Spotlight: Monopoly Breaker


Not long ago, Patricia Brennan did an unusual thing: she entered a post office. Her presence caused something of a stir among the 40 people stacked up inside. "If she was running the Post Office, it would be run right," called out one individual. Upon hearing the remark, members of the crowd burst into applause.

Patricia Brennan, an enterprising 25 year old resident of Rochester, New York, has plenty of admirers these days. She is the latest person to defy the US Postal Service monopoly on delivery of first class mail, and by all odds the most successful. Thanks to the solid backing of the Rochester legal community, she has won some significant court victories for her prospering private mail firm.

Patrons of the P.H. Brennan Hand Delivery Company enjoy a variety of advantages over customers of the US Postal Service. To deliver a letter of virtually any weight, they have only to pay a fee of 10 cents. Delivery is guaranteed the same day anywhere in downtown Rochester. "Business is spectacular," says Brennan, whose full time staff of two employees will soon be supplemented to meet the booming demand. At peak times, her company delivers more than 1000 letters a day.

The beginnings of the firm were humble. In 1975, while working as an electron microscope operator, Brennan lost patience with the federal monopoly on the mail. The cause of her disaffection was a letter from a friend in Idaho advising of plans to travel East. It arrived 13 days late; she learned about her friend's trip when he called from the Rochester airport.

An opportunity soon presented itself to strike a blow against the Postal Service. Early in 1976, while talking in the law firm office of her husband Paul, the P.H. Brennan Hand Delivery Company was created. "He handed me a letter and said, "Save the firm 13 cents—take it across the street,'" she remembers.

Brennan quickly found that others shared her opinion of government mail delivery. "People were tired of waiting four days for a letter to be delivered across the street," she says. Law firms were among the first to sign up as clients; today, Brennan's company serves an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the city's legal community. Some of the major law firms have managed to cut their monthly postage bills by up to $100 apiece.

As word spread of her rates and same-day delivery, Brennan began picking up other customers, including branches of the judicial system and insurance companies. By September of 1976, the US Postal Service was worried. Postal inspectors began following Brennan's carriers as they made their appointed rounds, rifling through trash bags for evidence of the company's rubber-stamped "postmark."

Armed with incriminating envelopes, the Postal Service initiated criminal suit against the Brennans toward the end of 1976. Citing the federal private express statutes, the government invoked the threat of fines or jail terms unless the Brennans abandoned their enterprise.

The criminal suit failed. "Rochester is fairly conservative, and they are not about to put a 25 year old woman behind bars," says Patricia. Assisted by the advice of law firms using the private mail service, the Brennans were able to force the government to lodge a civil suit instead—apparently the first time that a private mail firm has succeeded in doing so.

In its civil suit, which was filed last February, the government alleged that the Brennans were taking away revenues from the Postal Service that were "vital to the performance of its statutory function." The Postal Service underscored its determination by placing a large ad in the local newspaper, announcing that customers of the Brennan firm would pay a $50 fine each time they were caught using it. Supporting the thrust of the government suit, the federal letter carrier's union filed a legal action against the Brennans on its own.

Patricia Brennan counterattacked by taking her case via the media to the people. In one well publicized gesture, she offered to buy a, unused $15 million postal facility in suburban Rochester for $800, and make it her company headquarters. The facility has been empty because the Postal Service forgot to file an environmental impact report.

Although the proposal was rejected, Brennan has fared well to date in the courts. In May, a union request for an injunction to halt her operations was denied. A federal judge—the oldest sitting federal judge in the country—has been sitting on a motion for "summary judgment" of the lawsuits for many months, and seems to be in no hurry to make up his mind. Brennan notes that the lawsuit's state of suspended animation works to her benefit, because no new suits can be filed in the meantime. "I'm not petrified every time the phone rings anymore," she says.

Should the judge eventually rule against her company, Brennan plans to take the case to appellate court—provided money for legal expenses can be raised. "We're very interested to get the issue before the courts," she says. "We think it's the right time for a challenge to the private express statutes on Constitutional grounds." One of the city's leading law firms has been handling her case, and others vow to tie up the Postal Service with supportive legal actions if necessary.

The result of Brennan's enthusiasm and enterprise may be to fulfill a lifelong dream. "My goal in life is to have my picture on a stamp," she says. For those who wish to see the postal monopoly give way to private mail delivery around the country, the achievement of Brennan's goal may be the fulfillment of theirs, too.