The stakes have been raised in the case of a former St. Paul Public Schools teacher who sued the district, alleging it retaliated against him for criticizing its discipline policies.
A U.S. magistrate judge ruled last week that Aaron Benner can seek punitive damages from the state’s second-largest district when his case goes to trial in federal court in October.
The district argued that Benner’s attorney missed a filing deadline and that the school system was not subject to punitive damages under the Minnesota Whistleblower Act.
In her Aug. 20 ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Katherine Menendez wrote that the whistleblower act states that employees have the right to recover “any and all damages” and that it gave no explicit exemption or limits on punitive damages to “municipal employers” under the law.
The St. Paul school board is scheduled to meet in a closed session Thursday to discuss the case.
Benner was one of five teachers who appeared before the board in May 2014 to push for higher expectations of students and greater consequences for those who misbehave. Benner, who is black, said the district — led then by Valeria Silva — was failing black students by not holding them accountable for disruptive behavior.
He then found himself subjected to four personnel investigations during the 2014-15 school year.
Benner said later that he felt he had no choice but to resign, and he alleges he was a victim of race discrimination and retaliation under the whistleblower act.
In a 2018 deposition, Silva said Benner’s opposition to how the district was implementing its racial equity policy, which aimed to reduce discipline disparities, and his performance as a teacher were separate things, and she denied that the district was trying to silence him.