7th Circuit reinstates retaliation suit against U. of Wis.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

MADISON, Wis. — A federal appeals court reinstated a lawsuit last week brought by a woman claiming the University of Wisconsin-Madison passed her over for a job after she criticized the school.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago said in its ruling in Ashman v. Barrows that a jury should decide whether UW-Madison employees retaliated against Wanda Ashman for her comments critical of the university’s use of limited-term employees.

Ashman worked for 14 years for UW-Madison as a limited term employee, which means she did not qualify for benefits such as healthcare or sick days and had not received a raise in her hourly wage in years.

Ashman, an information technology worker in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, convinced her bosses in 2000 to convert her position to a permanent part-time position. To comply with hiring guidelines, Ashman’s supervisors had to create a job description and open the position to other applicants.

Around the same time that the reclassified position was advertised in 2001, Ashman started speaking out to Chancellor John Wiley and others in an effort to stop the university from misusing longtime limited-term employees and instead make the positions permanent. Her comments later appeared in an alternative newspaper in Madison.

One of her supervisors, associate dean Richard Barrows, was furious about her comments, according to the lawsuit, and worked to make sure that another woman would get the job instead of Ashman. Ashman was let go, although she now works for the university in a different position.

Ashman filed suit against Barrows, her other supervisor Janine Jensen, and the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, claiming she was retaliated against in violation of her rights to free speech.

U.S. District Judge John Shabaz in Madison threw out the lawsuit last year, saying Ashman had failed to prove that she was not given the job because of her comments. Shabaz said Ashman would not have gotten the permanent job anyway because the position description had changed and made her unqualified.

But a three-judge panel of the appeals court said a jury, not a judge, should decide whether her comments were a major factor in her not getting the job. “There are far too many unanswered questions about motivation and intent,” the court ruled.

UW-Madison spokeswoman Amy Toburen said the school had no immediate comment on the ruling, which sends the case back to U.S. District Court in Madison for a jury trial.

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