CHICAGO (CN) – The 7th Circuit revived a retaliation lawsuit by one of the first female custodians hired by Chicago Public Schools who claimed that a principal tried to force her out.
First hired in 1981, Jessica Benuzzi is currently the highest-ranking female custodial staff member in the Chicago public school district – 13th out of 723. The next most senior women hold numbers 86 and 127.
In 2004, Benuzzi was promoted to grade V-II engineer and began overseeing custodial operations at John Pershing West Magnet School on Chicago’s South Side.
The school did not open until fall of 2005, but Benuzzi and school principal Cheryl Watkins had already begun to clash by that time.
In its 29-page opinion, the 7th Circuit described a contentious relationship between the two women. Watkins repeatedly declined Benuzzi’s requests to work the morning shift, despite Benuzzi’s seniority, and suspended her three times without pay.
Each woman offers a conflicting account of the facts surrounding the suspensions.
Benuzzi filed suit in 2009 against Watkins and the school board for gender, race, age and disability discrimination.
The day after Benuzzi’s deposition, Watkins issued a memorandum restricting the custodian’s presence at the school to the hours of 5:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. unless she obtained permission from Watkins or the assistant principal. Watkins also issued a lengthy notice of disciplinary action that referenced nine incidents dating back to October 2009, including failure to answer a walkie-talkie, failure to turn on the heat, failure to remove tables from the lunchroom and the physical assault of another custodian. Benuzzi disputed all of the charges and added retaliation claims to her lawsuit.
Ultimately, however, U.S. District Judge Suzanne Conlon granted summary judgment for Watkins and the board, refusing to admit a large portion of Benuzzi’s answer because it contained “excessively lengthy” paragraphs.
While acknowledging Conlon’s authority to require strict adherence to procedural rules about the length of filings, a three-judge appellate panel said the trial court should offer more transparent explanations of how long paragraphs should be before dismissing them, since the rules do not specify an exact length.
The court affirmed certain parts of the ruling, agreeing with Conlon that Benuzzi failed to prove Watkins’ animosity stemmed from sex discrimination.
“Without some semblance of a link between her gender and the adverse employment actions she experienced, Benuzzi’s discrimination claim is destined to fail,” Judge John Tinder wrote for the panel. “The district court correctly granted summary judgment in the defendants’ favor.”
But Benuzzi may still have a viable retaliation claim.
“We agree with Benuzzi that the sweeping Notice of Disciplinary Action citing petty misdeeds that allegedly occurred months ago, coupled with the unexplained memorandum restricting her access to Pershing, ‘could constitute an adverse action within the meaning of the direct method of proving retaliation,'” Tinder wrote.
Though the proximity of the Benuzzi’s deposition and Watkins’ actions does not necessarily imply retaliation, a jury must be allowed to decide causation, the court ruled. The case was remanded for trial.