff could have
reasonably relied on misrepresentations made by two postal
employees regarding availability of insurance coverage
where plaintiff was unable to read the relevant
restrictions because he did not have his prescription
glasses). Accordingly, any estoppel claim must fail.[fn8]
Page 12


For the foregoing reasons, the Court will grant summary
judgment in favor of the U.S. Postal Service and the
Complaint will be dismissed in its entirety. The
accompanying Order will be entered.

[fn1] Plaintiff filed this action pro se in the Superior
Court of New Jersey on August 5, 2005. Defendant removed
the action to this Court on September 12, 2005, pursuant
to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1441, 1442(a) and 2679(d)(2).

[fn2] The motion is captioned as a motion to dismiss, or
alternatively, for summary judgment. The Court will treat
the motion as a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56,
Fed.R.Civ.P., because both parties have submitted materials
outside the pleadings which the Court has considered.

[fn3] The IMM, available at http://pe.usps.gov, is
incorporated by express reference at 39 C.F.R.
§§ 20.1, 20.4 (2004).

[fn4] Defendant does not object to the Court’s consideration
of this unsworn oral statement allegedly made to Mr. Ames
by the postal clerk. (Govt. 10/20/05 ltr.)

[fn5] A dispute is “genuine” if “the evidence is such that
a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving
party.” See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242,
248 (1986). A fact is “material” only if it might affect
the outcome of the suit under the applicable rule of law.
Id. Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not
preclude a grant of summary judgment. Id.

[fn6] Estoppel against the Government additionally requires
proof of affirmative misconduct. Fredericks v. Comm’r of
Internal Revenue, 126 F.3d 433, 438 (3d Cir. 1997); Yang v.
INS, 574 F.2d 171, 175 (3d Cir. 1978) (citing INS v. Hibi,
414 U.S. 5 (1973)). Even if Plaintiff here could
demonstrate reasonable reliance on the postal worker’s oral
representations, Plaintiff does not even attempt to, nor
could he, make a showing of actual misconduct on the part
of the Government. See Gildor, 376 F. Supp. 2d at 291
(holding that without more, misstatements by USPS employees
regarding indemnity restrictions, and failure of USPS
computers to alert those employees of the same, constitutes
negligence at best). Thus, his estoppel argument must fail
in any event.

[fn7] In light of this conclusion, the Court need not
examine whether there was misconduct on the part of the
postal clerk in representing that insurance was available,
processing payment therefor, and accepting the package for

[fn8] For the reasons explained, the Court finds that
Plaintiff is not entitled to contractual relief. Although
not sought in the Complaint, however, the Court is
hard-pressed to see any reason why Defendant should not
voluntarily refund the insurance premium of $12.60 paid by
Mr. Ames, since there was never a separate insurance
contract between the parties. See A.E. Alie & Sons, Inc.,
897 F.2d at 593 (holding postal clerk’s oral statement that
insurance was available when, in fact, it was not, was “not
a separate agreement, but purported to describe the USPS’s
undertaking”). Page 1