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Federal appeals court reinstates lawsuit against Ross, university

A federal appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit filed by a former Central Michigan University professor for allegeding retaliation against her and her husband for leading a vote no-confidence vote against CMU President George Ross and then-provost Gary Shapiro.

The lawsuit, filed against Ross, Shapiro and Ian Davidson, dean of the College of Science and Technology, claims Davidson denied a scheduled raise for former geology professor Kathleen Benison while she was on sabbatical and sued her for pay and benefits after she quit.

Benison deferred comment to her lawyer, Bradley Glazier, who was unavailable for comment.

The lawsuit also claims CMU refused to release academic transcripts for her husband, Christopher, an undergraduate student at the time.

A federal judge in Bay City dismissed the initial lawsuit. Two of the three appellate court judges overruled the lower court decision and said the case against Ross, not Shapiro, should continue only in relation to two of the three claims: That CMU retaliated by suing and by holding on to the transcripts.

"Central Michigan University is pleased that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed that the CMU departmental faculty, Provost, and Dean of the College of Science and Technology did not retaliate against Dr. Kathleen Benison is recommending against her receiving a promotional salary adjustment in 2012," wrote University General Counsel Manuel Rupe in a prepared statement. "CMU is also pleased that the court agreed that CMU had an enforceable contract with Dr. Benison obligating Dr. Benison to re-pay to CMU the money it paid to her while she was on sabbatical under its sabbatical agreement. 

"However, CMU is disappointed that the Court believes an issue of material fact exists as to whether CMU pursued the breach of contract claim based on a retaliatory motive. Regardless, CMU is confident the courts will determine that the university’s fiduciary duty to taxpayers and the families who pay tuition — those who funded Dr. Benison’s paid sabbatical — was the sole reason for the breach of contract claim."

Christopher Benison was an active member of the Academic Senate who helped sponsor a vote of no-confidence against Ross and Shapiro around the same time as heated contract negotiations that led to the 2011 faculty union protestations.

At the time, CMU’s Board of Trustees supported Ross and Shapiro.

Benison filed the lawsuit after the board of trustees filed a suit against her for allegedly breaching her contract by taking a January 2012 sabbatical.

Benison claimed during this time she was denied an expected $7,250 pay raise. She left the university after the sabbatical, taking a position as an associate professor of geology at West Virginia University.

CMU filed its lawsuit against Benision because under university policy, professors who go on sabbatical must agree to stay on for a “full contractual term,” otherwise they have to pay back salary and benefits, including her husband’s tuition.

This put a negative balance on Christopher Benison's student account, so CMU refused to issue his transcript when he wanted to transfer to another school.

The Benisons sued in federal court, claiming no other CMU professor ever had to pay sabbatical pay and benefits back and it was a clear case of retaliation by the university. They also claimed the university should pay out the promotional raise.

Meanwhile, documents acquired by Central Michigan Life in February 2013 show that Benison electronically signed an agreement on Jan. 13, 2011 that stated: "I agree to return to the university in my regular assignment for one full contractual period following the termination of my leave or to refund the compensation paid to me by CMU for the period of my leave."

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About Malachi Barrett

Editor-in-Chief Malachi Barrett is Battle Creek senior majoring in journalism with a minor in ...

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