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Employers that punish some em­­ployees more leniently than others for breaking the same rule are asking for trouble. That’s especially true when a lesser offense seems to have warranted especially harsh punishment.

Recent case: Denise Coleman’s 32-year career as a mail processing clerk ended suddenly when the U.S. Postal Service fired her for breaking its rule against threats or violence.

The trouble began when Coleman got a new supervisor. When she needed surgery, he opposed her request for time off. She returned with doctor’s orders not to climb stairs, so the boss assigned her to work in a dusty area instead, which aggravated Coleman’s asthma. When she complained, she was sent home until she could climb stairs.

Then, depressed and anxious, Coleman checked into a psychiatric facility. There she apparently told her doctor she felt like killing her supervisor. However, after treatment she was cleared for work and declared free of homicidal thoughts.

Regardless, the post office terminated Coleman for breaking the no-threats-or-violence rule. She sued, alleging discrimination.

The lower court dismissed the case, but the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said she should have a trial. It turns out, two male co-workers had threatened a colleague at knifepoint, but were merely suspended for a week. The court reasoned that directly threatening to stab someone was more serious than disclosing murderous thoughts to a therapist. Now a jury will decide whether the differing discipline was discrimination. (Coleman v. Donahoe, No. 10-3694, 7th Cir., 2012)

Final note: Usually, courts leave disciplinary decisions to em­ployers. But in this case, there was such a stark difference in the actual behavior that the court said Coleman could use the ­dis­­par­­ity both to show she was treated worse than male co-workers and as evidence that discrimination was the motive.

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