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Court closes coffee-cup case

The curtain has come down on the contretemps over a coffee cup that played out in a Charlottesville office. The workplace drama opened in August 2007 at the National Ground Intelligence Center.

An employee who volunteered on the office kitchen-cleaning committee allegedly threw away a coffee cup and spoon that had been left in the kitchen sink for several days. The employee who missed the items said the cup had great sentimental value, and quoted a Bible verse about “vengeance” to protest the action.

The first employee was Caucasian, the second employee was African-American. Email accusations flew back and forth and complaints went up the chain-of-command. Ultimately, the first employee was dinged with a counseling letter, the second employee was not disciplined.

Last July, U.S. District Judge Glen E. Conrad said the first employee, Carol Koenig, stated a Title VII claim based on her receipt of the counseling letter. On Jan. 28, the court granted summary judgment to the employer in Koenig v. McHugh.

Even if he assumed equivalent misconduct by both employees in the coffee-cup incident, that didn’t necessarily mean the two women were similarly situated in all respects, the judge said. Because Koenig’s employee file already contained a counseling letter of recent vintage for prior discourteous behavior, she may have been legitimately subjected to a different penalty. The coworker, Dorsell Williams, was “not a proper comparator,” Conrad said.

Koenig’s subjective belief that the letter amounted to a Title VII violation was not “objectively reasonable,” the court said. The mere fact that the two employees were of different races was not enough to attribute the counseling letter to race discrimination.

–Deborah Elkins

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