Even the strongest business justification in the world for firing an employee may be unlawful, if the business justification is applied in a discriminatory manner. Such was the reminder in Coleman v. Donahoe,* a recent case where a black female Postal Service employee was permitted to go forward with race and sex discrimination and retaliation claims regarding her discharge, when she had been fired because she told her psychiatrist that she had thoughts about killing her supervisor and she was considered a threat to fellow employees. She was dismissed pursuant to "the unequivocal policy of the Postal Service that there must be no tolerance of violence or threats of violence by anyone at any level of the Postal Service"; but her claims were recognized as viable because, by contrast, Postal Service management had merely suspended two white male employees who had pinned an African-American man's legs to the ground and held a knife to his throat. The employer's apparently disparate treatment of similarly-situated employees was sufficient for a prima facie case of discriminatory discharge, and further, was sufficient to undercut the employer's explanation for the discharge as pretextual.
The plaintiff in Coleman checked herself into a hospital's psychiatric unit, after a series of conflicts with her supervisor that had resulted in various warnings and counseling. She complained of depression, anxiety and insomnia. During her three week stay, she informed her psychiatrist that she had thoughts about killing her supervisor. Even when the plaintiff was released to return to work, the psychiatrist felt compelled to warn the supervisor of her threat - "it was considered to be my responsibility as the patient's physician to warn him that my patient had been expressing threats to his life in my presence."
When the psychiatrist's warning was received by the supervisor, the employer suspended Coleman, pending an investigation. The plaintiff confirmed having had "homicidal thoughts" about her supervisor, but indicated that she was continuing in outpatient therapy and was ready to return to work. She admitted she had told her psychiatrist that she felt suicidal and homicidal, but said she had never hurt anyone or formed any sort of plan to harm her supervisor. At the close of the investigation, the decision was made to fire the plaintiff.
Coleman filed suit, claiming race, sex and disability discrimination, and retaliation (due to her earlier complaints of race discrimination). (She later dropped the disability claims on appeal.) The key to the case was that two white male employees had held a knife to the throat of a black male co-worker, while holding down his legs, and yet, they had not been fired. In that case, the investigator and the manager had concluded that the incident was "horseplay," and issued a 14-day suspension (later reduced to 7 days).
Summary judgment for the employer in Coleman was granted by the district court. However, this was reversed on appeal, as the Seventh Circuit found there was sufficient evidence that the plaintiff and the two white males were similarly-situated, supporting a disparate treatment case.
The fact that the three employees had different job titles did not preclude them from being similarly-situated. Also, that the two white males had a different first-level supervisor from Coleman's first-level supervisor was of no significance; in all three instances, the Seventh Circuit observed, the immediate supervisors reported to the same person - the maintenance operations manager - who made the final disciplinary decision as to all three.
With somewhat questionable logic, the Court commented that the fact the three employees were all subject to the same Postal Service policies weighed in favor of finding them similarly-situated. The Court also found that their respective policy violations were sufficiently comparable in the degree of seriousness, to raise a fact issue.