A new case out of Charlottesville looks at whether employers can be held liable for discrimination if they discipline an employee of one race for an infraction but
not an employee of another race.
A Caucasian employee for the Department of the Army noticed a dirty coffee cup and spoon left in the sink in the workplace kitchen for several days, and she finally threw them in the garbage. The items belonged to an African American co-worker, who claimed the coffee cup had sentimental value and was very upset to learn it was thrown away. A series of accusatory emails were exchanged between the two employees, with the African American employee ending one email with the biblical verse that she takes “comfort in knowing that in the Bible God says vengeance is mine.” The agency investigated the matter, but only the Caucasian employee was issued a written counseling notice. She sued the agency, claiming that disciplining her and not her African American co-worker for the perceived threat amounted to discrimination on the basis of race.
A federal judge in Charlottesville denied the Army’s motion to dismiss and allowed the case to move forward. The court said illegal discriminatory discipline occurs when disciplinary measures taken against one employee are harsher than those taken against another employee of a different protected class such as race. The court did not rule that the Caucasian employee had proven her case of disciplinary discrimination, but did find that she made sufficient allegations to be able to proceed further in litigation with her case.
This case is a wake-up call to employers that they have to be constantly cognizant of how they treat one employee compared to another, especially where there is a difference of protected traits between co-workers.