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Court Revives School Engineer's Title VII Bias Suit

A federal appeals court has revived a job-discrimination lawsuit filed by a female building engineer in the Chicago school system. The court said the woman's retaliation claim deserves to go to trial.

The case was brought by Jessica Benuzzi, who was one of the Chicago district's first female school custodians when she began in 1981. By 2004, she had worked her way up to the job of building engineer-in-charge and was No. 13 in seniority among the school system's custodial staff of 723, court papers say.

But Benuzzi immediately clashed with Cheryl Watkins, the principal of the Pershing West Magnet School on Chicago's South Side. Watkins declined Benuzzi's requests to work an early shift, and suspended her without pay several times.

This led Benuzzi to file complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging discrimination based on gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Benuzzi contends that she faced retaliation for pressing her case. For example, soon after giving a deposition in her case, she received a memo from the principal restricting the hours she could be at the school, as well as cautionary notices for such alleged transgressions as failure to answer her walkie-talkie and failure to move tables in the school lunchroom. She also faced more serious disciplinary notices over other incidents.

A federal district court granted the school system's motion to dismiss all of Benuzzi's claims.

In its July 21 decision in Benuzzi v. Chicago Board of Education, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, unanimously affirmed the dismissal of Benuzzi's gender-discrimination claim. But the panel revived her Title VII 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" a form of retaliation, the 7th Circuit court said.

"There are genuine issues of material fact as to the adverse nature of the actions the defendants took against Benuzzi in the wake of her deposition, and whether those actions were causally linked to Benuzzi's participation in this case," the court said. "We therefore vacate the district court's grant of summary judgment on Benuzzi's retaliation
claim and remand for trial."

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