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Central Michigan University and its president must defend themselves against allegations that they retaliated against a former professor and her husband because the latter -- then a student -- initiated a successful no-confidence vote against the president, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

In its split opinion, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit concluded that Kathleen and Christopher Benison had provided sufficient evidence to persuade a "reasonable" jury that Central Michigan had punished Ms. Benison by suing her to seek reimbursement for sabbatical compensation and her husband by placing a hold on his undergraduate transcript because of an outstanding tuition balance.

The lawsuit grew out of governance strife at Central Michigan earlier this decade, amid efforts by adjunct faculty to unionize and conflict over the relative authority of administrators and the faculty. In late 2011, the university's Academic Senate approved a vote of no confidence in President George Ross and Provost Gary Shapiro (which the Board of Trustees promptly rejected). The sponsor of the resolution calling for the vote was Christopher Benison, then an undergraduate at Central Michigan.

Mr. Benison's wife, Kathleen, a tenured professor of geology at Central Michigan, had previously been approved to take a sabbatical in the spring 2012 semester. That spring, her department (and subsequently the dean of her college) denied her a salary supplement, citing perceived shortcomings in her service record. Feeling slighted, Ms. Benison resigned to take a position at West Virginia University while her appeal to the provost was pending, and she refused to repay compensation and benefits that she had received during her sabbatical.

The university, saying Benison had breached her commitment to return to the university after her sabbatical, then sued her in state court to try to recoup those. Among the benefits she received while on sabbatical was her husband's tuition benefit, and university officials placed a hold on his transcript for nonpayment as a result.

Those actions led the Benisons to sue in federal court, asserting that Central Michigan and several top administrators had retaliated against the couple for exercising their First Amendment rights (through Mr. Benison's role in instigating the no confidence votes). A federal court judge in October 2013 largely sided with the university over the Benisons.

Two of the three judges on the Sixth Circuit panel took a conflicting view. Their decision agreed with the lower court that there was no evidence of retaliation in the denial of a pay increase for Professor Benison; because she resigned from the university before her appeal had been ultimately decided, it cannot be seen as an "adverse action" required to prove retaliation.

But the university's other two actions -- suing Ms. Benison to recoup compensation she received on sabbatical and barring release of her husband's transcript -- could be interpreted as retaliatory adverse actions based on the available evidence, the appeals panel ruled. Central Michigan had not sued any of the other professors who had failed to repay sabbatical compensation, and "a reasonable individual could have been dissuaded from engaging in protected activity by the threat of a transcript hold that prevented him from being able to “complet[e] his elementary education teaching degree work and certification,” the judges wrote.

"There is no doubt that CMU legally could have taken the same action against the Benisons absent the constitutionally protected conduct," the decision states. "However, there remains
considerable doubt whether CMU would have filed a lawsuit to enforce its contractual rights had Christopher not played a role in passing the no-confidence resolution against Provost Shapiro
and President Ross."

The court directed Central Michigan to defend itself in the lower court. "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,” the general counsel, Manuel Rupe, said via email.

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