BENUZZI v. BOARD OF EDUCATION (July 21, 2011)

Thirty years ago, the Chicago Public School System hired Jessica Benuzzi, a white woman now in her fifties, as one of its first female custodial assistants. A promotion in 2004 qualified her to be the senior custodian at a large school. She was granted a transfer to a school that was closed and undergoing major renovation -- and was scheduled to be opened as the John J. Pershing West Magnet School in the fall 2005. In March of 2005, however, the Board of Education named Cheryl Watkins as the new Pershing principal. Watkins is an African-American woman in her forties. From their first encounter, the two women did not get along. Over the next several school years, Benuzzi complains that Watkins refused to accommodate her request for a shift change, unfairly reprimanded her on numerous occasions, treated her very roughly, demanded a fitness for duty examination, and suspended her without pay on more than one occasion. Benuzzi filed a gender discrimination charge with the EEOC in October 2006. She updated the charges several times thereafter. She filed suit against Watkins and the Board in June 2009 alleging, among the things, gender discrimination and retaliation under Title VII. A few days after Watkins waived service, she reprimanded Benuzzi again. When Benuzzi wouldn't sign the reprimand, she asked the Board to remove her from the school. The Board refused. Watkins was present at Benuzzi's deposition on February 25, 2010. The very next day, Watkins restricted Benuzzi's presence at Pershing and also issued a Notice of Disciplinary action that referred to nine different instances going back several months. Judge Conlon (N.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to the defendants. In doing so, she did not consider most of Benuzzi's factual submissions because their length violated a local rule. Benuzzi appeals.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Flaum, Wood, and Tinder affirmed in part and vacated and remanded in part. The Court first addressed the district court's ruling on the factual submissions. It emphasized its support for local rules and a district court’s policy to insist upon strict compliance. The rule at issue here is 56.1, which requires that a party opposing summary judgment respond to the movant’s statement of facts in no more than forty "short numbered paragraphs." Benuzzi's filed forty paragraphs but her paragraphs sometimes ran as long as 18 lines. Apparently, the district court considered only four of Benuzzi's paragraphs. The Court expressed some concern about such a strict interpretation of the standard that uses the word "short." Since both sides acquiesced at oral argument to the Court's consideration of the entire record, the court did not need to decide if the 56.1 ruling was an abuse of discretion. On the merits, the Court first addressed her gender discrimination claim. One of the requirements for her to succeed on the claim is to show not only that the reasons for her suspensions were dishonest but that they were, in fact, based on discrimination. Benuzzi presented no evidence that gender bias had any impact on Watkins's decisions. Her gender discrimination claim must fail without that link. The Court turned to her retaliation claim. It quickly concluded that she satisfied the statutorily protected activity element and that her suspension without pay was a materially adverse action. The Court also concluded that the Notice of Disciplinary Action and memorandum restricting her hours could constitute a materially adverse action and left that question for a jury. The Court acknowledged that written warnings are generally not enough to constitute a materially adverse action but noted that the context here (numerous charges, for minor transgressions, going back several months, delivered the day after she was deposed) could lead a jury to conclude otherwise. Finally, the Court considered causation. Again, the Court thought that a jury should decide causation with respect to the Notice of Disciplinary Action. Suspicious timing is frequently not enough to establish causation. But here, where the gap was so short and there were no intervening events, a jury should decide. The Court decided that there was not enough causation evidence to send the retaliation claim to the jury.