Former Pitt professor wins appeal in federal ethnic discrimination lawsuit

By Erica Guthrie, Senior Staff Writer

A federal appeals court judge ruled on June 11 in favor of a former Pitt professor who filed an ethnic discrimination lawsuit against the University after being fired over allegedly directing death threats at a colleague several years ago.

Snjezana Bagic, a veteran of Croatia’s War of Independence, was fired from her position at the University’s School of Dental Medicine in 2016 after eight years of employment. An internal Pitt investigation alleged that she had threatened to kill her departmental colleague, associate professor Sean Noonan.

The U.S. Third Court of Appeals overturned a district court ruling that dismissed the case. Kent Jordan, the presiding judge, wrote in his decision that “the false accusation of a death threat, exaggerated from a mere professional complaint, may be a symptom of deep animus based on Bagic’s ethnicity,” and “if the threat was indeed falsely reported, its propagation throughout the University’s investigation and subsequent appellate procedures raises a question of discriminatory intent.”

In the initial August 2017 ruling from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, the presiding judge ruled to dismiss Bagic’s case on the basis that she had not shown enough evidence “beyond mere conclusory and speculative statements, that her Croatian ethnicity was the basis for the University’s actions,” according to court documents. Several days later, Bagic’s lawyers filed a notice of appeal.

In a federal civil complaint, Bagic said she believed her firing to be retaliatory for her filing multiple complaints against Noonan with the chair of the Department of Restorative Dentistry and Comprehensive Care.

In the complaints, Bagic accused Noonan of abusing “his privileges as a faculty member” by performing services for fees during his clinical and administrative time. She also accused him of “repeatedly misappropriat[ing] the assistance of [her] team members without [her] knowledge or consent,” according to court filings.

In a private conversation in April 2016, Bagic confronted Noonan about these issues and informed him that she would be filing a complaint about him with the Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs. Two days later, Bagic discussed the situation with another colleague, Ronald DeAngelis, who infomed Noonan of their conversation.

Bagic alleged in court documents that after she spoke with DeAngelis, Noonan “undertook a settled plan for the purpose of discrediting Bagic and preventing Bagic from interfering with his activities,” and told several University officials that Bagic had threatened to kill him.

The then-dean of the School of Dental Medicine, Thomas Braun, assigned Bernard Costello, the then-associate dean of faculty affairs, to launch an internal investigation on Noonan’s claims. Prior to the investigation, Costello and Bagic did not know each other.

Bagic alleges that Costello failed to carry out an “appropriate and thorough” investigation, and had undertaken the investigation with a “predetermined result.”

Costello, Bagic and the chair of the Department of Restorative Dentistry and Comprehensive Care, Michael Dobos, held a meeting to discuss the investigation on April 26, 2016, in which Costello claimed to University officials that Bagic had admitted to several instances of threatening to kill Noonan, according to a complaint in Bagic’s lawsuit. Bagic stated in the complaint that what Costello told officials was a “false representation” of what Bagic said during the meeting. The next day, April 27, 2016, Bagic was fired by the University.

Bagic filed an internal appeal and hearings were held in early March 2017 in front of a University hearing panel. As a result of these hearings, Bagic claims the University and Chancellor Patrick Gallagher found that Bagic’s alleged threats to Noonan “could not be substantiated” and Costello’s investigation was “flawed.” Despite this, Bagic was not reinstated to her position.

Costello would later be promoted to be dean of the School of Medicine in 2018.

Bagic said in court documents that she discovered several pieces of evidence leading her to believe her Croatian background and status as a combat veteran were used against her in Costello’s investigation. This evidence included a handwritten note from Costello discussing how Bagic was “in the front lines” of the war, Dobos indicating “that due to war in Croatia and Bagic being a Croatian, she was in an environment that could facilitate harming other people or killing them,” and Costello stating after his meeting with Bagic that it went exactly how he “expected,” despite never having met or interacted with Bagic before.

Following the University hearing, Bagic filed a lawsuit in the District Court against Pitt and Costello, alleging they had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Title VII is a federal law that protects employees from being discriminated against on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religon at the hands of their employers.

Bagic seeks $100,000 in damages, citing damages caused by the University, including attorney’s fees, “severe emotional and psychological damage and depression,” “negative effects on her motor skills and sleep patterns, and also experienced severe depression and stress, requiring treatment of a psychiatrist as well as medications” and “deprivation of the income and benefits of employment with the University of Pittsburgh through March 2018,” according to the complaint.

Bagic’s lawyers, Richard Sandow, Ronald Amrhein Jr. and John Corcoran Jr. of Jones, Gregg, Creehan & Gerace LLP, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Kevin Zwick, a University spokesperson, denied to comment, citing the pending litigation.